The Tattoo’d lady

I have a lot of tattoos. I don’t have one little tattoo like a flower or a butterfly on my ankle. Fully half of my left calf is inked. It is impossible to miss when I wear shorts or a short dress. Half of my right shoulder is inked too, but that is only visible when I am at water aerobics. I rarely wear short sleeve shirts, but that was true even before I got tattoos.

The most interesting thing to me is that people will often say that I don’t look like someone who has tattoos. Oddly, that is in part a reason why I have so many tattoos. Sure, I have the tattoos I have because they are meaningful to me, but I also have them because I think it is important to shake up people’s expectations.

So many people don’t really think about anything, it seems. They have their patterns and their expectations, and they are happy to live with them. When they apply “the usual” pattern to a situation or a person, they stop seeing things as they are.

They start seeing things as they think they are.

They stop seeing at all.

I have tattoos as reminders. I have tattoos as goals. They are milestones and markers, of achievements I have made, yet also of aspirations I have.

They function as a sort of Rorschach test too. If people are brave enough to ask me about them, then I ask them which one caught their eye. Then I tell them the story that goes along with that tattoo. It turns out that is the story that they need to hear that day to learn something.

I expose myself when I tell these stories. I may let people know that I am bipolar and have been in a mental hospital twice. I may let people know that God has revealed himself to me.

Are these two things connected? Perhaps.

Sometimes my tattoos create a bridge, and sometimes they create a wall. I’m ok with either. I’m ok with anything that gets people to engage, to wake up, to notice. I’m ok with anything that shakes people out of their complacency and makes them think.

Sometimes this means people are against me from the beginning, because I have marked myself as “other”. I am one of “those people”. But then they look at my smile, and how I am dressed, and where I am and they start to wonder. Their hard expectations of who I must be start to wobble a bit.

When people decide that I’m not like them because of how I am marked, it says more about them than it does about me. This too is useful for me.

In the most literal way I am “colored”. I do feel “other”, an outcast, a minority. I have chosen to highlight it rather than hide it. I have chosen to express on my outside how I feel on my inside.

I don’t show my tattoos all the time, however. There are some situations where it is important to keep a low profile. There are some situations where discretion and decorum are an advantage. But there are others where I have revealed myself to be “in” by showing my tattoos.

Small-town Southerners are generally not welcoming of tattoos. I often get open stares in rural areas, you know, the ones where everybody is the same color and a member of the same faith.

In college towns or towns where there is a diversity of cultures and views my tattoos are often admired.

So, in a way, my tattoos are also like a barometer or a thermometer. They tell me a lot about the local culture.

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Handout, handbag

I was walking downtown and saw a black man cross my path. He was a bit shabbily dressed – worn t-shirt, baggy jeans. While I’ve been taught to be wary of strangers, I’ve been taught that message applies double to black men.

Is it fair? Is it fair that I have been taught to think that a black man wants something from me? My handbag. A handout. Or something more heinous.

How much have we created the very thing we expect, by expecting it? If the only interaction white people, white women especially, are able to have with black men is an adversarial one, it is all we will have.

People need to interact with each other. It is part of what makes us human. We live in community. It is our common life that sustains us.

We may think we live independently, but we don’t. We eat food that is grown and harvested by others. We use electricity and water that is harnessed and directed to us by others.

When we allow only a small kind of interaction, and a warped kind of interaction at that, to take place between entire groups all the time, then we are short-changing individuals of their basic humanity. We are seeing them as things and not as people.

Perhaps I was taught that black men are lesser are thieves and beggars because that is what was seen as the truth by my role models. Perhaps there were far more bad examples than good examples for them.

But perhaps there were far more bad examples because that is what they were looking for. Perhaps they created this reality.

In the child rearing books that I have read, you are supposed to ignore the bad behavior and praise the good. Children, like all people, crave attention. Even if it is negative attention, it is still attention. If we focus and give energy to bad behavior, we will get more of it.

If we tell black males that we will relate to them only in terms of being thieves or thugs or transients, we will get more of it.

Time to change the script.