Skin Stories: Finding Identity In Ink

By: Carrie Baker

As humans, we’ve all encountered the pains of grief, confusion, distress, and—if we’re lucky—the weight of incomparable joy, pride and accomplishment. These experiences have become part of the narrative of what it means to be not only a member of humanity, but also to be a unique individual. If these experiences have molded our identities, one would think that we would want to hold onto them forever. Unfortunately, another characteristic of humanity is impermanence. Just as these experiences fade away, our memory of these events grow faint, until we are left only with the vague detail that our human memory allows of how we felt in those moments. What if there was some way to fight the mortality of our memory and transport ourselves back to whatever that moment was for us? I’ve encountered some people who have done just that. They’ve documented the emotions of their experiences—not in a journal or on social media, not on a blog or in a book—but with ink on their skin. I’ve met three individuals whose tattoos tell an unforgettable story about their identity.
Mandy Pennington got her tattoo during Thanksgiving break of her sophomore year. Though her decision to get a tattoo was somewhat unexpected, the thoughtfulness of her design, which reads “Then sings my soul”—a line of the chorus of the hymn “How Great Thou Art”—communicates a story that is anything but impulsive. Mandy said, “College has been hard. I knew that I would go through periods of doubt in my faith, and I wanted to have something on my body to remind me of my beliefs. I define myself as two things: one being a musician, specifically a singer, and the other a beloved child of God. My tattoo encompasses both of these things for me. Every time I look down at my arm, I hear the melody in my head. The line is a representation of everything in my body and soul crying out to God, and that’s what the tattoo reminds me of: this complete surrender of everything I am to God.”
Sean Miday is a Hawaiian native whose tattoo is hard to miss. Though it doesn’t have religious implications, its meaning is equally as powerful. Sean’s tattoo stretches down the length of his leg and tells the generational story of his ancestors, from the beginning of time to the very end. It is a tribute to his identity within the Hawaiian culture. He said, “In my culture, you don’t choose when you get a tattoo; you earn it, and I earned mine after graduating high school.”

Sean’s tattoo is breathtaking, not only because it serves as a visual reminder to him and others about who he is and where he belongs, but also as a physical reminder of the pain he endured for his tattoo in honor of the Hawaiian culture. Sean chose to have his tattoo done traditionally, which means that the artist used a chisel-like tool to tap and pound the design into his skin. Because of this, Sean understands the immense meaning behind his tattoo and others like it. His advice to anyone thinking of getting a cultural or “tribal” tattoo is, “Do your research and make sure you are worthy of it. They do look cool, but ‘tribals’ hold a lot of meaning to those who have earned the right to wear them.”
After graduating high school, Hannah Gaffner abandoned her plans to go to a traditional university and decided instead to become an international nanny. She hopped on a plane bound for Germany, where she lived for a year with a new family, in a new city, learning a new language. Hannah fell in love with Germany, so she decided to take home a souvenir that would last forever and serve as a constant reminder of her experiences during that year of her life. Hannah got a tattoo in her second language that reads “Wo man seine liebe investiert, investiert man auch sein leben.” When translated it says, “Where you invest your love, you invest your life.” Two years ago, Hannah embarked on this adventure all alone, forced to navigate unfamiliar territory. By the end of her year, she learned what it truly meant to invest in learning about the culture, language, and people of Germany, and she will forever be changed because of that experience. Hannah’s tattoo serves as a daily reminder of her journey during that year and allows her to take a little piece of her second home with her everywhere she goes.
Most of the time, ink tells a story. Perhaps the reason that it sinks deeper into the skin is because there is more to the story than can be told on paper. Just like the thousands of tattoos that pass on us on the street, the individuals that wear them are unique. We may never know what someone is experiencing in their life—what they are going through right now—but if you look really closely, you may be able to get a glimpse of what they’ve gone through. Next time you see a tattoo, keep in mind that their ink may be a representation of who they are, or of the people, places, or situations they have encountered in their lives that have played a part in shaping their identity.

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