marked for life


People often expect a great story from me when they ask about my tattoo. It disappoints them when I give the simple answer: “um, because it’s pretty”. In fact, I just disappointed another person recently, which is what inspired me to write this post.

I think because of shows like "Miami Ink" – so many of the customers go in with heartbreaking and inspiring stories –people have picked up the impression that tattoos are meant to mark momentous occasions.

Many tattoos do have great stories behind them, but mine isn’t one of them. I am one of those people who got tattooed for decorative reasons – an idea I know is abhorrent to some (I have a friend who is deeply offended by the idea, but we’ve agreed to disagree). I picked my Art Nouveau-style tattoo because I like Alphonse Mucha, but he’s hardly my favourite artist. I picked his work largely because I knew they would tattoo beautifully.

In cultures that have a long history of tattoos, they were meant to tell the story of a person’s life and his place in society. Tattoos have also been used in the worst possible ways (such as during the Holocaust) to ostracise and disfigure.

Today, tattoos are fairly commonplace and people get them for all sorts of reasons. But whatever these reasons are, tattoos are a statement because of their sheer visual impact. Whether you got one on impulse or to remember a loved one or to join a gang, they instantly say something about you.

So I can see why it seems a bit lame to say that I like tattoos for their visual appeal. But I remember the first time I felt moved to get a tattoo. I was about 14, and sitting next to me on a bus was this woman with a gorgeously coloured tattoo of a Japanese carp swimming up her arm, fringed with cherry blossoms. On paper, I would consider the image clichéd. But on skin, the image was lush, rich and full of life.

Skin is a living thing, beautiful on its own, but in the right context it’s also a canvas that brings an image to life. I love looking at beautifully rendered tattoos and watching an artist at work. I also like that can be a very personal process – you have to like the artist when you spend hours with the person. I enjoyed the process of talking things over and refining the design.

Some of my friends think tattoos are a “safe” way to rebel for fairly conventional types. I don't see myself in this category (whatever it is I plan to rebel against, why would I do it with a tattoo?), but does it matter what they think? It's mine, it's beautiful and it's forever. I'm not trying sum up my life and my beliefs with one tattoo and that's why I view it with no angst-y "what does it mean?" feelings.

I dream of getting a full sleeve, a lush bouquet of dahlias wending up my arm, but I haven’t because a) I work for a very conventional employer and I need my job; and b) a richly detailed tattoo like that is expensive. But I’ve got a nice mental of ideas I’d like to execute some day, and I just have wait for the right mood to strike, and get it done.  

* Yep, that's me up there. And the picture is very appropriate, since I am flying to Indonesia tonight for a bit of diving. Have a good weekend everyone!   


Joy said…
i have been thinking about getting a tattoo for the longest time (julius caesar's comet from roman coins) but i just cant decide where to do it?

thank you for your wonderful story :) it looks incredible on you!!
Maja H said…
Great post Lin, and I LOVE your tattoo! I have a fondness for Alphonse Mucha as well, and art nouveau in general. I must admit I watched every single one of those tattoo shows when they were at their height, but I always felt that it was a bit odd that every single person needed to have an elaborate story behind their art. That's what you get with reality TV, I guess :)

I have always wanted a tattoo, but I have never found the right image for me. Whatever I like always turn out to become a giant cliché, so I'm happy I didn't take the plunge just yet. But one day! Your sleeve plans sound like they would turn out absolutely beautiful. My boyfriend has been talking about getting a sleeve done as well, and I would support him 100% if he did.
Kali said…
I also have a tatoo at the exact same position as you - and it is true that when people find out about it, they'd ask a lot of questions, as if they needed a proper reason to justify marking my skin.

In my case, I got it for my 20th birthday, to mark a period of my life maybe, but there is no deep meaning either, I just wanted a tatoo for a long time and took the leap at that time. But it is true that people sometimes look frustrated when I don't have any reason why it is a Phoenix. As if it was careless to just get a nice tatoo without any deep meaning behind it.

Talking about tatoo history, last week I went to the museum of primal arts (quai Branly) in Paris and there was an exhibit about Paul Jacoulet, a French artist who spent his life in Japan and traveled a lot in small pacific islands. He drew a lot of local people and their tatoos, and it was very interesting because it seems his work brings the most documentation on these tribes' tatoos before they started disappearing during the 20th century. Apparently it was a rite of passage to adulthood, boys were tatooed everywhere but arms and legs, and women were tatooed on the arms and legs, as a complementary pattern. Anyway, your post made me think of this great exhibit.
Cato said…
Your tattoo is beautiful (and the picture overall looks great!)!! I really like art nouveau and mucha, and have two prints of his flowers series on my walls at home :).

I'm kind of relieved to read that someone who has a tattoo, disagrees with that dramatic story requirement that one seems to need for it...

I must say that I really never liked them, but recently started thinking about getting a very small, delicate one. But since I liked those on the wrist best (probably another fashion thing which should not influence a life-long decision...), I think I should not get one for the moment, also for job reasons...
miss sophie said…
beautiful tattoo! i've been thinking about getting a tattoo for years, but could never decide what to get. i just discovered Tattly temporary tattoos, which are arty and fun and may be a good 'tester' for something real down the line!

i do think it's possible to 'over-signify' things. sometimes you like something just because it's pretty. i hope you get your half-sleeve someday :)

Eve said…
My tattoo is a blue lotus at the nape of my neck, just beneath my hairline. I tattooed for adornment also. No reason behind the choice other than that it should still be tasteful when I'm 80. And if I choose, I could grow my hair out to conceal it.
Anonymous said…
All my tattoos have inspirations, but no stories (though there are details to remind me of loved ones, which I don't share). People seem to find the inspirations interesting enough, because I have weird math and nature tattoos.

I also have a Mucha-esque tattoo on my back, the top of which shows above most shirt collars. Someone noticed that the "flowers" in the ring are actually artichokes. She said "Oh, I love artichokes!" and I replied "Me too. That's why there in there." Apparently she was expecting a bigger reason for having them... but isn't deliciousness reason enough? They're so interesting to look at, they make a great addition.

Your tattoo IS pretty, I agree. If you're going to have something for life, have it be a work of art. Momentous occasions can become something you don't necessarily want a reminder of, in my experience. Art is lovely to look at, and sometimes that's enough.
ani said…
It's funny because nobody ever asks me those questions. It probably depends where you live. I'm from Berlin and everybody's tattooed here, so nobody cares ;)
I have (almost) a sleeve, and i'm working at the court, but i haven't really figured out yet, whether it's okay to show the tattoos there, or not. I guess not haha, though long sleeves are not matching the warm weather anymore...
I like your tattoo!
Ammu said…
Such a beautifully-written post. And your tattoo is beautiful!
I seriously considered getting a tattoo when I was about 20, but decided to get my nose pierced instead. Now I can't imagine my face without my diamond stud. Funny how some instinctive, spur-of-the-moment decisions turn out to be choices you are happy to live with for the rest of the
Lindsay K said…
Lin, this is such a gorgeous image of you. And this post is beautifully written as always.

Your tatoo is beautiful and unique. It also just suits you, which is most important. I love art history, so I really appreciate it. That being said, I'm not into tattoos and have never felt compelled to get one.

I also have a conventional employer that frowns upon tattoos and a lot of formal evening events where tattoos can't be displayed... It makes it a bit easier to get dressed for such events knowing I don't have to worry about concealing anything.
Lucy said…
Your tattoo is beautiful! And I love seeing gorgeously done sleeves, especially on women.

For the past few years, I have been pondering a specific tattoo I'd like to place on my back, and I hope to finally have it done this year.
Eileen said…
Such a beautiful picture of you, Lin! Have a great trip!
lin said…
Joy: Haha I always think it's best to be pragmatic about placement. Where will my skin sag least is usually my first consideration. And my work requires me to be low-key so I wouldn't get mine in a conspicuous spot.

The tattoo sounds very simple and elegant, I like the idea.

I'm considering a little constellation one, because I'm a bit bored haha. Probably the Big Dipper because it was the first constellation I learnt to spot! Still is the first one I find anywhere.

Maja H: Thanks! I thought his work was realy decadent and modern for its time, even though I suppose it's gone out of style. The style works perfectly for tattoo-ing though.

My sleeve plans are terribly distant...I would prbably have to find a new job or at least transfer to another desk or else my bosses would flip. Also, tattoos are very expensive!

Kali: Nice to know I'm not the only one! I read an interview with an artist one who said that sometimes the "careless" ones are the best, because they capture a liberated moment, and we shouldn't regret them and should embrace them. I thought that was a nice attitude to have, to not be too neurotic about these things.

That sounds like a really interesting exhibit - Singapore is such a dearth of cultural events..

Cato: Thanks! I think you'll know when you're ready for one, because it's such an utter moment of clarity, and you won't even have to think too much about it.

miss sophie: thanks! i remember part of my fascination with tattoos was also what it would feel like. i'm not sure why i thought it would be's basically pain and more pain.

eve: i agree that it would tasteful until 80...i just saw a very bad tattoo on a girl last week and she was complaining about the cost of removing it and regretting getting it at all. i think if it's at least something beautiful, even if you're "over" it, you won't find it an eyesore.

anon: you're quite right...inspiration is fun to share, more fun than personal stories i reckon, haha.

i love the way Art Nouveau tattoos let you work in totally random elements, mine has a rather rude gesture in there that no one notices at first...

ani: you're right, i saw so many people with elaborate tattoos in berlin that mine seemed quite modest after all.

sometimes i think if i just get that sleeve without thinking too much about how people react, i can prbly get away with it. especially nowadays when people don't immediately think of gangsters any more when they see a tat.

ammu: Thanks!

Sometimes I think being about to embrace spur of the moment decisions and not be hung up about it that shows we've grown as a person and embraced who we are..

Lindsay K: Thanks!

Yes, when I played bridesmaid I was little worried I was "ruining the look" with the tattoo (it was slightly visible) but otherwise, it hasn't been much of an issue, thank goodness.

Lucy: Thanks! I'll love to see yours, if you do get it done.

Eileen: Thanks! I did.

Anonymous said…
Beautiful tattoo. I think you just shared a very wonderful story about your tattoo, despite not having a wonderful story for it!
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