“A timeline of your life” — Tattoos at Swarthmore Part One: Culture and Stigma

“I’ve also always had the feeling that my body looks kinda blank. Like when I look at this blank place on my wrist, I’m like ‘Ooh, something would look nice there.’ I don’t really feel like I’m adding something as much as I’m filling up space,” says Garrett Bolin ‘17. The reasons Swarthmore students get tattoos are as varied as the people themselves, but Bolin crystallizes a shared idea of the body as a canvas, a space for art. Every tattoo, every work of body art, communicates something different and is acquired for a different reason. In trying to document the myriad tattoos and reasons, a picture of a small, but beautiful tattoo culture at Swarthmore begins to form.

“I love to write on my arms,” Khye Lin Tan ‘20 says. “I like to write and scribble poetry all over my arms and sometimes my legs if I run out of space. So I really like the idea of having a visual representation of something on my skin. And a tattoo is the most obvious way to get a permanent thing on my body,” she continues. Her first tattoo is the rose from Beauty and the Beast in the bell jar on the nape of her neck.

“Besides the obvious, Mulan is Chinese, [Besides Mulan], the only Disney princess that I could really connect with is Belle because she reads a lot of books and didn’t want to just settle down to a life in her little provincial town,” Tan says, explaining the reasons behind her intricate tattoo. “My home town is this tiny place and everyone just expects you to settle down, but I aspired to more, and to see a hero want to push for that something else, that adventure in the great wide somewhere, I really related to that at the time. And now look at me, studying abroad!” she says.

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“I think I had a dream that I had the skyline on my rib cage and then I woke up and I was like, ‘That’s actually really cool, I should do that.’ And then I went to New York City and just did it,” Clare Pérez ‘18 says of her line art tattoo, an outline of the Chicago skyline.

I have a really strong love for Chicago,” Pérez says. “It’s a city of neighborhoods and each neighborhood has it’s own distinct feel.” She grew up in Wrigleyville, home of the Cubs. There’s the gayborhood with it’s growing lesbian community. Boystown is where the nightlife is. She lived a few blocks from the Vietnamese village. The Gold Coast is dotted with old mansions. “I took the train to school everyday starting from 4th grade and I just love the diversity of culture and food and people,” Pérez says.

“I wanna raise my kids there. I want to grow old there.”

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“It’s a medical tattoo,” says Marisa Mancini ‘20. “It’s not very exciting, but you know I’m a Type 1 diabetic, so you’re supposed to wear a medical bracelet or some kind of identifier in case you get in an accident the paramedics know how to not kill you. And I’m not responsible enough to do that, and I never have been and I never will be. So when I got my license to drive, it was like ‘You have to start wearing one,’ and I decided I would rather get a tattoo, just so it’s one less thing I have to worry about.”

“I know my parents talked to me a lot about, ‘What are you gonna do when you have to get a job and people see your tattoo and they know you’re a diabetic?’ And it’s kind of saying ‘I don’t care if people know,’ because it is a part of me and I’m gonna flaunt it, […] I’m not gonna be ashamed of it,” Mancini says.

Mancini’s medical tattoo has, thankfully, not come in handy yet— at least not for it’s intended purpose. “I have had people notice it and be like, ‘Oh, you know, I have a brother or a friend who’s a type 1 diabetic,’ and you kind of start conversations like that,” Mancini says. “It is a disease that affects a lot of people.”

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Tattoos and health were a common theme, especially when it came to mental health. The very permanence of the tattoo can often be the source of a positive, almost therapeutic, influence.

“So there’s this thing called The Butterfly Project,” Chiara Kruger ‘17 explains. “Basically it’s for self harm kids, so you draw butterflies. That way, you don’t do anything, and if you do then the butterfly dies, but the whole point is so that you don’t and the butterfly lives. So I told myself I would get the butterfly. It was a fun time,” he says. Kruger isn’t even the only one with a butterfly tattoo.

Kemmer Cope ‘17 explains that, in addition to its connection with The Butterfly Project, her butterfly tattoo “is also related to the fact that, naturally speaking, [butterflies] should not exist. They’re super colorful and extremely fragile, and somehow have managed to remain a thriving species. […] It has this profound metaphorical meaning that you can exist as what you are.”

“I had been scouting this place out for like a month,” Cope adds as an aside, recounting her experience getting the tattoo. “I went in twice before, with the intention of getting one, and hung around for ten minutes, and then left and got ice cream.”

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“I’ve had an affinity for nature ever since I can remember, and so I knew if I was going to get a tattoo one day it was going to be something in nature,” Sophie Basalone ‘18 says. Inspired by a trip they took with their girlfriend, their tattoo is a line art scene from Yosemite Valley. Based off a photo of the lower part of the valley, their tattoo features the grandiose cliffside of El Capitan, descending down into trees and a body of water.

A lot of the reason I got it is because I have pretty bad anxiety disorder and part of what really helps my anxiety, whether I’m in the middle of a panic attack or just feeling overwhelmingly anxious, I typically like to go to nature,” Basalone says. “And so being in Yosemite was just really amazing and I was like, ‘If I could live somewhere, this would be the place,’ because you are surrounded by pristine nature that has not been touched by man.”

“I look at [my tattoo] and I’m like, ‘Ah. My happiest place,’” they say. “I can see it and it reminds me and it calms me down.”

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Bea Grace Baker ‘17 has several tattoos on their body, all stick and pokes done by friends or family.

“I’m from southern Texas, and when I got to college within like the first two weeks I was like ‘Wow I’m queer, also wow I’m polyamorous, and maybe also not necessarily female, what’s happening?’” Baker says, explaining the story behind the simple tattoo on their rib cage which reads “I AM.”

“I had this real identity crisis and was still in contact with my father, who’s very conservative, white, southern, very traditional. We come from the Church of Christ, which is one step past Baptist, and so I was feeling really conflicted, ‘cause I was really liking who I was becoming, but also was facing a lot of judgement from him and from my family. So I got this tattooed on me to sort of say there’s hella factors that are gonna be influencing who I am throughout my life, but I am— I exist in the world, I have a place here, I can take up space.”

Baker even found that their tattoo took on new meaning as the years passed. “It became very relevant [when] I started having problems with dissociation,” they say. “I’m not gonna say it removes me from a dissociative state to look at a tattoo that says ‘I AM,’ but it is actually kind of helpful to look back at things I did in the past and think of ‘What was I thinking then, what was I doing then?’”

Kruger shared a similar story of queer affirmation with his tattoo, a face covered by pastel blue and pink flowers, representing his gender fluid identity.

“I was really struggling with trying to figure out my own gender identity stuff,” Kruger says. “So I got that tattoo instead and just kinda told everyone that it was for nonbinary and gender fluid awareness and all these things and then, must’ve been [last] year or earlier [last] year, when I told everyone I actually identify as genderfluid and then people were like ‘Oh, your leg tattoo makes sense.’ […] I was like ‘Oh, if I can have this, I can totally tell people.’ It made it a lot easier,” he says.

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Despite the ever-increasing prominence of tattoos, a stigma still exists, especially with previous generations. “My mom gets super scared all the time,” Kruger says. “She’s like, ‘You’re definitely not gonna get a job with how many visible tattoos you have,’ and I was like ‘I will get one on my forehead! I don’t care.’”

“There is huge stigmatization of tattoos in the religious community,” Basalone says, echoing Baker’s earlier sentiments. “I was raised in a very Christian, conservative place, and putting anything on your body permanently, even writing with pens on your body was very like ‘No. No.’ Because your body is a temple of god […] and if you do anything to mess with that, like ink on your body, that’s really bad. It’s seen as a sin honestly because it’s making impure the temple of god.”

“They were all very scandalized when they found out,” Tan says of her friends after she got her first tattoo at the age of 18. The stigmatization crosses cultures and countries. As Tan recalls of growing up in Malaysia, tattoos are often associated with criminality. “I was the only one at my school who had one, and I think I’m still the only one amongst my friend group,” she says.

“The tattoo parlors in Malaysia are either really sketchy— and you really don’t want to go in there, cause the moment you step in you can smell the weed— or kind of hard to find,” Tan says. “The more reputable ones you find out of through word of mouth. And the one I went to was one of the few that actually had a web page that I was able to look up.”

When faced with the very real possibility of job discrimination for their body art, people had different responses, sometimes to adapt around the stigma, other times to fight it

“I do want to go into law, and I can’t have tattoos on my forearm,” Basalone says. “I don’t know what the law firm is gonna be like, they’re probably not gonna want tattoos being seen, and so I really did have to take that into account, even though I didn’t want to, even though I wanted to be like, ‘It’s art! On your body! What is wrong with that.’ But people don’t like it, people still have very strong opinions against tattoos, which I think is crazy, but ya know, it is what it is, and I had to abide by that.”

Kruger, with the benefit of pursuing a career as a writer affording him more expressive freedom, says “I’d rather be me and get a job that I’m gonna fit into than not get these tattoos.”

“I promised my mom I would stop getting tattoos for a while, and then I got this” Kruger says, pointing to his newest tattoo, a typewriter on his arm. “She was like ‘What the fuck?’ and I was like ‘Okay now I swear, I won’t get tattoos for a while,’ but I’m already planning my next one, so we’ll see how long that lasts.”

Neither response is any more right than the other, but rather represent what people often have to consider before getting inked.

“I don’t understand why society has decided it’s wrong for people to express outwardly that they care about things,” Cope says. “That’s just weird to me. Some people get offensive tattoos and stuff, but the majority of people who I know who have tattoos, who have something permanently on them, they get it because they want people to know they care about it or they want that reminder for themselves of someone they care about or something. I just don’t see why it’s such a stigmatized thing. Cause I think it’s wonderful.”

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“Tattoos are so, so permanent and yet so silly,” says Emma Kates-Shaw ‘16, who now gives stick and poke tattoos. “I used to see people with tons of tattoos and think that they were ‘harder’ or ‘meaner’ in a way, because I had been socialized to think about tattoos like that, and now when I see somebody with a lot of tattoos, I’m like, ‘Oh you’re silly. […] You just decided to make your body part of this impermanent art that is life and that’s rad.’ I respect that.”

“You know how people are like ‘Oh I’m scared I would regret it’? I’ve just never thought of it as that much of an important choice,” Bolin says. “That’s there now, it’s gonna be there forever, and I’m fine with it. And even if I one day regret, it’ll just be like a marker of early life when I didn’t. I dunno, I think people are too serious about tattoos, I wanna be kind of willy nilly to an extent,” Bolin says, showing off his tattoo of a dead armadillo, a tribute to his hometown.

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While it may be obvious in hindsight, almost all the tattoos in some way represented who someone was or is. “I have this weird conception of tattoos where I think they’re kind of like a timeline of your life,” Kruger says. Each tattoo is a moment in a time, a snapshot of who someone was when they got it. Some, like Pérez’s outline of Chicago, can seem timeless, while others, like Kruger’s “Why Not” tattoo, more fleeting— and yet beautiful all the same.

Join us next time, as we explore Swarthmore’s stick and poke culture, the artists who helped start it, and Emma Kates-Shaw’s journey to open her own studio.

 

Featured Image Courtesy of lettherebeneon.com


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Kyle McKenney

I’m a part-time games journalist, YouTuber, and sophomore here! I have a passion for video games, comics, and nerd culture. I endeavor to write about these things from a feminist perspective, while bringing new games, comics, and stuff to people's attention.

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