Let That Ink In
By Yali Chen
Exploring identity through tattoo culture
A tattoo usually comes with negative connotations in Asian culture. Often, it carries the tarnished image of a “bad person.” Asian popular culture pre-determines how people see tattoos: sinister gangsters and rebellious rappers sporting drastically colored patterns in movies further deepen the stereotypes. But for many people, especially millennials, tattoos reflect something different at their core. They represent freedom of expression, beliefs, and often, they speak to people’s history and culture.
I have always wanted to be inked. But I waited for three years without actually doing anything—until a week before I wrote this story. I had some hesitation.
“It might hurt.”
“Do I really want it forever on my body?”
“Will my parents be mad at me?”
“I think employers may hate my tattoo.”
These thoughts drifted through my mind every time I came close to a tattoo store. And every time, I walked away.
One day after brunch with my friend in the West Village, we randomly walked down the street, and saw a boutique tattoo store. The store was nondescript, standing quietly on the street. All of a sudden, full of courage out of nowhere, I decided it was now or never. (Even to this day, I don’t know where that reckless thought came from.) I walked into the store with my friend.
Like a true millennial, I first went to the different Instagram pages of the tattoo artists working in the shop. Even though this was a sudden decision, I knew clearly what I didn’t want: those exaggerated, old -school, huge patterns. I wanted little ones, I wanted cute ones. I wanted to feel powerful in a feminine way. Bearing this goal in mind, I found my perfect match: Ariel W.
Ariel looks and feels exactly like her original designs: full of thoughtful and powerful strength in her little body. When I first met her in person, I knew instantly that I wanted her to ink me.
“I want to have a plum blossom,” I told her. It surprised even me. I didn’t venture into the shop knowing exactly what I wanted, but plum blossoms were the pattern coming straight up from my mind. In Chinese culture, the plum blossoms in winter. Because of this, the plum is seen by many Chinese people as a symbol of persistence, resilience and flower-like grace in the time of hardship. Many famous Chinese poems are written in admiration of the plum blossom. They are deeply ingrained in Chinese culture.
Sometimes, it is hard to explain my culture to people from different backgrounds than mine. Not knowing the exact accurate words to express the full meaning of plum blossoms, I desperately told Ariel: “It’s a Chinese thing.”
“Oh, I think I know,” she said.
I then realized that Ariel is also Chinese. My instincts were right. She was the perfect match to ink me.
The whole process only took an hour and a half. And then, the pattern was there, sitting on my left arm, to remain there with me forever. But it was more than just a tattoo: it is what I believe, it is what I wish I could be, it is my culture. I inked it because it belongs to me and I belong to it.
But tattoo culture is rooted in far more than traditions and heritage, of course: it has roots in popular culture that speaks to one, the personal beliefs one cultivated and so on. Only one can know the meanings. Culture is boundless. Culture can be anything.
I used to believe that people who have tattoos were very individualistic. I thought of Ariel’s many tattoos as symbols of her carefree and independent nature. On the contrary, Ariel values her family above anything, inking the zodiac signs of her family members.
Ariel’s ink stems from popular culture, her love for her families and her family culture. For Ariel, it is her personal beliefs and family love that brings her power, protects her from dangers, and encourages her when the obstacles come.
Like Ariel, we too can make the choice to carry something meaningful to us on our bodies. It might be someone or something one loves. It might be an unforgettable memory. It might be a dream. It might be a message of encouragement. We ink these because we believe they bring power to us, and hopefully, one day, people do not need to cover this source of power for fear of stereotypes. That will be the day that people can truly embrace who they are, embrace their identity and respect others’ identities. That will be the day when one can confidently say, no matter where they come from: “I feel powerful with my tattoos.”
Yali Chen is a senior studying public relations, international relations and economics at Syracuse University.