There has always been a fervent hesitation from my end regarding the idea of getting tattoos. The word ‘hesitation’ would be an understatement in this context, especially when it comes to someone who squeals when a mosquito draws out her blood for its supper. Pricking, cutting and poking have made me uncomfortable since eternity, because of which even sitting through a surgery scene in a film seems like an abominable task.
So understandably, when I told my friends that I got a tattoo during a weekend trip to Pondicherry, their shock was palpable on my screen from miles away. The aversion to getting inked is something that I’ve seen in a lot of people around me. And I’ve found that one of the main reasons why most of these people end up getting inked post their adolescence is to reclaim their identity, express themselves, embrace their true nature and the other campaigns on similar lines. I really want to say that it was liberating and empowering and yada yada “break out of your fear” stuff but honestly, me getting a tattoo was a result of pure curiosity. I think I can safely conclude now that this is one of the better decisions I’ve taken after being driven by my curiosity.
Half an hour ago when I’d sat down to write this essay, I decided to read up a bit on the history of tattoos and tattooing. I went down a rabbit hole with that and ended up reading about Czech politicians somehow. But I’m back now so warm up your brains, it’s history time.
It is believed that the word ‘tattoo’ originated from the Tahitian word ‘tatau’, which means ‘to mark’ or ‘to strike’. Archaeological records suggest that the practice of tattooing dates back to at least 4000 years ago, with several tattooed mummies recovered from sites across the world. This hints at the possibility of tattoos being a part of every human culture in historic times. The earliest dated instance of tattooing was found in a 5000-year old natural mummy called Ötzi, which was discovered in 1991 in the Ötztal Alps in Western Austria. In fact, tattoos were a medium of communication between ancient Greek spies; the Romans identified criminals and slaves using tattoo marks; tattoos were a ritualistic essential in the Maya, Inca and Aztec cultures.
Tattoos have also been an integral element in ancient Indian and Egyptian cultures, where they were extensively regarded as religious symbols and associated with healing powers. The tattoos on Ötzi’s body are in alignment with the Chinese acupuncture locations on the human body, and this comes centuries before the earliest instance of the use of acupuncture. Later on, tattoos became a symbol of social status, with different markings representing different communities. People also tattooed the names of their lovers and mistresses on different parts of the body.
There is a popular notion among people that tattooing is non-Western and hence an exotic tradition. This is primarily because of the misconception that modern tattooing was “discovered” and “reinvigorated” during Captain Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific in the 18th century, where he and his crew encountered tattooed people from Tahiti. The “Cook myth” needs to be debunked, as it suggests that tattooing was colonized and adopted by the British, much like most other things that are “English” today. This is what explorer Charles Pierre Claret de Fleurieu, one of Captain Cook’s contemporaries, wrote:
We should be wrong to suppose the tattooing is peculiar to nations half-savage; we see it practised by civilized Europeans; from time immemorial, the sailors of the Mediterranean, the Catalans, French, Italians, and Maltese, have known this custom, and the means of drawing on their skin, indelible figures of crucifixes, Madonas… or of writing on it their own name and that of their mistress.
Now that we’ve covered the history part and established tattooing as a universal art form, I’m going to tell you what I felt while I was getting my tattoo. Honestly, I decided to get one for myself when I was scouting the internet in search of tattoo designs for my friend. I found a picture of a cute little sailboat with an anchor and joked about how it would look good on my chest. It was still a joke to me until I was actually in the tattoo studio staring at the tattoo artist making stencils of the sailboat. My friend who had accompanied me was holding my hand in full support and solidarity for this life-altering venture of mine. I saw a tattoo machine coming at my chest in full motion. The tattoo artist who’d had a friendly face until then suddenly seemed ominous to me, particularly reminding me of Pennywise. The next thing I remember is me drilling a tattoo onto my friend’s palm using my nails as I clenched my eyes shut. I don’t know who had it worse– my friend or I– because by the time the tattoo was done, I looked pretty satisfied while he was squeaking in pain.
It was stinging a little but the moment I stared into the mirror and saw my first tattoo, I felt very warm and accomplished. I’d done something I was very scared of doing. Okay fine, maybe I did feel quite empowered after all. I even took care of my tattoo for the next one week like a mother nursing her newborn– I was careful not to spill water over it, I regularly moisturized it, I didn’t let anybody touch it and most importantly, I gave it a name. That’s the most I’ve taken care of any part of my body in the entire 22 years of my meagre existence. Nothing beats this pleasure, I have to admit. It’s been a month since I got my tattoo and my parents aren’t aware of it yet. I’m not sure if I’m going to be sending them this essay. That would make for a very dramatic reveal and honestly, less work on my part. And for the people who’re wondering what the sailboat with the anchor means, I bet you can figure it out yourself.
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I’m Geetanjali. I binge-watch stuff when I’m free and think about what to binge-watch when I’m not. Occasionally I write, else you can find me wandering around, looking for my lost brain cells
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