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Tatted Up

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In 2001, I got a tattoo. I’d been talking about wanting a black butterfly, specifically one with an Afro, since my junior year. To me, it would have “deep” meaning, be less fashion statement, or trend, unlike the ever-popular “tramp stamp,” Asian symbols, or shoulder tats of their zodiac signs to which most of my friends had committed, some with regret, some without. In the way that butterflies are often used figuratively, mine would represent growth, the change from black girl to black woman as I, well, grew up and chased after my dreams.

At the time, my dreams seemed impossible, and there weren’t many people exactly rooting for me to flourish in the field I’d set my sights on — not because they weren’t supportive, but because they didn’t want me to get rejected. That butterfly would be my reminder, the sign to “keep going” and “keep growing” during all the times I knew I would want to give up and the people who cared about me most would tell me to throw in the towel and “come home.”

It took years to find the design I wanted, and I found it in a sort of happenstance way. During my first visit to Brooklyn, New York, in fall 2000, I was leaving the Brooklyn Museum when someone randomly handed my then-boyfriend a flier for a spoken word event. He casually read it as I watched. Then he flipped it over and I snatched it out of his hand and gasped. It was The Black Butterfly — exactly what I wanted, but didn’t know I did.

I saved the flier for a year. This would be permanent, for a lifetime. If I grew old — like, 80s old — it would still be with me, so what was the rush? On the one-year anniversary of the day I found it, I headed to a reputable tat parlor on West Fourth and had it inked on the back of my neck in plain view and surprisingly hidden at the same time.

I thought about that decision. It was calculated, careful, not whimsical. And it … concerns me that more people don’t. By people, I don’t mean Chad Johnson, who recently tatted an image of his soon-to-be ex-wife, who he was arrested for head-butting and currently is refusing to divorce; or Rihanna, who just got inked with a gigantic image of the Egyptian goddess Isis with her full wingspan extending across Ri-Ri’s rib cage; or even Chris Brown, who just got a “Mexican sugar skull” on his jugular (that looks like the photo of his battered ex). They’re celebrities; they don’t count, even if they do influence.

I’m thinking more like the young women I see on the train with some man’s name in loopy cursive across their biceps or neck marking them as so-and-so’s “girl,” or the cartoon characters on their boobs, or the guys with scrolls of their favorite rap verse on their bicep or money signs and stacks of bills. I’m sure they have meaning, otherwise they wouldn’t be tatted, but I wonder how that plays out when they’re 35, much less when they’re 70.

I enjoy sangria too regularly to make a claim with any authority that the body is a temple, but I do put forth that is a canvas. We should all think twice, if not thrice, about how we paint it.

Demetria L. Lucas is the author of A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life. ABIB is available to download and now in paperback. Follow her on Twitter at @abelleinbk.

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