Our bodies, ourselves: Students’ stories of getting inked
“Everyone is given skin, but the only way you can make it your own is if you do something to it,” Julian Giarraputo ’13 said of getting tattooed. “It makes you look at things and wonder if you actually value them—how much something has to mean to you if you want it to be part of your body for the rest of your life.” Giarraputo got his first tattoo for his nineteenth birthday, a portion of an M.C. Escher tessellation that morphs from triangles to bird.
Along with Giarraputo, students interviewed for this article (Athul Ravunniarath ’11, Oscar Mancinas ’12, Emily Bradford ’11, Emily Bierwirth ’11, Bowen Tretheway ’14, Eliza Laamoon ’13 and Mickey Bronstein ’11) imbue their tattoos with significant meanings.
For some students, tattoos represent some of their most important ideas and passions. Others, who got tattooed while traveling, associate their tattoos with a certain place and the experience they had there. But for everyone interviewed, tattoos serve as personal emblems that communicate or remind their bearers of something about themselves.
Bradford’s tattoo is an emblem of her commitment to veganism. “I got it as a promise, to make sure I would never not be vegan,” she said. (Bradford has been vegan since she was 14). Her tattoo started as a V in a heart, but later became incorporated into a baobab tree,which represents the tree of life.
Both of Mancinas’ tattoos are literary allusions, but carry other meanings. His first tattoo, which he spent over a year contemplating, is the word “LEV” on his left shoulder, a reference to the novel My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok.
As someone whose parents are immigrants but who grew up in the United States, Mancinas identifies with the protagonist because “the book is about growing up in between two cultures and being forced to exist in that in-between state.”
He got the tattoo two weeks before he started his first year at Colby. He wanted the tattoo to be associated with a transitional period in his life, further emphasizing the tattoo’s connection with liminality.
Mancinas’ second tattoo alludes to the French existentialist philosopher Albert Camus: an image of Sisyphus rolling a boulder up a hill. Camus analogized that life is inherently meaningless, like the process of perpetually pushing a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down. The tattoo encourages Mancinas to “find some way to make this pushing a boulder thing meaningful to [me],” to “inject” his own meaning into his life.
While some of the students interviewed thought long and hard about getting their tattoos, others got tattooed spontaneously.
To pass the time on his South East Asian travels in 2006, Ravunniarath and some friends would play high stakes Uno. One of the penalties for losing was getting tattooed. Guess who lost.
Despite getting tattooed on an impulse, the image Ravunniarath had inked is significant to him. He got the Zen Buddhist symbol of the Enso, an imperfect circle, which he explained represents, “perfection...but not really [because the circle is] incomplete and shows that imperfection at all points of humanity. It is a concept I’m very much in love with.”
Although not as spiritual as he once was, the idea the Enso encompasses still holds significance for him. “The concept I’ve gotten tattooed on my body means a lot to me…it’s one of the first things I look at every morning,” he said. Although Ravunniarath concedes goodnaturedly that “the coolness factor” was definitely part of the reason he got tattooed as a teenager.
Like Ravunniarath, Bierwirth got a tattoo in Argentina on an impulse. She happened to cross paths with a tattoo artist at a hostel. Her tattoo started as a peace sign, but has undergone a major transformation. The peace sign is now covered up with the image of a sun. However, the transformed tattoo still evokes the memory of Argentina and her personal growth there. “[I] think about that time when I could do anything because I was abroad in Argentina…I’ll never regret how happy and sure I was in that moment when I thought ‘Yes, I’m going to get a tattoo,’” she said.
Similarly, Bronstein got her second tattoo done in the Cook Islands where she spent her summer in 2010. The tattoo incorporates Maori designs and she associates it with a blissful time and place. “[The Cook Islands were] one of the most incredible places I’ve ever been to. The people have so much love…automatically. And I wanted the love that I experienced to stay with me…I feel like it empowers me.”
A highly regarded Maori artist tattooed Bronstein. The artist, named Boi, grilled her before agreeing to tattoo her. “If he doesn’t think you’re getting [the tattoo] for a good reason…he won’t do it,” she explained.
Laamoon, who is from Micronesia (a culture that values body art), has strong cultural and familial associations with her tattoos, which incorporate Polynesian designs. She has stylized waves and two dolphins on her foot. In Micronesian culture, people have spirit animals, that they inherit from their mothers. Her brothers’ spirit animals are dolphins.
Tretheway has a transcendent and indescribable relationship with redwoods, and designed his own tattoo. “When I went to visit the redwood forest when I was 12, it was such a striking image. And I knew I wanted a tree as a tattoo,” he said.
Most students were concerned about their parents’ reaction to their tattoos, or how they would be judged in job interviews or by strangers for having tattoos.
Many students have their tattoos in easily concealable places on their bodies for that reason. However, for others, the placement of the tattoo carries significance. Bronstein’s tattoo from the Cook Islands is on her neck, because “it holds my head up…it holds me up.” Mancinas sustained an injury to his left shoulder in high school that prevented him from wrestling. His tattoos are concentrated around his left shoulder because they re-inscribe his physical limitation with his passions.
“My view of my left shoulder has changed from something that kept me from doing something I really enjoyed, to the promotion of something that I loved all along, and that I still love, which is literature,” Mancinas said. “They are a symbol of pride for me.”
The consensus from interviewed students is that tattoos act as personal emblems, mapping one’s own experience.
Tattoos are not there to communicate oneself to other people, but are the stories the bearer tells himself or herself: important experiences, ideas or symbols that both have lasting significance and can recall a specific time and place.
“[Tattoos] are a material manifestation of time, [they] will serve as a memory,” Mancinas said. “The tattoo will remind you of a time you thought a certain way, or felt a certain way. I think it’s important to maintain markers in order to show us where we come from, to show us where we are, and to show how much we’ve progressed or [regressed].”
“I think it’s important to have a talisman of your own, to be able to call upon that little power it can give you,” Tretheway said, “even if it is just ink on skin.”