Tattoos: Printed Stories on the Body

Even though the mantra “don’t judge a book by its cover” is imprinted in our minds, it is common to unintentionally stereotype and discriminate against people based on what you see.

Often, tattoos have deeper meanings than what is visible on the skin and people use their bodies as a canvas to tell their stories through art. People should put aside their judgement and ask to hear those stories.

Vanessa Andrews is a 40-year-old registered nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit at Mercy Hospital Southwest in Bakersfield, who estimated that 10 percent of her body is tattooed.

“I have a fairy princess wearing a crown with big wings for my oldest daughter, Jessica, because every year on her birthday I would give her a crown to wear,” Andrews said.

Andrews said that she also has an elf tattoo in honor of her middle child and a mermaid for her youngest daughter.

I personally do not have any tattoos yet, but my sister and I have considered getting matching poppy flower tattoos since my grandfather, who we called Poppy, died almost two years ago.

According to Cate Lineberry’s “Tattoos: The Ancient and Mysterious History,” in Smithsonian magazine, “These permanent designs—sometimes plain, sometimes elaborate, always personal—have served as amulets, status symbols, declarations of love, and signs of religious beliefs.”

Lineberry said permanently marking the body with tattoos has been ritualized all around the world for thousands of years.

Today, people with tattoos are viewed as rule breakers and are told to cover them up or to put them somewhere no one will see.

According to a 2010 Pew Research report, 38 percent of millennials and 32 percent of generation X have at least one tattoo.

Associate Professor of Religion Colleen Windham-Hughes said that she does not have tattoos because her father did not approve of them. She said her father saw that society made assumptions about people based on their tattoos without getting to know them.

Prejudice may be unavoidable, but to prevent making assumptions, ask for the meaning or story of the tattoos, because while tattoos can help tell a person’s story, they don’t make up who the person is.

“When you put part of your story on your skin, you really have to own it,” Andrews said.

When other people judge you on your tattoos, you want to make sure they represent you the way you want them to. People will read your skin as if it is your identity, you need to be ready to tell them your truth.

Windham-Hughes said that too much importance is placed on the visibility and the visual, while the focus should be on the reason behind the tattoos and the stories they tell.

In my experience, people often get tattoos to signify their strength or survival and to remember their struggles. In such cases, the artwork on the outer body is a reflection of internal scars that are even more permanent than the tattoos. There is no laser removal procedure for emotional pain or trauma.

Windham-Hughes said that her friend has a semicolon tattoo, common for people who have struggled with mental illnesses or been affected by suicide, signifying her participation in Project Semicolon.

“The idea is never put a period, always put a semicolon because there’s a chance for another thought,” Windham-Hughes said.

I relate to Project Semicolon and have considered getting the semicolon tattoo recently in honor of my 16-year-old cousin, who died by suicide last December.

“She made it very visible because she wanted to see it all the time and she wanted other people to see it,” Windham-Hughes said.

I find it ironic that tattoos are seen as rebellious and sinful, even prohibited in the Bible, but the most common theme in tattoos, from what I have seen, is religious symbols or scripture.

Tattoos have the potential to cover the scars on your body or soul with beautiful art that gives others a mere glimpse at the struggles you’ve been through and the person you are because of it. It is the responsibility of the reader to look past the cover, open your book and get to know the person beneath the paint.

Rissa Gross