On occasion I think about what kind of tattoo to get . . . if only I were a tattoo person. I rather like them, actually. Especially the really colorful sleeves that some people are bold enough to wear.* Is that the proper lingo? Do people wear tattoos? See, I’m not even really sure how to talk about it. Nonetheless, I find them fascinating on some level, and periodically I kind of want one.
The reality, however, is that there’s a disconnect between my notions about tattoos and my notions about myself, and it seems to be rooted in this: tattoos are permanent, and I am not. I don’t simply mean that I am mortal (in case you wondered); I mean that I am forever changing. In my forty earthbound years, I feel like I’ve been at least ten different people. My wife probably sometimes wonders who she married. And I’m not bold enough to say that I won’t be a couple more people before it’s all over. I just hope that a constant enough thread ties together all the rambling parts, so that my loved ones can recognize me.
On a recent beach trip, standing on our fourteenth-floor balcony, I couldn’t resist the notion of impermanence. It radiated from every rippling color field, the waves ever trudging landward–rank upon endless rank of swelling and ebbing and lapping seawater, mocking our human vainglory, our desperation to hold onto anything. It was in the air: laughter, inaudible and implied–even seen–in the spiraling bullet dives of terns; the aloofness of brown pelicans, gliding in groups or bobbing in solitude just beyond the breakers; the sand itself, lying dumb on the damp declination, yielding itself to the tide’s relentlessness.
It’s as if all of nature–the ocean, the beach, the birds, the breeze–knows this secret at which we humans can only guess. It goes about its business in full knowledge, and it pities us, watching from the shallows and deeps while we erect temples of impermanence. It was born into searchlessness, while we, grasping, were born into questions, with the consciousnesses of gods but the bodies of beasts, pulled in two directions always.
Art is our brush with permanence, the closest that we come in this life. It’s why we know the name Achilles, 3,000 years after it was first spoken. Because something of the immortal hides in Art–some distillation of the permanent; an echo of the angelic realm, sounding in perpetuity, as though it had a form and could be touched.
Perhaps a tattoo, in being art drawn on the skin, is a way that we can approach earthly permanence. Yet this feels ultimately futile, too, for even the name Achilles will pass some day. Earthly permanence is simply not one of our options (though we may crave it). It makes far more sense to get one merely because you like it, regardless of permanence or impermanence–that’s reason enough. After all, I do love looking at the tattoos of others–their colors, their details, their artistry. But for some reason, when it comes to my own skin, I just can’t seem to do it. Maybe I’ll feel differently when I become one of the other two people I mentioned earlier.
*Liza Nordqvist is a tattoo artist in Gothenburg, Sweden. I discovered her work on Instagram (@filthyswede) and fell in love with her colors and imagery. You should visit her Instagram page!