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Inked identities

Though my parents beg to disagree, I’ve always seen tattooing as a form of self expression. Therefore I was incredibly inspired when, a couple weeks back, artist Kip Fulbeck came to speak with my FOCUS Discussion Course on a Monday evening. While we significantly spent time learning about his largest project Hapa.me, he spoke tangentially about another past project he completed titled “Permanence.” As the title of his project and this article may suggest, he photographed and interviewed his subjects, compiling his collection into a book.

Inspired by Fulbeck’s work, I set off on my own mission to capture the intersection of inking and identity at Duke. First, I interviewed one of my FOCUS professors, whom I noticed from our class’s blurry Zoom screen, had a tattoo on her shoulder.

Turns out Professor Jessica Namakkal has much more than just one tattoo. Sitting on the East Duke building’s front steps which lead to her office, she pointed them out to me one by one as she remembers where they are. She bears colored stars, aesthetic college student decisions, behind her ears, on each forearm and on her collarbone. She wears an image of the Hindu god Ganesh on her shoulder, riding a bike. A DQ spoon adorns the back of her ankle, with her mom’s name on it, a little memorial to her and her family.

The same way Fulbeck always asked his subjects to physically write down something while he photographed them, I asked Prof. Namakkal to connect her ink to identity on paper. She chose to write about the two on her back. In swirly downlooped, professor-smooth writing, on the flyleaf of my final project instructions packet, her script reads:

“I have my last name - NAMAKKAL - tattooed on my back, written in Tamil, the language of my name's origin. Underneath it is a quote from the theorist Frantz Fanon from his book Black Skin, White Masks which reads ‘as I travel through the world, I am always changing myself.’ I got these tattoos as a simultaneous gesture towards my heritage and my malleability.” 

Prof. Namakkal showed me a photo of her name tattoo at the end of an article she published in 2017 on mixed-race identity. Squinting in the afternoon sunlight, she asked if I owned any tattoos, and I shook my head no. We then discussed the subversive culture associated with tattoos, the generational gap in mindset and the weight of parental approval. As someone with a young daughter, Prof. Namakkal mentioned that she can now understand why parents hesitate to allow their children to mark up their “perfect” skin. 

Anthony Salgado, a first-year student, on the other hand, had full family support behind the new tattoo he got done this fall. When his mother visited over Labor Day weekend, he told her he wanted a tattoo, so she drove him to his same-day appointment where he got, on his right shoulder, a Leo sign, a triangle and a sun with eight rays. His grandma also has a zodiac sign tattoo, and everyone in his family has tattoos, so “it’s not a big deal.”

I asked Anthony to write a bit about his tattoo’s design and placement and what it means to him. On my sketch pad, he jotted out his response in pen, then proceeded to rip out his first draft, crumple the paper, and toss it before picking up the pad again and writing:

“I liked the simple design that the zodiac sign had. It wasn’t too big, and had a nice placement so I could easily hide it. I feel many premeds like myself often get caught up thinking quantitatively. But, it was nice doing something for the sake of doing it—because it was fun.” Needless to say, Anthony’s beliefs on tattoos are what can only be described as chill. Whether or not you have tattoos, he said, should not determine how society judges you as a person.

Lydia Goff, a senior, also provided personal insight on why she thinks the generation above us perceives tattoos as taboo. Her mother comes from a low-income community, Lydia explained, so she might have been afraid that by getting a tattoo, Lydia would make their family resemble one the mom is trying to leave in the past. She clarified her mother’s rationale against having a visible tattoo, saying that finding a job in their community would be much harder with one, as “[in the] service industry [it] is something people can be really picky about.”

The pansy on her left arm is inspired by the story from a devotional in a book her mother gave her, about self-worth. Debating whether to get the tattoo either somewhere easy to hide or somewhere readily visible, Lydia decided it told a personal story and should be a constant reminder. “Ultimately I decided how I wanted it, and did not care about hiding it.” The moment she decided to get the tattoo was at an English department meeting. Everyone under forty had visible tattoos, and this was the field she knew she wanted to go into. 

In perfect rounded cursive in thin pencil, Lydia wrote on her lined journal page the story of her wild pansy:

“I’ve always been the good Christian girl, the Sunday school favorite, the quiet one. One of the ways I’ve always chosen to subvert that was through drawing on myself. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever want one of these doodles to be made permanent, though. Then, I read a devotional about a pansy who chose self-contentment and joy in its faith despite all the plants around it moping in their self-criticism and comparison. College wasn’t a smooth transition for me: I’m first-generation, and I was never expected to be where I am. Feeling comfortable with my identity took lots of time and prayer for me. I wanted a constant reminder of choosing contentment. For me, my tattoo helps me feel peace with who I am as a Christian, as a first-gen college student and as a person.”

Juanita Mackey, first-year, plopped down across from me outside of Pitchforks, wearing a blood-orange shirt that revealed her navel piercing. She speaks of giving artists artistic license while still placing her style and story in her own design. She shows me her combination of galaxy and Zodiac behind her right ear, three butterflies on her upper-right back and a Chinese phrase roughly translating to “sorrow before peace” spreading from her left wrist to forearm. 

Juanita’s art style is bold, patterned, and graceful, filling up pages of her tattoo design book. With a thin orange pen on a pad of paper, she scribbles out:

“I put a lot of thought into my tattoos, so I definitely think it impacts my identity. It’s on my skin, it’s a part of me. People are going to look at it and have an impression and wonder why I got it. And it doesn’t matter what they think, but I like the idea people can learn a piece of me from them. Even if I decide to get the tattoo spontaneously, the moment will mean something - the experience - plus I already have a book of designs that’s always ready to be used.”

My final interviewee is Jessica Sue-kam-ling-lewis, first-year, who has yet to receive her tattoo, but has already made plans to get it done this semester. We sketched designs on each other in Sharpie (a classic bonding experience), and talked about life and purity and parents and whether or not I should draw a tattoo on her back. When I asked her to write down a little something about what her tattoo will reveal about her identity, “nothing too profound,” she quit joking around and sat quietly with pen and paper, thinking.

In a neat and small Nunito-font-vibe handwriting on a sheet of loose-leaf, Jessica writes: 

“My first tattoo will be the word gratitude on my ankle. The reason behind this is that since 2020 began, I have faced the most and hardest trails I have ever encountered. In those dark moments, being grateful for all of my blessings got me through. This tattoo will serve as a reminder of my strength and perseverance that I know is within even when I don’t feel it.”

After reading her four sentences, I feel, surprisingly, a wave of exhilaration. How many other uninked tattoos are there? Unfinished memories? Untold stories? These people that I bump into on campus have not changed, but my depth of connection with them has. I want to seize each moment, ask each question, learn each narrative. I hesitated too long at the Farmstead line, missing my chance to ask the cashier about her flowery neck tattoo, half-hidden by an apron strap. At a dinner on Friday, I hear gossip about some girls planning to give each other stick-and-pokes. Scrolling through local tattoo artists’ feeds, I learn about their customers’ and my strangers’ lives through the faceless, nameless posts, of ink on skin.

Pigmented punctures. Aesthetic epidermis entry. Youthful recklessness. Inked identities. No matter the name nor the mindset, there’s thought behind each marking. Whether it’s a friend helping sketch the design, the owner’s consent and glancing a last time, or the tattoo artist’s drilling of ink into skin, ink into skin, ink into skin, the needle leaves behind a small change that morphs into a larger picture.

Speaking with all these wonderful people made me realize they all held one thing in common: though they may have yet to reach perfect understanding of their own identities, they were all confident enough at one point in time to believe that they were making the right choice in leaving a permanent mark on their bodies. To have this sort of trust in your present self is to have, I believe, a healthy respect for yourself. While different people may still hold different views on how others should adorn their bodies, these individuals reflected on their own views and honored their choices, baring little pieces of their insides to the outside world. It’s this posture of self-respect that makes these tattoos truly beautiful.

Jocelyn Chin is a Trinity first-year. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays. 

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