My Tattoo is Not For You (So Please Stop Touching It)

No one told me that when I got a tattoo, strangers would touch it, or stop me to ask about it.

I didn’t know that while I prepared to place an order at a restaurant, the waitress would approach the table and reach out to gently stroke my arm before introducing herself. Or that every new coworker I would meet would ask, “What does your tattoo mean?” Or that, in the dinner line at a friend’s wedding reception, a woman I didn't know would refuse my standard, practiced answer of, “I just liked it,” with, “Oh come on, it has to have some deeper meaning for you,” and a patient, waiting smile. Or that some older guy seated behind me at a conference shared, once we were in the elevator, that, “Your tattoo is so interesting, I almost reached over and touched it.” Or that I would hear, “Is that, like, Cherokee?” enough times that it would stop surprising me. (My tattoo is a red band around my lower left bicep. Heads up: Disney’s Pocahontas wasn’t Cherokee and that red band on her arm was likely a white illustrator's interpretation of other tribes' designs. Mine is unrelated.)

Having a tattoo, for many, is a deeply reverential choice. For many others, it simply isn’t. Both are fine. My tattoo falls into the first category, and is visible unless I wear long sleeves. Wearing long sleeves is a rarity for me, because I am always the warmest person the room and will sweat like the fat kid in dodgeball that I still am if I wear anything longer than short sleeves. Also, my face turns red and I look like I’m going to die. Besides that, being physically uncomfortable because I don’t want strangers to touch me is fucking stupid. No one gets special permission to touch or comment on any part of my body just because they can see it, although American society would have you think differently, where women exist to be perused and visually enjoyed.

The “I just liked it!” answer that has developed into a reflex is always disappointing to the person asking; I can see it in their faces. They don’t believe me, but I’m still walking, or I change the subject, so they don’t press me further. The thought of explaining the “meaning” of this red band while we chat about superficial topics or in the space between greeting a server and ordering a meal feels, well, gross. To me.

What’s interesting to me is how we (and I’m talking about Americans because that’s where I live, and predominantly white Americans because that’s what I am) have this very casual relationship to meaning. My guess — and I feel like it’s a pretty solid one — is that, as Americans, we really have no effing idea about deep, life-altering meaning because it isn’t a central theme of our culture. And since we have no idea about it, we have no respect for it, and therefore no respect for conversation about it. Which isn’t to say we’re intentionally being disrespectful. It’s just that our society is a “see it, love it, take it” kind of society, and that includes “seeing” meaning, loving it, and taking it --especially from other cultures--even though that isn't how meaning actually works.

America is a place where our colonizing ancestors literally stole indigenous children from their families and put them in boarding schools where they were savagely beaten, neglected, and abused for using their own languages and customs. Then we gave our white kids feathered headbands and encouraged them to play “cowboys and Indians,” and have had white folks teaching native ways to other whites since the ’60s. Modern white women have made a capitalist fortune in the high-priced yoga industry, despite that yoga is just one of several arms of a deeply spiritual Asian practice meant to include poor people.

We’re meaning snatchers. We’re so incapable of sitting down and parsing through what we really believe as opposed to what we’ve been told to believe (or what’s trendy to believe), that we snatch whatever feels good. Doesn’t matter if it’s a tradition that has evolved over thousands of years, or is deeply connected to a particular landscape, or has more context than just a few words next to a piece of sketched-out flash in a tattoo joint.

We’re starved for meaning. America became a place where whites can take anything we want from anyone we want, and no one can stop us. We don’t have to develop our own meaning: the government tells us that we’re the best, churches tell us that we’re a Christian nation and hands us a book to show us how to do it, and 300 years of colonizing lifeways tell us that if we don’t like either of those things, a quick Google will show us a culture that fits us better. Click on Google images and we, too, can find a visual representation of cultures or beliefs to have permanently emblazoned on our bodies forever, to show how deeply meaningful our lives are.

And look, I’m not saying this to be patronizing; I am also guilty of the above charges. It’s taken me a long time to realize that I have to sit down and take off the cloak of What I’ve Been Taught (which means recognizing the cloak in the first place) in order to take stock of what I Actually Believe — or want to believe. And for the descendants of European immigrants, that’s a tall order. Our ancestors came here for something and gave up their own cultures to get it, one way or another. They left the bones of their ancestors to do it. They left their languages. They left everything that made them who they were for the promise of something better.

As their great-grandchildren, many of us have no threads that connect us to our ancestral lineages or ancestral lands, or ancestral cultures. I don’t speak Italian or Gaelic, and I don’t know where the remains of my Norwich relatives lie. I similarly do not know the tribal languages of this land, the one in which I actually live, nor do I know the songs of the rivers and mountains here.

I know this land and I love it, but I am not of it. As white people, we are fooling ourselves if we think that being desperately in love with a land is the same as being of it. We can’t read the clouds. We can’t hear the birds changing pitch when a predator slinks into the bushes. We are in a particularly strange position of being of no place. Sure, I could move to Poland and gladly announce that some of my ancestors are from there. But who would have me? I’m not Polish. Or Sicilian. Or British, or Scottish.

I’m American now.

My guess is that it would be a similar story most Americans, including the descendants of those my ancestors stole for free labor to build this country.

All of this is a great rambling I’ve done to say that, as Americans, we struggle with a connection to deep meaning. We are interested in what things “mean,” but only in small, bite-sized pieces. Like a tattoo.

To express what my tattoo means, we’d have to sit down over tea and have a very, very long conversation. And that’s assuming I felt like you were the kind of person that could hold that information, that literal piece of my being, with the respect that it deserves. I know for a solid chunk of my adult life, I sure as hell wasn’t that kind of person.

The "meaning" of my tattoo holds a great deal of personal power for me, and when we recognize that casually giving away pieces of personal power dilutes our personal power, we’ll have a better understanding of why meaning is powerful.

Which isn’t to say that the appropriate response is, “I’m not giving you a piece of my personal power,” because even believing that takes a lot of time spent unconditioning and reconditioning ourselves; it in itself is not a casual statement.

So, no; I’m sorry. I won’t tell you what it means. I’m not insulted that you asked, but, I just liked it.

Public Service Announcement: Touching people without their consent is not only rude, it’s invasive, especially to women or pregnant people. It suggests that we do not have agency, or that you think you're entitled to our bodies. Don’t touch strangers. Ever. Unless they’re not breathing and you know CPR.