When my brother was thirteen (my mirror twin sister and I were eleven), he told my father that he wanted to get a tattoo of Felix the Cat on his chest. My strict, single Chinese father reacted as many might imagine: he went into a diatribe about the danger of sharing needles, about how he could end up with AIDS. But, mostly, I remembered his smirk, that, due to his immigrant identity, he couldn’t even understand why my brother would want to tattoo a cartoon on his body to begin with.
I think it was around that time that my siblings and I learned that my mother had a single tattoo (she’s gotten more since) of a blue rosebud on her right cheek. At the time, I remember being horrified. I didn’t really understand the motivation behind getting inked, but more so, I couldn’t conceive of exposing your naked bottom to a stranger in front of other strangers for something as innocuous as a rosebud. My mother was not the Emily Post kind of mother, and so she used the story of her tattoo (which I have seen countless times through her thin black leggings (I don’t recall a day she wore anything underneath those leggings) she wore every day of my childhood (the times we were graced with her company, which wasn’t a given) to dissuade us from getting inked ourselves: I should warn you, kids, the skin stretches with weight and age. You’ll regret it. I find this warning a bit amusing so many years later, given that she didn’t follow her own advice with her third husband, tattooing the Iraqi flag on her other cheek, symbolizing most pointedly the kind of white lens she saw him through. It was only more to the point, I suppose, when she asked me around that time if I wanted her to tattoo my Mandarin name next to her flag tattoo. No, thank you, I replied to her on the phone, trying to still my gag reflex.
Since my brother’s first utterance of what he might tattoo on his skin, he’s gotten several tattoos that represent various symbols or icons from popular culture that have meant a lot to his own process of identity. And though he never did get that Felix tattoo, I never saw him take what my father said with much seriousness.
I, on the other hand, have always been hesitant to mark myself with ink. Perhaps it’s due to my shifting nature–what I would have chosen as a tattoo at fifteen to express myself certainly wouldn’t be what I would choose now. And even though there is one phrase that I often think of tattooing on myself, I can never quite take the plunge.
I’ve often wondered what it is that keeps me from it, what it is that causes my brother to plunge forward with no regrets. One answer I’ve often given is that I like the smooth, unmarked quality of my skin. But, as a queer non-binary femme who’s had a long history with being the object of men and women, I’ve also wondered is that so I can continue to be an unmarked canvas for my romantic other? Other times I’ve asked myself if it is, in fact, not that at all, but an element of my introverted nature, that the idea of being asked about my tattoos is a kind of socially anxious horror that I’d do without. But, if that is the case, is it the external world that is deciding how I might decorate my own body, and not myself instead?
The older I get, however, the more it seems that the primary reason I hesitate has to do with the idea of pain. Who causes me pain, and to what end. I have never subscribed to the idea that beauty comes with pain, and although that aphorism does not apply for many who choose to ink themselves, my journey with pain is long and complicated. I am a survivor of childhood abuse, from my single Chinese immigrant father. For the most part, he raised three children (almost the same age) in a new country. He was incredibly afraid of the dangers we might face outside the house, and so there we were, three vulnerable bodies he attempted to get from infant to adulthood in one piece. In order to shepherd us there, he used his hand to keep us in line, he controlled every aspect of our home environment to protect us from any unknown. And so, because of this, I have an incredibly complicated relationship to the idea of causing my skin unnecessary pain. After so many years of feeling my body wasn’t my own, it is virtually impossible to put myself into the path of any kind of pain voluntarily, even if I feel the cost is worth the gain.
I’ve been thinking about all of this lately, especially after receiving a portrait of myself in my pin-studded and curated denim jacket that I commissioned from the amazing Keet Geniza for an update to my writer/artist website.
I wear the jacket almost daily. I wear it in heat and chill, I wear it in heavily air-conditioned rooms and buildings. It’s become a kind of security blanket for me, one that wards off evil spirits. What I mean by that is that over the past two years, I’ve affixed it with so many enamel pins (and only very recently, a button here or there) that represent some facet of myself and my identity that one should have no question about the kind of person I am. I am Asian, I am queer, I am pro-Black, I am a writer and an artist, and so many other things that should come through to most when they take the time to study the pins. But, the pins do more than that. They also tell a story of where I’ve been, and where I am going, a journey of places and figures that have meant something to me on my way through the world. There’s a part of me that curates the jacket so that people will know something of what I’m about, so that my students will know what it is I support and fight for, but it is largely for me, a way of saying that I’m here.
In other words, you could all the act of pinning my jacket a kind of inking myself, except it is the jacket that has become a kind of skin. I like the idea that I could replace any pin on the jacket at any time. And yet, I never do. I like reminding myself of all the past and present selves that collide through the pins I’ve chosen or have been chosen for me.
On Election Day, 2016, Facebook reminded me of a memory. It was a photo I had posted of an I Voted sticker affixed to my jean jacket. At the time, there was just a single pin. It seems not a mystery to me that between when 45 got elected and now, I would affix sixty pins to this one article of clothing. The jacket, with all of its pins, not only a blanket of security to hide behind, but also one to announce who I am, not just to those who are allies and family in the fight, but also to those evil spirits who are not aligned. Whatever you might assume of me at first impression, make no mistake. My jacket will announce the real story of me, one not as easy to deny.