Tattoos and Meaning

An insight into my ink.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to make sure I publish on here regularly without writing useless filler articles that read like my high school diary, and while scratching my head, I thought of it: tattoos.

Well, more like I saw it than thought of it, as my second tattoo is on the inside of my upper arm.

Disclaimer: this is going to get equal parts personal and strange, so if you’d prefer a lighthearted or easy read, come back next week when I put up a video of me attempting Danish after my first few lessons. You’ve been warned.


It’s been a little weird for me for people to be paying so much attention to my tattoos.  That might sound strange, but of my close circle of friends back home (minus a couple of people), I am probably the least tattooed and pierced.  Most people I know with tattoos started getting simple pieces or home-jobs when they were 17 or 18, but I couldn’t bring myself to get under the needle until right after New Year’s, 2013.

My first tattoo is a bluejay.  (I can’t really say “was a bluejay,” as it’s permanent.)  I’d been thinking about getting a bluejay since I was probably 17 or 18 years old, and at first it honestly just came from a strong desire to get something associated with the Beatles without actually getting something for the Beatles.  “Blue Jay Way” is a song that I enjoy; I associate it with old summers and old friends and driving down highways and “rural” High Point roads at all hours of the night, until the sweet song of Sheetz hot dogs and quesadillas called our names back to mundane civilization.

Sheetz-Snackadium

I kept a photo of a bluejay as my laptop’s screensaver for almost two years.  This was Neurotic Me making sure I could stand to look at the same damn thing every damn day for the rest of my life.  It ended up being quite helpful, as while I still found myself wanting the bluejay on my back, its position and size changed several times before I settled on what it is today.  Now, I did not keep the Beatles’s song as the reason for my tattoo.  That whole story I just gave you is something I haven’t really thought about in years.  Bluejays as animals just sort of mean something to me.

Have you ever seen something, or met someone, or been somewhere that you just felt was significant?  And not for any real or apparent reason? But it just felt like you were supposed to see that, meet them, go there?

That’s sort of what the birds were like to me until some unknown day I watched one knock some poor finch’s eggs out of a tree, and take the nest for its own.  I was reminded of my (biological) mother.  She was an avid bird watcher when I was growing up, and taught me the birds’ names, calls, egg colors, whatever.  But one thing she always made a point to say was how mean the bluejays were, specifically bluejays, because they would go around taking other birds’ nests.

Mean, she said.  Birds.

She took this attitude about everything in life, be it hers, mine, or the global community itself.  If someone did something that did not have a positive or at least neutral effect, they were clearly out to get her/me/the world in general.  She tried (somewhat successfully, for a while), to teach me quasi-Hobbesian philosophies of life being cruel, brutish and short.  Bluejays personified this.

I got the bluejay not as some teenaged rebellion-against-Mom, not as a way to put-a-bird-on-it.  I have it on my body because it reminds me not to be afraid.  It reminds me that even good people do bad things, and not everyone means the worst.  Sure, I still have trouble putting two feet up on a bicycle, but the point is that I’m trying to live my own sort of “Blue Jay Way,” even if it’s not in California.

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Tattoo number two is a little more serious, and a lot more spontaneous.   This one took less than two months of convincing myself that I could withstand the sensation of burning hot oil bubbles on my skin again.

(For the record, the physical process of getting a tattoo isn’t that bad.  If you’ve ever cooked with hot oil or grease and had little bits pop up on your arm, that’s pretty much what it feels like.  Just, obviously, a little more sustained.  The healing process for me is the worst; I’m kind of a weenie about first taking off the plastic wrap when I get home, and washing the leaking plasma off my skin for a couple of days. Yum.)

My second tattoo says simply “UNBREAKABLE” in a loose, typewriter-looking typeface.  The Bs look double-printed; the As and Es look fractured.  It is exactly what I wanted.  I got it as a reminder than no matter how shitty things get, I can always get myself back together.  I can break, and pull off feats Humpty Dumpty could only dream of.

I also chose the word UNBREAKABLE in a sort of solidarity with an awareness project that I am extremely fond of.  It is called “Project Unbreakable,” and was started in the United States in 2008 by Grace Brown.  She is a photographer out of Massachusetts who has made it her mission to spread awareness of sexual assault, and to bring healing to survivors. She does this by traveling around North America, mostly to college and university campuses, to promote dialogue and showcase the work of Project Unbreakable.

Project Unbreakable itself is photographs —most taken by Grace herself, but many are also submitted directly from individuals — of sexual assault survivors holding signs.  These signs hold quotes from friends, family, the police, even the assailants themselves.  The quotes are painful and gut-wrenching, and cut straight to the bone.  They show the ugly side to sexual assault, the side largely glossed over by the media at large: the reality of it.  The aftermath of it.

While living in Asheville I had the privilege of working as a Crisis Response Advocate with OurVOICE (Victims Outreach Intervention Counseling Education), a rape and sexual assault crisis center.  OurVOICE is 40 years old this year, an impressive feat given the large lack of such institutions in the ’70s and even today.  As an Advocate I handled crisis calls, hospital visits, victim advocacy, and everything attached to that.  It was painful.  It was real.  And it is work that absolutely must continue.

I have had close friends and family experience this heinous crime, and despite its prominence in today’s international media (read: India), it is misunderstood, underreported, and contains stigmas that weigh heavier on its survivors than one can possibly imagine.  Educate yourself, advocate for others.

OurVOICE: http://www.ourvoicenc.org/
Project Unbreakable: http://project-unbreakable.org/
Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) statistics: https://www.rainn.org/statistics

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Last but not least, tattoo number three. This one took two sittings: one for the outline which took a little over an hour, and one to color it in, which took a little less than an hour.  (The white is not colored in for a number of reasons, my favorite being that come winter, my skin will be white enough anyway.)  It is my family’s (Henning) coat of arms.

I have felt kind of stupid over the past couple weeks, as I have not been able to answer more specific questions about it.  How old is it?  How did your family get it?  What does it MEAN, though?  So, I called my (step)mom and asked if she could send me the information off the big fancy plaque thing next to my parents’ front door.

The surname Henning has sort of a convoluted origin story that I won’t get into, but basically vikings came to England and “corrupted” the name “Hemyng” to become “Hemming” and eventually “Henning” in the 1200s.  The arms was awarded to my family in Dorset in 1610:

Blazon of Arms: Barry wavy of six argent and azure, on a chief gules three plates.
Translation: Argent (white) denotes Peace and Obedience.  Azure (blue) denotes Truth and Loyalty.
Crest: A sea-horse argent, enclosing in the paws a plate.
Origin: England (Dorset)

The “barry wavy” bit, in heraldry, typically signifies the sea.  So the barry wavy and the seahorse together make me wonder if my faraway ancestors kept to their seafaring, viking ways and got on as sailors.  It’s a little interesting.  I’m not sure why the red isn’t specifically mentioned, though it usually means strength, sometimes specifically military strength.  The “chief gules” refers to the horizontal red band at the top of the shield, and is apparently an “honourable ordinary.”

Basically, I got my family’s coat of arms to remind me of my family.  We’re not always as close as we’d like to be (both spatially and otherwise), but I know that no matter where I am, if I need my family, they’re there.

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So!  That’s it, that’s everything behind all the ink currently on my body.  I definitely have plans to get more in the not-so-distant future (there’s something to that old adage about getting addicted to tattoos), primarily a half or full sleeve on my left arm.  I’ve been drawing components of that for years, but I can never put it together just the way I want.  Ideally I will do some research and find tattoo artists throughout Europe (and beyond) and make a sort of scavenger hunt about the whole process, getting different pieces tattooed by different people until I’m content I’ve gotten everything I want out of it.  Maybe then I’ll look at a another coat of arms for my other thigh, or another bird for my back.

If you’ve made it this far, I hope I didn’t bore you too much to tears.  There are definitely some things I touched on that I would like to provide more of an in-depth commentary on (e.g. portrayal of things in entertainment media versus news media); for now I’m just glad that I haven’t wholly given up on this yet.  The blog I tried to keep while I studied abroad in Wales in 2012 was rather pathetic.

Until next time.

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