Show Us Your Tats: The Stories Behind Our Tattoos
By The Pajiba Staff | Miscellaneous | September 20, 2016 |
By The Pajiba Staff | Miscellaneous | September 20, 2016 |
Every tattoo has a story. Some are silly, some strange, some regrettable, all important. Here are ours, and we want yours, too. Take to the comments and show us your tats.
I got my first tattoo at 18, a dragonfly doodle around the letter ‘C’ I’d been drawing in my French class notebook all semester. As the term “tramp stamp” rose in popularity, I became ashamed of this. Like it made me basic. It made me unoriginal. It made me seem like I was trying so hard to be like everyone else, which of course was the worst thing imaginable, because I was so afraid it was true.
My second tattoo was on my foot. For reasons I don’t recall but now make sense, I chose my left foot, that same dragonfly design and the word “kismet.”
I’ve danced my whole life. I’ve always struggled with my left side. Turns, barre routines, everything. My left side is my weakness. Now in my thirties, I see ballet in a way I couldn’t when I was younger—that if I have no control over anything else in life, I can control my body. But even that takes focus and effort. Nothing comes naturally—even moving my own limbs. But with focus, I can do amazing and beautiful things with them.
Years later, I decided that my lower back tattoo had plagued me long enough. The tiny design would become a love letter to my husband-to-be. Shortly before our wedding, I did this:
I added a “j +” to my “c” and the words “Let us hope that we all are preceded in this world by a love story,” a quote that opens my favorite film Sweet Land. Our story is long and at times has been painful, and maybe looks a little different since the babies, but it’s part of me. It’s fitting. It’s perfect.
Then our story added two more players. Our babies. So I got this typewriter ‘J’ key. Because they’re my favorite story.
And that brings us to the most recent addition. Just last week, I decided to get a self-care tattoo. A reminder that every painful moment is temporary, but what I do with it can be eternal if I want it to be. To cope the only way I really know how: to write.
I don’t care as much what people think of me now. My body is mine—sometimes it’s a notepad, sometimes it’s an oven that makes humans, sometimes it’s an obstacle I fight just to get through the day or at the very least a dance class.
I came to tattoos later in life than most. And like many of the good things in my life, it’s all Pajiba’s fault. We were having a South by Southwest adventure and TK and some other folks ran off to get new ink. And so I decided to get my first ink (as did Dustin). It was something I had thought about possibly doing for a while. Small and simple; a “J” in my mother’s memory (as I’ve written about before, she died when I was 13). When folks ask me what the tattoo is for, I get to speak of her, keeping her memory and “essence” alive. I’m not a religious man, and I find this a much more visceral and spiritual way to remember and honor her.
My second tattoo was also obtained with a Pajiba crew at SxSW, about five years later. This was another one I stewed on for a while. It’s super nerdy:
That’s Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Simple version, it tells us that we can’t know with particular detail both where a particle is and how it’s moving. While the tattoo is a tip of the hat to my physics roots, it’s more about the concept. It keeps me in check, because it’s my reminder that none of us can know everything. I’m constantly telling younger lawyers that one of the hurdles of their early career is learning to be comfortable with answering “I don’t know” to a question. This is my reminder that “I don’t know” is ok.
My final tattoo (for now, anyway), is also nerdy, but without the underlying deeper meaning:
I love Batman, because he’s a man who walks the path of the gods (powered superheroes) with little more than his brain. (Well, that and an ungodly inherited fortune.) So I guess there is some underlying, intellectual meaning to this tattoo, my appreciation of Brain. But it’s more about the emotion - this comes from the cover of the seminal The Dark Knight Returns, which was the first time, as a young boy, I saw something I loved repositioned and reimagined from a thing for children to something dark and adult. So it’s in honor of that intersection of childhood and adult. And in honor of the mind. But, most of all, it’s just because Batman is fucking rad.
I have two tattoos. When people see my first, I tend to get “That’s cute! You must really like turtles.” And I’ve taken to responding with “Yeah, I do!” because A) I do, turtles are fucking awesome, and B) the real explanation for why I have a three-legged turtle with hair tattooed on my right arm isn’t particularly casual conversation-y.
Three years ago last July, the eldest of my two little brothers, Jack, passed away. It was sudden and, as you can imagine, heartwrenching. There’s no way to describe how awful those first few days were, but my family and I were helped enormously by Jack’s friends up in Asheville, North Carolina, where he had lived since college. My youngest brother and I hadn’t known any of them, before—we were all three 20-somethings at various stages in the process of establishing our own adult lives in separate cities, which is to say we only typically saw each other a few times a year and communicated intermittently outside of that. Jack’s friends knew more about what his life was like—more about what he was like, in those last few years—than I, his sister, did. Which stings a bit, but that’s adulthood, right?
Jack’s friends, grieving themselves for the loss of such a bright, vibrant soul, put together a scrapbook for our family of their memories with him, helping us to fill in the gaps from a time when he didn’t particularly want to share every detail of his life with his parents and siblings. (I know, right? Weird.) College parties, camping trips, handwritten notes describing their favorite Jack memories. (There were some weird Halloween costumes.) On one page was this sketch of a turtle. Hair, three legs. He’d drawn it on a friend’s notes when they were in a class together—he was always doodling on her notes, apparently. For some reason, this turtle stuck out to my family. Jack always loved animals, and he always loved drawing—though I never realized quite how much of it he’d done, and how good he was at it, until I helped my mom clean out his childhood closet recently. (That’s one of the things that stings most when you lose a loved one, at least in my experience—finding out about all these things you didn’t know about them, and now will never get a chance to. Especially when it’s a sibling. I was supposed to have known Jack my whole life.)
Mom got the tattoo first, on her forearm, because my mom’s a badass. The facial expression was not in the original drawing. She added it, the grin and eyes slanted to the side reminding her of her eldest son. About a year later, in Asheville, I got the same one. I’m still working on dad and my youngest brother, but something tells me I’m not going to be able to wear them down. They’re not the tattoo types. Incidentally, if you ever happen to be in the University of North Carolina - Asheville’s botanical gardens, and you see a memorial bench for Jack Pahle there, stop by and say hello.
My second tattoo, though, is the really personal one:
I’ve got two bits of ink on me thus far. The first happened in my early twenties; the second two years later. There was no significant event that sparked the idea for a tattoo, just a sudden and immense need. A self-imposed restriction, however, would delay the process a tiny bit: I’d have to design the damn thing myself. As a person who’s dabbled in the visual arts his whole life, I knew I’d never let anyone else come up with it. So I grabbed my sketchbook and I decided on a method: Think of a word that’s important, and then write it and draw it and morph it until it’s unrecognisable unless you know what it’s meant to be. That way it’d maintain its inherent tattoo quality of being a purely visual, meaningless thing. Only if you know, will you know.
One of my first musical loves was the blues, and the blues — both in terms of its 12-bar rhythm and its importance to all other forms of rock and metal that I would come to love — is a heartbeat. ‘Pulse,’ then, would be the word. A few months of drunken sketching and morphing would follow, until this would appear on my left forearm:
Most people can’t figure out how it spells ‘Pulse’ even after they know that’s what it’s meant to spell. Which is perfectly fine by me.
Two years later I’d feel the need again, and I would follow the same process. The word this time would be ‘Mercurial’ — a word I first read in a description of guitarist Ritchie Blackmore’s infamous temper. It quickly became my favourite word — in as much as one can have a favourite word — and symbolised my love of the English language, and of writing. The design came much quicker than before, and just like that I was back at the tattoo parlour with this taking shape on my right forearm:
Again, to most people that is a meaningless symbol. Good.
The blemishes on that tattoo can be ascribed to that most ageless of causes: human stupidity. I had only just taken off the wrapping, and the ink — though mostly dry — was still quite vulnerable to the world. Taking it easy and staying out of the elements was the way to go. But it was a Friday, so I threw common sense out the window and went to a very messy overnight shindig in a squat. Hands and fingernails and blurred senses do not a pristine tattoo make. C’est la vie.
The above pictures might be good for close inspection I suppose, but really the tattoos work better in context:
I’ve already finished the design for the third. It’ll be two cryptically redrawn words. It’ll be less poetic this time. After ‘Pulse’ for the blues being the heartbeat of all music, and ‘Mercurial’ because it’s a glorious word symbolising my love of language, this time it’ll be ‘Heavy Metal’ because…
Well, because I really fucking love heavy metal.
I don’t plan to stop adding anytime soon.
“It’s a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling.” This was the advice/Jimmy Buffet lyric my dad offered when I told him I was getting my first tattoo at age 32. He’d hoped it’d dissuade me from marking my body. But after years of mulling over the decision, it only made me more resolute. A permanent reminder of a temporary feeling was exactly what I wanted.
My first tattoo was a series of birds flying from my hip up to my ribcage, changing color and shape as they soar. For me, the birds are a symbol of taking a leap, and the rewards that can come with such risk. Looking at these birds, I think of the risks that paid off big in my life, like when I asked out my curly-haired high school crush, who I later married. Or the time I left my career as a video editor to pursue the wild west of internet entertainment journalism, a decision I relish every day. My birds remind me of the joys taking a risk can bring, and inspire me to be daring.
The only problem with my first tattoo is that its position meant it wasn’t great for showing off in public. So, within a year, I got my second, a piece I wanted to be big, bold, beautiful and easy to show off.
On a vacation with my husband, we wandered through a gorgeous botanical garden, and I giddily snapped pictures of scads of incredible flowers. Afterwards, I chose some of these pics, and sent them to my friend and tattoo artist Laci Hess as reference. She responded with a watercolor painting that I found stunning. And after four hours of tattooing, the painting was forever etched on my arm.
I love it in its entirety, but the little pink flower at the bottom is my favorite bit. Often falling in my eyeline, it always makes me smile. It reminds me of that day, so easy, peaceful, and ripe with happiness. And I can’t help myself. I take a moment and a deep breath, as if I’m back there, stopping to smell the roses (and irises and flowers with names I never knew) once more.
But getting tattoos has meant more to me than personal sticky notes of inspiration. Each time I get one, I experience this great thrill of reclamation. My body is riddled with birthmarks, scars, and imperfections I had no choice in. And while I love it all the same, my tattoos have made it feel more like it’s mine. Like I am creating this physical manifestation of my personality, as opposed to being subjected to it. Simply put, my tattoos make me feel confident, beautiful, and all the more me.
This is not a picture of my tattoo. This is a picture of my face.
My face looks like that 1) because I stayed up too late last night reading Emmy’s coverage, and 2) because that was my reaction when Courtney proposed telling everyone what our tattoos are about and posting pictures of them. See, I love my tattoo, but it’s a source of great embarrassment. The embarrassment, though, is a convenient way to be funny and self-deprecating, and thereby win people’s love and affection which in turn makes me love both my tattoo and embarrassment even more. It’s a complicated relationship. Also I’m singing Nelson now.
So here’s their very simple backstory. Sophomore year of college, my roommate (who luckily is still one of my closest friends) and I were sitting in our dorm discussing our plans for the afternoon. She, having just finished a shift at work, was planning to take a nap; I needed to study for a test. After five minutes of silence, she sat up in bed to announce, “You know, I think I want to get a tattoo instead.” And we were off. We walked to the nearest tattoo parlor, and within thirty or so minutes were both in chairs having artwork permanently put on our bodies. We’d discussed the idea of getting tattoos before, but never the actual tattoos themselves. Eventually she ended up with a small cluster of stars and a crescent moon on the top of her foot, and I … listen, there’s no easy way of saying this. I have a Dave Matthews Band flower tattoo on my hip.
Yup. I could have gotten the words “The Early Aughts Were A Bitch” tattooed right there, but this seems more direct. That’s a little purple flower with the lyric “You could say she’s safe” above it. It’s my favorite line from my favorite song from DMB, and I will not be shamed. At least about liking DMB as much as I did. I am very ashamed that I didn’t realize that line might not be the best one to put in a spot so close to my bathing suit area. My older sister actually had to point out to me the implication of having the words “say she’s safe” a mere 6 inches from my vagina. “Yeah, you could say she’s safe, man, but I’d still double bag it.”
Oh, and you might notice that there’s a small line that seems to have worn off? That’s because laser hair removal is a very similar process to tattoo removal, and I had an inattentive woman working on my abdomen. So that’s what my tattoo says about me: sexually misleading DBM fan with excessive body hair. But it makes for a great story.
I’ve written before about the impact that the changeover from Matt Smith to Peter Capaldi on Doctor Who had on me as I began the journey toward taking hormones to transition. Especially the moment at the end of Capaldi’s first episode “Deep Breath.” So, after long debating if I wanted to get a tattoo, I decided to finally get one when I’d hit the first year anniversary of starting HRT. I knew I wanted something that was Doctor Who related, but I didn’t just want the TARDIS or a sonic screwdriver, I wanted something more personal. I had considered getting “Just See Me,” a reference to that scene in that episode, either in text or in Gallifreyan (the Doctor’s alien language for those not in the cult.) I just felt like that might ultimately be something that would depress me, so I vetoed it. Then I landed on the perfect idea, I would get a tattoo that said “Deep Breath.” It would be a nod to the episode, it would represent that moment of change that I found so inspiring, but most importantly, it would serve a much more important primary function. It’s not just a Doctor Who reference, but a note to self. A message to all of my future selves to take a deep breath, to take a moment to collect myself.
I decided to let my artist, Emily Effler from the Honorable Society in Los Angeles, design the thing for me. I told her a few basic things that I wanted; I said I wanted it to say Deep Breath, I wanted it to have a clock theme to it, and that I wanted it to have the number 12 hidden in it somewhere. I think what I was expecting was a clock face with the words and the 12 just being in the time, and even up until the day I had my appointment scheduled, I was nervous about it. What if it ended up being something I didn’t love? But then an hour before I was supposed to go, I got a message on my phone from Emily, showing me the design she’d come up with. As soon as I saw it, I fell in love. I couldn’t wait to have her put it on my body. It’s only been a few months, but I love this silly, little thing and I just am so happy to have it. So many times already I’ve been on the verge of losing my shit and then looked down, seen the words Deep Breath, and have followed suit.
I try to have most of my post-early 20s tattoos have at least some meaning, however superficial that may be. My wedding band inscription in Gaelic, rock art from the African tribe I’m descended from, a forthcoming adaptation of a photograph of my son, stuff like that. But the one I have that has the most fun behind the story is this one.
I got it in Austin, TX, at my first South By Southwest with the Pajiba staff, seven or so years ago. I’d had a drink or two and impulsively decided to get one. I chose four stars because I was there reviewing movies. Four stars instead of five? Because there’s no such thing as a perfect movie (except for Jaws, of course). What made it extra fun is it started this tattoo party—Dustin, Seth, and former writer Frank all got one as well, the first ones for all of them. It was just such a perfect little slice of Pajiba history, not permanent, never to be forgotten.
My friend, Jeffrey, may not have been serious when he said, a few months before he died, that he wanted a tattoo of a pair of glasses on his arm. He was, after all, known for being flighty. But even if he didn’t give the ink commitment much thought after his declaration, it stuck with me. Jeffrey died in March 2015. He had cancer and AIDS, and he was rejected by much of his family for being gay. He didn’t have insurance. His body wasted away without the nutrients it needed, nutrients he couldn’t afford. I wouldn’t wish that death anyone. He was 30.
I talked about the idea of getting a tattoo of glasses with a few friends, but we didn’t take any action. I didn’t have a tattoo — I could never commit to a design I thought I’d want to live with “forever.” It took me until age 30 to realize that’s not what tattoos are about. They are permanent as long as our bodies are, which is to say, they’re temporary. And what they symbolize, if chosen wisely, can represent who you are in a moment. You may outgrow that version of yourself, but you carry it around with you always. And sometimes, a tattoo serves as a physical scar for the invisible one you’ve got inside.
In June of that year, two days before my 31st birthday, something clicked. To be truthful, I was spurred on by President Obama — no, really. As Obama sang “Amazing Grace” at the funeral of a slain South Carolina state representative, the same day marriage equality became the law of the land at the Supreme Court thanks to Obergefell v. Hodges — and one day after part of the Affordable Care Act was upheld — I was overcome with emotion. Overcome with despair and hope at humanity, and the thought that Jeffrey didn’t live to see this step toward equality. Overcome with the clarity of the belief that I can never stop telling his story.
I called my best friend and told her to start researching tattoo parlors. It was time to get my new, permanent, glasses. I modeled them after the pair worn by Harry Potter on the cover art of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Jeffrey loved that series, just as I do. Every day, they remind me to be brave, and to speak up, and to fight for justice.
I was blind, but now I see.
My tattoo is not a particularly exciting one, but it is meaningful and Pajiba-centric. It features the names of my wife and children, but Mrs. Pajiba-hyphenate prefers that I not advertise their names online (for the sake of this post, let’s call them Penny, Cinnamon and Tootsie Rowles). The origins of my tattoo are similar to some of the others on this list: My wife and son’s name were tattooed onto my leg the first time a group of Pajibans attended to SXSW as a sort of dare in the middle of the afternoon after way too many drinks. Several years later, after the twins were born, I added their names on a subsequent trip to SXSW, where I was unfortunately mostly sober. I’ve allotted one more space for a future SXSW tattoo of “Pajiba,” but only after the site has lived for at least 15 years.