Sarah Kinney, a first-year at Columbia College, speaks with the self-assurance of someone with a quote from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights etched into the back of her neck. It reads, "Speech and belief, fear and want," the promise that all people have the right to express themselves freely and be free from want of basic human necessities. This was her first tattoo. Her shoulder-length blond hair, kept short enough to expose the lettering, parts at the center of her forehead, drawing a blunt line imperfectly across.
Her second tattoo, which she describes as she stretches her white t-shirt down her sternum, is the Venus symbol for women—dark, bold, and symmetrical, its round end staring like an eye at the center of her chest. She and a friend got these as matching tattoos on Nov. 9, the day after Donald Trump was elected president.
Kinney grew up in Missouri and moved to Arkansas when she was 16. She attended a small, conservative, rural school in Jonesboro, Arkansas in the heart of the Bible Belt, where the only ink anyone sported was the Confederate flag or the phrase “God and Country.” Getting tattoos and piercings, then, was outward proof of her divergent liberalism.
“The idea of showing up to school with a nose ring and tattoos was very taboo, which only made me wanna do it more,” she says. “I was like, ‘This is bullshit. Y’all are crazy.’” And even before Kinney wanted to get tattoos, she couldn’t convince her mom to let her get a nose piercing. It wouldn't be until the summer before college, after she turned 18, that she started her relationship with body modifications. .
To her, body modification is a form of “civil disobedience.” Her tattoos are permanent, physical displays of commitment that make lasting statements—certainly more lasting than, say, Instagram photos. It seems to me that she aims to reclaim a taboo to push what she holds true above all else as a social and bodily sacrifice for “The Cause.”
Even so, she doesn’t claim that because of the tattoos she is more invested in progressiveness or championing human rights and feminism than the next person. “As a white cis female, you know, my activism can only stem so far past allyship, but I think that just for me, this is the way for me to invest my energy.”
Kinney’s tattoos, then, are at once personal and political. But, I wonder, for how many others less aware of their privilege than Kinney do tattoos function as more of a performative form of activism—an extreme version of a social media post?
Like Kinney, Sarah Campbell, a senior at Barnard, came from a similarly conservative background—but now, as it turns out, describes herself as “ink-happy.”
Growing up raised by Midwestern parents in Westchester and having transferred from the University of Michigan, where body modifications were far from common, Campbell has learned to translate her ownership of her body into purposeful and deeply personal images.
Her first tattoo, which she got two years ago, is a “rock on” hand symbol. “It’s kind of cool and a little punk,” she says, laughing. It not only represents her passion for music, but also, as a nonverbal symbol, serves as an homage to her older brother, who is autistic and has Moebius syndrome, a condition which affects the muscles that control facial expression and therefore the mobility that enables speech.
Her second tattoo traces a roadmap to her childhood and back. Janell Cannon’s Stellaluna, a children’s story about a fruit bat who is raised by a family of birds and eventually finds her way back to her biological family, inspires one tattoo on her right arm. It is the outline of the protagonist, to remind her of the nights she spent reading her story with her two brothers.
Despite these deeply personal motivations, however, it seems that many of her decisions to indulge in ink and piercings are born from moments of idleness and indecision, charged with high energy in need of an outlet. Stellaluna, for instance, appeared one night after a concert. A cartilage piercing occurred before drinks, followed by another concert.
The crown that she got on her inner right wrist last December, when she was “just fed up with a lot of different things,” evokes her message to herself: “I’m a queen,” her own ruler. The ellipses up the side of her thumb engraves on her body her love for writing. “I just like the kind of uncertainty of it—like everything’s a process.” Still, that tattoo’s origins were based on a whim. “I think I saw a picture of someone that had ellipses or something the day before, and was like, ‘Fuck it, I’ll just do it.’”
But can something you hope to always cherish become, one day, just a reminder of rash decision-making? Though she admits that there are times when she regrets getting her “rock on” tattoo, calling it “cheesy,” Campbell embraces the act as physical commemoration—a compassion for whom she had been and what she once did. “I think it’s really cool that it’s like part of you, and it’s permanent,” she explains. She recalls talking to a friend who brought up how weird it might be to have something so permanent etched on her body. She turns up both her hands. “I don’t know. If I get something when I’m, like, 21, and I may not like it like 20 years down the road, I’ll look back on it and be like, ‘Hey, that was when this happened and I was at this point in my life.’ Like, it’s all part of your human experience.”
I meet Wesley Hu, a first year at Columbia College, for the first time 20 minutes after my Frontiers of Science midterm. Sitting down with him in Café 212, the startling gleam of one of his piercings—a single stone on his left ear—cuts through the blur of my strained eyesight.
“I got the earrings first,” he begins. He looks down at the table when he speaks, as if wondering how best to defend his decision.
He also has a tattoo of an Ouroboros, the symbol of a dragon eating its own tail in a jagged circle. This is etched into his upper right thigh. The Ouroboros is a symbol of immortality. “I wanted to choose something that I felt would represent me, in a way that I wanted to keep on my skin,” he explains. “Everything you do is an important part of you.”
I think about Campbell, who also uses tattoos to preserve her journey through life. But unlike her, Hu tells me he deeply considered the “preconceived notions” others held about tattoos and piercings, rather than simply evaluating his own concerns. “I knew I wanted to pick a place that would be concealable in a formal outfit for work and things like that,” he says.
He smiles and looks back down. “One of my friends got his ears pierced in high school,” he recalls. “And after he got his ears pierced, his dad walked into the room and said, ‘Think about what kind of people have their ears pierced,’ before proceeding to walk out. And that was it.”
While the encounter failed to deter him from getting his own piercing, it presumably helped him decide to stamp the Ouroboros somewhere he could hide under business casual, somewhere concealable from his parents—the “more important” reason, he quips. He worried, too, whether people would assume he was getting pierced in an attempt to fit into his fraternity, Lambda Phi Epsilon.
Attached as he is to past experiences, as well as the sensibilities of those who have already known him, he accepts, even welcomes, changes that occur in the first year of college. His tattoos and piercings serve as reminders that even while circumstances may shift, you cannot help but go back to where you came from. Everything in life comes back around, like a dragon eating its own tail, a passionate yet somewhat cold-blooded cycle.
He compares the discomfort of getting tattooed to the burn in the lungs while running. It’s not an unproductive pain. When the needle sets down, as does the jolt of adrenaline, there comes the realization, Hu promises, that it’s “building you up to something.”
Tattoos and their inking of time and place, then, seem like a common notion. They can act as checkpoints. Ghislaine Pagès, a junior at Barnard College, got her first tattoo the summer after her first year of college, during which she took a leave of absence to undergo in-patient treatment for anorexia.
The tattoo is the symbol of recovery at the National Eating Disorder Association, two curved lines evoking an empathetic heart and the healthy human body in motion, which represent her reclamation of control over her own body. Residential treatment, she remembers, was “insane.” It was a period of three months in which a team of doctors “completely dictated” her life.
For Pages, getting a tattoo in her hometown of Seattle was a chance for her to reclaim part of her own body.
“There’s definitely, like, a compulsive part of it,” she says.“Like a mental thing of being able to have some agency over myself.”
The mark not only represents her victory and her appreciation for life, but is also a political statement. Perhaps inadvertently, the image brings together survivors and helps develop an awareness that the experience of suffering caused by an eating disorder is valid, and full recovery possible. Even more deeply rooted is the perpetual and widespread doubt, as well as unproductive silence, when it comes to issues of the body.
“I think people in general just aren't taught to like themselves or be comfortable with themselves,” she explains.
Her desire to express her rediscovered agency inspired another tattoo and an appreciation for piercings that are “a little bit different.” She says they represent another type of challenge for her, as well as an ironic sort of aesthetic. “I got my nipple pierced last—I guess it was last winter?” she ponders, trailing off. “Maybe two winters ago? I forget.”
Her satisfaction from her piercing comes from an awareness that she doesn’t present as very “radical” (is it the clear skin? The dirty blond, neatly swept hair?). And yet, “It’s like a nipple piercing under a Brooks Brother's shirt that I bought at, you know, Housing Works.” That’s a thrift shop—there’s a location on the Upper West Side.
She attributes part of her comfort in getting permanent body modifications to having grown up in a quirky, historically gay, and now rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in Seattle where they aren’t as head-turning. At one point, she recalls, it felt as though every 20- to 30-year-old—even high school students—had gauges in their ears to stretch their lobes. It was so normalized, there wasn’t much anxiety over whether such visible alterations would impede the job search. Unlike Campbell, for Pages, the body modification culture in Manhattan, no less at Columbia, felt more “toned down.”
So she wears Seattle on her body, whether it’s visible or not.
Aspen Zhang, a first-year in Columbia College, has found a similar way for his tattoos to reflect change in his identity and in his life. His left forearm displays an abstract topographic representation of his hometown of Chongqing, China, designed in collaboration with Amanda Ba, another Columbia College first-year and an artist.
It doesn’t, however, give away the distance he’s traveled, nor the places he’s been since moving to the United States. “We moved around a lot,” he says. He tells me he and his family have lived in Oklahoma for six years.
A black line runs through the zeniths of angular mountains and the banks of the rivers. It is the 1 train, with which so many Columbia students become familiar with in their first year, the lifeline running down the palm of Manhattan, splitting the image on his arm.
His intent to get a tattoo was spontaneous, but not impulsive. “Everything just kind of came together at one point,” he says, and at Columbia, he felt a “sense of security” when it came to expressing himself.
However, a small gap interrupts the otherwise seamless form of his tattoo—when he graduates, he will complete the path with Columbia blue. As the imaginary commuters head home on the local track, so may Zhang, completing each new part of his journey.
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