The buzz of the machine. The blur of the rapid-moving needles. The faint hip-hop music playing in the background. The artist telling you to lie down and relax. The initial jolt of pain as your skin is pierced almost 50 times per second.
The memory of your first look at the finished piece, that initial impression of the eternal art on your body, is as permanent as the tattoo itself.
And then, all of a sudden, the thought: when am I getting the next one?
Anyone who’s ever gotten a tattoo will likely tell you it’s hard to stop. It isn’t only about the feeling of getting the tattoo, but the feeling every moment you look at it afterwards. The truth is that the tattoo becomes a reminder of who you were, who you are, and many times, who you want to be.
This is mine.
Almost a year ago, I got my first (and, for now, only) tattoo.
Apart from being art on my skin, it’s a constant reminder of where I’ve come from. It represents my father’s favourite music, which I’ve listened to since I was a kid, my first ever live concert, and the record collection that sits to this day under my bedside table.
With time, tattoos end up crafting a meaning of their own, sometimes different than what you intended at first. Sure, my ink still means the same it did one year ago, but in this one year it has also been a constant reminder of who I am throughout the changes in my life. Graduating, moving to college, starting a new life. Through all this, the art on my body has been the only constant.
This is my ink story.
But moving to NU, I also wanted to hear about other people’s stories. Why do they have tattoos? What do their tattoos mean to them? How do others see their ink?
Most importantly, I wanted to learn about how the community at Northwestern saw those with tattoos. Coming from Brazil, I constantly saw exposed tattoos on the street, but from my first month here it seemed that either nobody has tattoos, or people choose to hide them. I wanted to break that wall, and hear the stories of Northwestern’s Inked.
These are some of them:
Number of Tattoos: 1
“I went with my parents to get my nose pierced because I’ve been wanting to do that for years. While we were there, my mother decided to get her mother’s day tattoo, and while she was doing that I just sorta googled “sunflower tattoo” and this was it! Even though I’ve had a folder of tattoo ideas on my phone for a good while now, I just flippantly decided to get this one while I was with my parents.”
What do you like most about your tattoo?
“I really just love its abstractness, because I like how it's really just sunflowers fitting into a heart shape, rather than being shaped into a heart, if you know what I mean? The emotional value of it to me is this yellow petal, because my grandma’s nickname is Yellow.”
What do you think about the stigma around tattoos?
“I definitely worry about tattoos for getting jobs, just because there definitely is a stigma around it, but I don’t worry about it that much. My mom has a bunch of tattoos, and she’s been working at colleges my whole life, so I definitely think it’s not that much of a problem. I also feel that if somebody wants to disqualify me for having tattoos, then it’s their loss. I know I never hide my nose ring or my tattoo when I go to interviews, and it’s never been a problem; I do feel sometimes like I need to carry myself a little more astutely, if you know what I mean? I know that maybe the combination [of a ring and tattoos] could be a little discrediting in the eyes of the wrong person, so I need to be a little more careful about appearing professional.”
Number of Tattoos: 2
“So I have two collarbone tattoos. The first one is the phrase moonchild. For me, the moon has always been a part of my life. My dad’s a trucker, so he drives a lot from state to state and sometimes our family would join him. I remember very vividly as a child just looking out the window of the car, at the moon, the scenery passing by. That’s just a symbol that I think has been omnipresent in my life. Last year, one of my favourite musicians, a Korean rapper, came out with a mixtape and one of the symbols in it was the moon, and Moonchild was the name of one of the songs. It came out at a time in my life where it was really important to me, around college application season, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do in my life. The whole album and his message of acceptance helped me decide to pursue what I wanted to do with art and writing, so I just decided to accept what I really wanted to do with my life. So, the tattoo is just moonchild in his handwriting. ”
Do you think NU has any stigma around tattoos?
"I personally haven't encountered much of a stigma around tattoos at NU, I don't think I've been treated differently because of them. Sometimes I even forget them because they're so conveniently located. Even my wildcard has them showing, and professors can see them on their roster, but I've never had any problem with it. Maybe it's because I'm very white passing, so there may be other factors that affect it.”
Sophomore, School of Communication
Number of Tattoos: 7
“So my fave out of the seven tattoos I have is definitely this one of Jupiter, just because of all the things that went into it when I got it. I have always loved planets, I really dig that sort of astronomical/astrological vibe. I also just think Jupiter is such a gorgeous planet, if you look at pictures of it. I’ve always felt a strong connection to it.”
Tell me the story of how you got this tattoo.
“So I got this I think in the end of 2017, right around when I was freaking out about college applications and deciding what I wanted my future to be like. The artist was a really good friend of mine, and he’s super talented, so as I left the shop I was already in love with the tattoo. That same day when I was going home I read something that this astrologist I follow wrote, and she was sort of making a prediction for the year of 2018, which was considered the year of Jupiter [for astrologists]. I didn’t know this before I got the tattoo, but then that prediction and how positive it was going to be for anyone starting new projects happened right after I got it. I sort of took that as a sign, since I had just gotten the tattoo, that all my worries and anxiety about college and my future were going to be resolved. Obviously I ended up at NU, a place that I think really is right for me, so I think from that day I just fell in love with this tattoo.”
You’re from Brazil. What do you think is the difference in tattoo culture from there to America, or NU as a whole?
“I think it’s a lot more complicated than it seems. I’m not sure if it’s the USA, or just Northwestern; despite its diversity, I do still think of NU as a very homogeneous environment compared to the circles I hung around in Brazil. It’s majorly white, cis-, hetero-, and I think especially within the communities that are not that well-represented at Northwestern is where tattoo culture really has its roots. I think in Brazil there is a much bigger culture in this sense of expressing yourself through your appearance and your body than I see here. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just something I notice a lot.”
Number of Tattoos: 2
“I feel like, contrary to most other people, I get tattoos pretty spontaneously. Either I’m feeling something, or if I’m in a new place and I’m experiencing something I want to commemorate. So both of these I got impulsively, I just woke up one day and thought to myself, “I’m gonna get a tattoo.” So this one [the sun] I was in Mexico, it was my 18th birthday. I wanted to commemorate that passage into adulthood and what that meant for me. I pretty much got a tattoo of a sun because I feel it is a sort of mantra in my life. I want to be light, I want to attract light. The cross I got last year, during the spring of my freshman year. Winter quarter had been a rough moment in my life, I got the cross because I’m a Christian and I just wanted it to sort of remind me to stay strong, to remember who I am. Both of these really then just are daily reminders to be a good person, to stay strong, to love.”
As a person of color, do you think the pushback you get about your tattoos is different than other people might?
“I think people just view it as a risk to maybe stigmatize myself even further in that way. People definitely think that because of my gender and my race, to add another aspect to myself which people could judge is something a little reckless. I think in the same way that I don’t let my clothes or my hair or anything else prevent me from getting what I want in life, I view tattoos in the same way. Maybe if my tattoos prevent me from getting to where I want to be, then I wasn’t meant to be there in the first place, you know what I mean?
I definitely think I get a lot of pushback from within the black community. A lot of the older generations in the community view tattoos, or piercings, or just having the hair that I have as sort of rebellious. There’s a big risk that comes with being “seen” as a black woman, especially within white spaces, so I think the stigma around tattoos is just a part of fear within the Black community.”
Number of Tattoos: 1
“I’ve always wanted to get a tattoo, ever since I was 15; I remember asking my mother to get a piercing, and she would tell me that she allowed tattoos but not piercings. Which makes zero sense, because a tattoo is a lot more permanent than a piercing. I never had an idea for a tattoo or the money to get a custom design, so one day I was just thinking about this movie I really love (Howl’s Moving Castle) and I started googling tattoo ideas. I figured it would be a lot cheaper to just do a premade design, so that’s how I ended up settling on this tattoo. It was a little crazy, getting my first tattoo and it’s like 7 inches long.”
What do you think tattoos mean to people in our generation?
“I think it’s just a way of expressing ourselves. It could just be something pretty, something random, something with meaning to you; it could be something people understand or something only you really get. Even if it’s a stick and poke you got at a party for like 30 bucks, I think tattoos always say a lot about you and that’s what is so cool about them.”
“This is actually a sexual assault survivor tattoo.”
The most powerful thing about tattoos is how making yourself completely vulnerable to the needle and the artist can actually empower you. This next story was especially impacting to me; it was unexpected, it was real, and it was illustrative of how tattoos can be tools for connection, for growth, and for strength.
Tattoos can be powerful statements of reconnection with that part of yourself that had once been taken away. I think it’s amazing the empowerment that follows choosing vulnerability under a needle and an artist. “It was very emotional to me, getting this tattoo. It meant a lot when I got it, it was almost a release, on the two year anniversary that I was assaulted. It just meant a lot, my friends were all there, I cried. Also, it’s been hard. Not hard exactly, but helpful in a way. Whenever people ask what my tattoo is, it’s difficult but also relieving to share my story. To stop being ashamed of it, of what happened, but to take ownership of my story again and choose to share it in my way and with my voice. Having it literally on my body, and having to tell people about it has just empowered me completely. It is still part of my story, and I shouldn’t have to hide it.”
Tattoos are unique as an art form. They convey everything which art can: using your body as a canvas speaks to both humility and expressiveness; the multitude of meanings which a design can have are what make the beauty of a tattoo. When I set out to write this piece, I wanted to reach beyond the visual, beyond the tattoos, beyond the stigma, and get to the people. This is about much more than ink on skin, or impulsivity, or rebellion. Tattoos are stories, little blurbs, windows into the people under the design. To open these windows, to understand what lies behind them, is to make connections.
These are those stories.
These are those connections.
These are Northwestern’s Inked.