No Regrets: These Tattoos Are My History

The hot yoga class I went to last week made me sweat the purple right out of my hair. Much of that perspiration can be attributed to the 98-degree heat, but I also had the distinct feeling that I was trapped in a dream where I was being forced to give an improvised speech on a stage in front of a packed auditorium.

A tattooed, violet-haired, genderqueer millennial draws attention in a cardio sauna packed with a dozen identical ultra-tan middle-aged Lululemon spokesmoms.

I stuck out like Cady Heron on her first day of American high school. Did I mention I live a few suburbs away from the school that Mean Girls is based on? That film is an accurate microcosmic representation of the culture this side of Lake Michigan. So accurate, in fact, that I consider it a documentary.

I generally prefer practicing yoga on my own. I don’t have to worry about matching the teacher’s pace or wonder if the bionic woman next to me has fallen asleep during her ten-minute headstand. Practicing alone is more comfortable. Safer. In my years-long absence from the studio — and from the North Shore suburbs of Chicago — I forgot that yoga is about balance, strength, and passive-aggressively judging your classmates’ mat brands.

One woman, henceforth falsely christened Sharon, blocked my exit from the studio one day. Despite her small stature, it was clear that Sharon was a high-ranking general in this army of divorcée clones. She pointed to the tattoo on my left shoulder, a bluish-green lotus flower with an om symbol blossoming.

“I love your om,” she said, delivering the compliment with the precious backhanded tone everyone on the North Shore seems to master in utero. Before I could return Sharon’s serve, she went on to tell me that she would never, ever get a tattoo. “It’s permanent! You’ll regret it when you’re older.” She punctuated it with a crinkle-nosed wolf grin.

I had to bite my cheek to stop myself from telling Sharon that those three kids of hers are also very, very permanent.

but make it fashion divider - black squiggle

If I believed for even a moment that Sharon would listen to someone wearing Target-brand yoga pants, I would explain to her exactly why I got my om tattoo. It isn’t on my deltoid because I read the back of a Deepak Chopra book once.

but make it fashion divider - black squiggle

If I believed for even a moment that Sharon would listen to someone wearing Target-brand yoga pants, I would explain to her exactly why I got my om tattoo. It isn’t on my deltoid because I read the back of a Deepak Chopra book once. When I see that beautiful lotus in the mirror, it reminds me that, even though my skin is as pale as a shut-in vampire’s, I am still proud of my North Indian heritage. My grandfather was a partition-era freedom fighter who married a Swedish woman. A generation later, our family reunions might look like an Ikea staff party, but we speak Hindi and get down to Bollywood music.

My tattoos are my history. Many folks get tattoos for fun or for beauty’s sake and I think that’s wonderful. For me, though, they’re all linked to aspects of my identity.

Some pieces are easier to explain than others. I was born in Hawai’i, so there are hibiscus flowers on my ribs. I got a band of music notes around my right bicep to celebrate my love for the art form. There’s an Aquarius symbol impulsively inserted amongst said music notes because my artist realized halfway through the line work that he’d applied the original stencil wrong. (Don’t worry, I found a new artist.)

I avoid revealing the truth behind my first tattoo, the blue and purple butterfly on my left forearm. On my 19th birthday, I decided I could stomach living another year and to go get a tattoo instead of waiting to cross the train tracks until the red lights started flashing. Usually when people ask, “Why a butterfly?” I reply with, “His name is Ulysses!” and gleefully imitate my parents’ shocked faces when I pulled up my sleeve.

When I show people the quote on the left side of my ribcage, they ask what inspired me to get so much text on such a sensitive area. “Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly.” I don’t tell them that I craved the sensation of the needle piercing my skin a thousand times a minute. I don’t tell them that pain was the only thing I could feel while I was wrapped up tight in my cocoon of repression and closeted denial about my gender fluidity. When someone asks where I found the quote, I laugh and say, “A fridge magnet! Can you believe it?”

Speaking of terribly painful locations for body art, I have the four elemental symbols from Avatar: the Last Airbender down my spine. It’s my favorite piece, and I let it slide when people assume that I’m a superfan with a high pain tolerance.

Neither of those assumptions is entirely wrong, but the whole truth is that Aang’s visit lesson with Guru Pathik helped me embrace mindfulness and spirituality in a way that I never knew I could. Korra’s recovery arc in the fourth season helped me find peace and cope with my own violent, traumatic experiences. The groundbreakingly gay final moments of The Legend of Korra made me run laps around the room for 12 whole minutes, screaming “It happened! I can’t believe it happened!” much to the chagrin of my three viewing compatriots. I tripped and skinned my knee partway through, but that didn’t stop me from rejoicing as loudly as I could.

When I look at all of the colorful ink on my body, I see the spectrum of my experiences. My tattoos, especially the ones that I got during difficult times, are reminders that I have explored the darkest corners of my own mind and survived. In fact, I’ve come out stronger.

So no, Sharon. I don’t think I’ll regret a thing.

Namaste. bmif tombstone

edited by rachel.

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Kemmer Keswani Cope loves purple, chocolate, and positive intersectional representation in the media. She hopes to write and voice act for television someday.

Kemmer has written 1 article for us.


  1. What a beautiful piece.

    My first tattoo is a quote on my ribs, and I never want to tell people what it means because of how personal it is. I love love love reading about other people’s relationships with their tattoos!

  2. so bad ass! I love reading a personal history of someone’s tattoos, & this was so layered & beautiful. so many deep moments from your life. thank you.

    • oh my goodness thank you so much!!! i remember when you came and talked at swarthmore college, so please pardon my brief moment of starstruck-ness reading your comment!

  3. This was so beautiful! and just what I needed to read at the moment as I’ve been planning a tattoo that is intensely personal but to others just looks like I’m trying to be a badass. Which tbh I might start saying just to irk people who demand to know if there’s a story behind it so they can judge me. (Honestly, the only thing I don’t like about having the tattoo I do have is when people use it as an invitation to grab my arm so they can read it.)

    Thank you for sharing your experience and your history <3 and fuck Sharon

    • i’m thrilled my piece resonated with you, Emerson!! and hey, who says intensely personal and badass have to be mutually exclusive? :D

      (and hopefully people keep their grabby hands to themselves…)

      • Exactly! I’m aiming for both. I love what you said about personal history, because I feel like that’s where I come from with a lot of my tattoo plans. But just because this tattoo is intensely personal doesn’t mean I’m not also planning a bitchin’ jellyfish tattoo, just because I love jellyfish!

        (skywrites “let people enjoy things” over Sharon’s house)

  4. I love this. Beautiful and poignant. Thank you for sharing your story with us. I’ve tattoos as well and like you, they’re permanent reminders and tributes to things that kept me grounded and afloat, especially during some tumultuous periods of my life. For me, the location of the tattoo is as important as the design because they further the reason and meaning for my tattoos – for example, I’ve a huge Harry Potter themed tattoo I designed down the entire left side of my ribs and side and I purposely chose that location because it meant that the books, its characters, universe etc would always be at my side. I remember my tattoo artist trying to talk me out of getting it there because it was such a huge piece on a really sensitive area but I refused and in the end it was worth the eight hours of getting poked and prodded because the tattoo now fortifies me and give me strength.

    • thanks for reading, and it’s so cool to read your story! i love hearing about other people’s tattoos. plus i’m high-key geeking out about your harry potter piece. so awesome!

  5. “i got it from a fridge magnet, can you believe it” is my favourite! i love coming up with meaningless explanations for my tattoos. equally useful to launch into some deep bullshit with references to philosophical schools so that the person is trapped in a tedious conversation with you and drowning in more regret than you will ever feel over your tattoos.

    • thanks for reading! your comment made me chuckle. definitely going to start blabbering about hedonistic consequentialism next time someone asks why a butterfly lives on me.

  6. Aaaa this was lovely! Thank you for sharing this with us. (I kinda wanna go out and fight a soccer mom now, though).

  7. But…you are making a ton of negative judgements about “Sharon” (and her life and family) based only on her physical appearance and one 20-second conversation. Consider that tattoos and purple hair don’t actually make you a better person.

    • I believe that hedonistic consequentialism lays the framework for imbuing layered meaning via the transmutative effects of literally imbibing visual metaphor subcutaneously. The decentering of colonialist assumptions is symbolized by the reappropriation of a hue once reserved for royalty and thus subverts notions of better than.

      But anyways, thanks for dropping by, Sharon.

  8. The Sharons of this world always remind me of one of my three all-time favorite quotes: “A desire not to butt into other people’s business is at least eighty percent of all human wisdom. And the other twenty percent isn’t very important.”

    I must be the last person in the world you’d think this article would resonate with, but it did. What I’m taking away from this is the importance of having the conviction to be yourself and not feel as though you need to apologize for it.

    I’m proud of you, Shiva. Thank you for never being afraid to stand up for what you feel is right.

  9. Thank you for this. Found it a bit relatable, at least the grandpa part. I have 2nd cousins who look totally Swedish but can speak Persian and love dances to Persian music grandma(my aunt) plays.

  10. I love your writing style! And I (usually) hate people commenting on or asking about my tattoos. It feels like the same dynamic I experience in street harassment, like on what planet does your opinion about my body matter to me? Please write lots more!

  11. I make up a different story for the origins of my tattoos every time someone asks because I don’t feel like giving them the real story. Some are connected to my heritage, some are connected to important parts of my life, but for some reason even the simple ones feel far too personal to give away their meaning, even if the meaning isn’t particularly deep or difficult to talk about, it just feels invasive.

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