Image description: Collage of photos stick and poke tattoos, with a white dashed line trailing across the image.
Trigger warning: reference to self harm.
The first tattoo I gave myself was of an Indian constellation. Revati Nakshatra, it’s called, my parents’ star sign, the Scorpio and Aquarius of the Dravidian people. I heard the term often at temples growing up, its meaning shrouded by my monolingualism until I Googled “small indian tattoos”. The stars of my childhood aligned in a constellation vaguely shaped like the inverted triangle of the Indian subcontinent.
Revati Nakshatra was also appealing as a first tattoo because it was easy to poke into my ankle. The margin of error for a constellation of dots is forgiving. Of the dozens of small tattoos that litter my body, it’s the only one I haven’t shown to my family. Vulnerability in front of my parents makes me want to throw up.
I learned to tattoo because I wanted to hate myself less. I wanted to feel like I had a solid shape in my own body, my bedroom. I wanted to cover myself in designs so I could create a recognizable, unique, camp indie avant-garde version of the person I found boring —to refill a sack of my shape with Dynamic-brand ink.
Kolam tattoos, mathematically swirling designs, are popular in Tamil Nadu, the state in India my parents are from. I learned about them from an account on South Asian culture run by the director of Rihanna’s ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’ music video, relying on Instagram to fulfill the gaps in my cultural knowledge with the blasphemy and feminist ideals my grandparents don’t tell me about. One of the comments on the post was a cute self-promo from a genderqueer Tamil artist based in Chicago who hand-poked kolam designs in shades of purple, red, orange, chartreuse. Perhaps colorful tattoos weren’t just for white people; perhaps my Westernized appreciation of my culture could manifest itself in forms beyond painting or writing.
The second tattoo I gave myself was a hammerhead shark on the inside of my wrist. After the first tattoo, the subsequent ones’ meaning didn’t matter as much—this one was inspired by my visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where I spent five minutes illuminated in blue, mesmerized by anchovies scattering whenever the hammerhead got within six feet of them.
The hammerhead materialized after a night of working on a programming assignment for my computer science class (vomit emoji); a means of releasing the stress gradually shoved into my brain like a game of chubby bunny. The mental pain converts itself into physical pain like how potential energy converts to kinetic and I am left sweating on my bedroom floor.
Humans are only equipped to deal with short-term, high-intensity stress. Maybe the briefly intense pain of sticking needles into myself, and its absence after the fact, tricked my body into thinking I had fought a saber-tooth cat and won.
It becomes a test: how much physical pain is enough to alleviate the emotional? How much physical pain is so much that it makes me dizzy and pass out? I oscillate between boredom and hallucination, searching for the kind of twisted clarity that one might otherwise achieve through ego death. I poke myself until my skin can’t feel anymore, until the muscles underneath are sore and aching. The four minutes it would take to respond to the message from my therapist that I’ve ignored for six months is spent wiping ink off my arm hairs.
The same people that balk at horizontal scars say my tattoos are so cool. They ask me to do it for them too.
The most recent tattoo is of Kali, the demon warrior goddess of the Hindu pantheon, my middle name’s namesake. Like most gods spread by Hindu colonization and syncretism, she has many forms—simultaneously beautiful and ugly, goddess of fertility and death. She is often displayed with her tongue splayed out, sometimes with a necklace of skulls, sometimes with a disembodied head in her hand and her foot placed squarely on the chest of another dead man. I think of her as angry and kind and an embodiment of strength in femininity. She is the kind of outwardly scary I wish I could be if it wasn’t for my 5’1 stature. She has the kind of warrior arm muscles I’ve craved since I was sixteen and started to hate the concept of gender. She, I think, is the kind of person—goddess—that would cover herself with tattoos of her own design.
Her tattoo gets the most compliments of all. I copied the design from the Chicago artist, and it feels like a stain on my arm. I had to split the pain over multiple sessions; it looks like a lopsided and patchy version of the original design as a result of my shaking hands. Instead of a culmination of all the personalities I want, my Kali tattoo is a beautiful blue-green embarrassment. A failed attempt at reinvention. Kali might be the kind of goddess to cover herself in tattoos, but a goddess doesn’t need tattoos to be born anew.