I’ve been thinking lately about the difference between those who ink up and those who don’t. What makes tattoos attractive to some, and anathema—or just uninteresting—to others? I fall into some version of the latter camp, but I can only guess as to the reason.
Having once owned a gym for serious fitness freaks including pro athletes and bodybuilders, I am no stranger to being surrounded by those for whom the latest ink was a badge of distinction and honor. Even while presiding over this lot I could not work up those same feelings about tattoos.
Mostly, I just kept my mouth shut and let the show go on around me.
But I remained immensely curious about this schism in modern life between those who do and those who would never; a curiosity that remains unsatisfied, except for this:
Tattoos strike me as evidence of a profound misunderstanding about human life. I have to assume that permanently altering your appearance in a way that typically also contains some specific message—verbal or pictorial—is supposed to demonstrate great courage and conviction about “who you are”.
There are a few flaws in this line of thought: the first misunderstanding is that who you are currently being is who you will always be. Those, like myself, who have made the study of human behavior a life-long pursuit seem to agree that humans were designed for change. That means that who we consider ourselves to be is a fluid—not a static—thing. Tattoos, on the other hand, are—for all practical purposes—static and unchanging; a.k.a., permanent. In fact, permanence is their most compelling feature, and the feature that lends to the air of courage and conviction.
The only “I” that most of us identify as permanent is the one that we were given in childhood, and that we will cling to through much of life in the absence of some real deep psychological transformation; a.k.a., “growing up”. But that permanence is only a perception, not a reality. In fact, the process of becoming an adult means—among other things—that we are free to shed those lessons of childhood that aren’t a part of our authentic selves, and that only serve to hold us back in life.
The great adventure of being an adult is the prospect of change toward a more authentic version of you. Authenticity is always the goal of intentional change. That change is also identified as maturity. So if we perceive our identity to be a permanent matter, it is likely not the authentic version of who we are.
The second flaw is that some permanent statement of who you are also negates the value of learning and experience. The primary value of all learning and new experiences is in their ability to change who we are. If not that, why would we learn and try new things at all? Real courage is the willingness to grow and change, not simply remain the same.
Finally, all humans are in a constant state of flux every minute of every day. To deny that truism creates a struggle within us that is always uncomfortable and is evidence of some deeper unmet need that, sadly, a tattoo will not resolve. The “you” depicted in that tattoo is not the “you” of 5 years ago, or the “you” of 5 years from now. To remain locked in a statement about who we are is to enter into an epic struggle with our own humanity.
This really isn’t only about tattoos, this is about how we all internally experience ourselves day to day. I encounter many people struggling with life and who have failed to identify a solid source of happiness and purpose, but who nevertheless defend who they perceive themselves to be, even though who they are being is also destructive to their experience and to their results. It is evidence that a dissatisfaction with life may be the result of perceiving the “self” as a carved-in-stone kind of permanent identity that is both immutable and unassailable.
Perceiving an identity that is not even ours as a permanent part of our experience is frightening to our psyche; so much so that we are forced to defend and amplify it to others as a coping mechanism. Another one of those mechanisms is to seek external validation for this adopted identity. Seeking validation from others is what causes us to fly our identity like a flag to attract attention from others who will support who we are being. Tattoos are that flag.
The bottom line of human experience is that being inauthentic and unchangeable is a life of struggle. The struggle is with our authentically fluid and infinitely changing nature as a human. Among the many characteristics of authenticity are a natural inclination to grow, change, learn, and love. Without those experiences, life is an uncomfortable and lonely place.
Do tattoos encourage—or even allow—you to do any of the above? If not, you will likely regret your choice of any statement that is a permanent part of your appearance. Or, you will spend the rest of your life attempting to defend and validate the ink on your body instead of maturing into the authentic and ever-changing person who lives underneath it, trying to break free.