Tracing tattoos

Living in liminality

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Content warning: This article contains brief mentions of needles and blood.

In the months following my tattoo appointments, I tend to fall asleep tracing the edges of the image. 

Running my fingers over each ridged line gives me some kind of solace, as if the tattoo’s tangibility will confirm my initial desire for it. 

For all my tattoos except one, I returned to one tiny studio in Los Angeles’ Koreatown. Call it devotion to the artist, or fear of entrusting another. Stepping inside, pastel pink walls, neon light decor and planters of Devil’s Ivy crowd the interior. Despite the surrounding softness, anxiety still makes my skin stick to the plastic bench covering and my muscles clench with anticipation with each new tattoo. Perhaps these sentiments arise from the permanence of the art, or perhaps from the apprehension of externalizing my internal sense of self. 

With my first tattoo, a Matisse line portrait, my body boldly rejected my decision. The image of the woman’s face became blotted with blood as she cried a Carrie-red, filling the transparent bandage with liquid that hindered visibility. 

As with all tattoos, it took a few weeks for her face to settle into my skin and finally rest at last. The ridges flattened out; the surface seemed smooth. But the woman would continue to move, and over time the lines thickened and the gaps between her eyebrows and lips filled in. She seemed to almost mature, as the delicacy wore out with each passing week. 

The difference between my expectation and the actualized image is always something I have to grapple with, which is of no fault to the artist at all. It is of my own refusal to accept that, just as my body changes, so do the images as well. Instead of being stuck in the static reality of the moment the needle started to dispense ink, the images on my body will exist in the fluid temporality of aging. 

Skin will sink, sag and carry the images with it. Wrinkles will fill the spaces between each crook of my limbs and add yet another aspect to my tattoos — or at least, that is what I ready myself for. 

And with my more fine line tattoos, the lines are bound to fade or even fall out. This potential of impermanence places the whole image in a state of uncertainty.

There is much lost in translation from internal expectation to external reality. Each of my intentions for what I want to present to the world is like a thought unfinished, a sentence that trails off without conclusion. Therein lies the liminality between the binary of internalized identity and external communication: In my many attempts to actualize my identity, the signifiers I dress myself with — tattoos included — may never encompass every emotion I attempt to convey. 

The lines take on a life of their own, dependent on the hand of the artist themself. Each curve has an expression of its own; nothing is perfectly straight, symmetrical or without movement. 

My most recent tattoo, a blue china vase, was the artist’s interpretation of one of my family heirlooms. It seems strange to stare at the vase that sits on the ledge of my parents’ marble bathroom countertop, knowing that a replica reflects on my outward bicep. 

As with most heirlooms, the vase spent my entire life sitting and collecting dust, representing something much grander than its cold white and blue porcelain exterior. The tattoo, of course, could never capture each curve of the vase, which shows three dragons dancing in a sea of Chinese-style clouds. Instead, I have my singular dragon, whose face is too delicate to capture the cheeky expression of the one sitting in my parents’ home. He almost seems lonely, as if without the others, the sense of play is gone, the weight of the vase lessened. 

The color too, has a different sense of character than its inspiration. 30 minutes into the session, with my eyes slowly beginning to well with tears, the artist stopped and intensely inspected her work, displeased with the bright electric blue that was starkly different from her intended navy. With its double coloring, the vase has even more vivacity than the original. 

It seems like the tattoo is a product created in the space between my request and the artist’s interpretation. In this way, liminality fosters the work of translation from idea to image, from experimental sketch to embedding needle. 

Even though each of my images now are one and the same with my skin, I still find myself tracing their lines. It’s an attempt to convince myself that the choice to solidify my sense of self on my skin was the right choice, even though the specific sentiment can never quite be grasped. Each line is a stand-in, an attempt to give voice to vulnerability and give physical presence to feelings that can’t be articulated. 

Francesca Hodges writes the Monday A&E column on exploring liminal spaces within art and identity. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @fh0dges.