Friday, July 30, 2010

Tattooing As Media

cross posted from my Media Justice column

As summer begins I am often looking forward to the sun kissing all parts of my skin. I can't wait to visit the beach, which is one of the few spaces I find peace of mind and am reminded that there's so many bigger things out there and that my problems are just a small speck of something larger. In addition to this ritual beach trip and the sun kissing my skin, I know I must prepare for another type of exposure: showing my ink.

As a fat sexologist of Color who is also inked and over six feet tall with a disability, there is often an additional element of awareness that my body is being read by others. This is something that has come up for me since I was 18 years old and began to adorn my body with images, words, and symbols that are meaningful to me. As I've aged, I've continued the journey of using my body as a canvas, it sounds cliché, but it's true! There have been many issues that have come up for me as someone who is getting older and my multiple identities intersecting in various spaces have resulted in extremely diverse interactions with people and amazing opportunities to share and create knowledge.

One of the reasons I chose to write about tattooing, or ink as I like to call it, is because I believe that tattooing is a form of creating media. As someone who started their first ever tattoo with symbols and words, I've had a very interesting path to figuring out why and how I want to choose an image or term and on what part of my body I wish to do so. I know today, that just as I put glitter on my camouflage jacket back in the early 90s, that my tattoos also send a message about who I am, what I wish to represent, and how I choose to move my social justice agenda forward.

I have one large tattoo on my upper left arm, which gets me a lot of attention, especially unwanted attention. I've shared this foto with many readers before but as a refresher here it is (this foto is from the Adipositivity Project, read more about why I chose to be an AdiPoser):

While away on a chosen family emergency in my homeland of Puerto Rico last week, there were many people who approached me and had something to say about my ink, specifically this image. It is an image by artist and sex worker Isis Rodriguez. Her series called "My Life As A Comic Stripper," created in 1997 is where this image, No More! is found. One of the many reasons I chose this piece is because of the amazing detail and thoughtfulness behind the art. Not only does Isis challenge stereotypes about Latina (and women of Color's sexuality) and the dichotomy we are often forced to fit into (i.e. the virgin/whore dichotomy), but she is also discussing a new way of being a responsible sexual being.

Introducing the series "My Life As A Comic Stripper," Isis writes on her website:

"My Life as a Comic Stripper" was a cartoon survey that observed the commercial sex industry in relation to society and ourselves. I used cartoons in the editorial manner commenting satirically on exotic dancers, customers, managers and owners, children toy manufacturers and advertisement. Working as an exotic dancer for over 10 years in most of San Francisco's strip clubs, impacted me as an artist and individual. The strip club was a place where I learned of profound humanity. It was there, that I saw the empowerment, the vulnerability, the rewards, the consequences, the drugs, the exploitation, the determination of everyday people.

The experiences she had as a sex worker and student was one I could relate to on numerous levels. Never had I gone into the sex work industry as an undergraduate, but the fact that I wanted to study sexuality from a sociological and anthropological lens (and not a psychological one that pathologizes people and our choices) there was a huge question of my motivations, goals, desires, and expectations to "make money" in such a field. Under the image No More!, Rodriguez writes:

Be careful what you wish for because that ain't no p*&%y between her legs! How does a woman in this industry become liberated from societal stereotypes and the ridiculous expectations of a sex worker?

When people stare at this image on my body it is often with a certain assumption. It is rarely the intense and thought provoking ideologies that guided Isis when she began working on this project. Often the main people who approach me to ask me about the tattoo are people whom I read their gender identity as men. They often assume it is a sexualized message about what kind of lover I am or the image may represent. They are not ready for the actual message. When people get a closer look it's as if that "ah-ha" moment occurs and they each "get it" whether they wanted to or not. Often they don't want to "get it" and are kind of disappointed they just had to learn something. But that's what they get!

The reactions I often get from people whose gender identity I understand to be women, is different. It is rare when I get a woman who approaches me and has supporting, encouraging and/or affirmative things to say, although it does happen and when it does I know the work I do is important. Often there is teeth sucking, eye rolling, "hmmphs" shared, and judgment in the tone as they ask me "now, what's that supposed to mean?" I wonder why there is such a harsh reaction to something that I find so beautiful and affirming. I'm confused how something so liberating is resulting in such rigid disgust. Then I remember that even if the message I am sharing is constructed and that I want to share it in a particular way, that different people have different perspectives. Another principle in media literacy.

There have been a few instances where I have experienced what I would call street harassment. Now I have to admit that it is not often that I find street harassment to be something that I do not desire. I think the fat thing comes into play when people on the street choose to say something to me about the way I look, and often people who speak to me say specific things that are rarely vulgar or unwanted. For example, I have never been told what a person would want to do to me sexually, or that they find a certain body part that is connected to an oversexualized part attractive/desired. Instead, I often have people from the community comment on my hair, my make up, my jewelry, my smile, the way I walk with confidence (and not fear), and of course my ink. I often simply reply with a "thank you" and keep it moving. Rarely have I ever experienced what filmmaker Nuala Cabral has shared and presented in her film "Walking Home."

With that said, since I have begun to show more skin, The warm weather has always resulted in more eyes on my body reading me. Recently while visiting a friend in Manhattan, a man stood behind me and attempted to take a foto with his iphone without my permission. I can't begin to explain to you all how upset and violent I instantly became when I noticed he was doing this without my permission. I quickly slapped the iphone out of his hands and yelled to him: "If you had asked me I would have allowed you to take a picture now erase it." He was so startled and fumbled with trying not to let his cell phone drop that he obliged to my demand quickly and without comment and left in the opposite direction. While in Puerto Rico last week I had a man approach me on the beach asking permission to take a foto of my ink and I granted him that telling him other people have rarely been as honest and courteous as he was.

Then there are the people who think if I have it out people can look and think what they want. I don't disagree with this ideology, where my concern lies is in such people thinking they have the right to speak to me and share their opinion or thoughts. It sounds harsh, but what do I care what a random stranger may think? What makes people think I care about their opinion about my body? Is it that whole "women are supposed to look a certain way" form of socialization that I'm supposed to care what they think because I should? I'm very privileged to not ever having experienced this in public to feel unsafe. Yet, there have been several times I have felt unsafe when someone is hitting on me in a confined space (i.e. a cab driver). There is also a lot of privilege I have to be inked and have that ink in places where others can see and still keep a job in a certain environment.

How many of your professors have ink? Have you seen their ink? I have double digits and I can hide a majority of those pieces, but not all of them. It is rare when I think that because I have a visible tattoo I may not get a job. It is also rare that I worry that if I show my ink I may risk losing my job. And if you don't remember I work at a private Catholic college in the Bronx. Privilege, I have a lot of it!

I asked all my followers on Twitter to tell me their tattoo stories, why they chose the ink they did, what they hope to gain from the experience, and how they see the symbolism and messaging of their ink. I did not get into details about their experiences getting the ink or how they chose to pay for it (which is also a form of privilege) and how they found artists they appreciate. My artist is Louis Barak, a Moroccan Jew from Chicago whom I met in NYC and has a degree in fine art. I immediately fell in love with him when I realized he knew the color wheel and what colors would look amazing together!

My homegirl PazEnLaVida, who is currently crafting her first tattoo, shared that she was getting something that represented her radical woman of Colorness. She said she wanted "either an eagle or a snake. I want to get it on my arm. I want it because I want to mark my body with something that represents who I am. It's something I'm doing for me. To love my identity and link to my community."

My friend PostModernSexGeek shared that her tattoo on her back is the "image/representation of Coatlicue. To remind me of where I came from but also to remind me that I am powerful in my own life. The message for others? Here be Goddess energy, Proceed with caution ;-)"

My other homegirl Bianca, a tattoo enthusiast who is engaged to a tattoo artist, shared that her first tattoo was one that she wanted to mark a "coming of age" on her 16th birthday. Her second was a matching tattoo she got with her high school best friend and her third marked a change in her life. This third tattoo was during a time when she "had gone thru a really bad depression the year I graduated high school. I got the tat to symbolize the pain I overcame. When I added to it, I was closing a chapter in my life & starting new."

For me, when I got this arm tattoo it was in the winter. I knew that I wanted to show it off that following summer and it was one of the many ways I began to appreciate my body. Before getting inked there I did not expose my upper arms thinking they were far too fat and unattractive to expose. When the summer came and I knew I had this ink on my body all of that went away. I was proud of what I looked like, how my body moved and what I felt like when the sun kissed it as it was exposed with no clothing covering it. I was sending messages of appreciating and loving my body and people noticed.

I've had this experience before with other tattoos that I have. For example, since having my disability I've also gotten tattoos that are in the area of my disability and that are representative of the pain and stigma I survive daily. In addition, I've inherited what I call "skin tags" from my father. These are small pieces of skin that form extensions of skin off my body and that are attached to a blood vessel. I have them all over my body and one large one at the back of my neck in the center. I chose to have an image of the Mujer de Caguana, the goddess who is believed to have birthed all the people in the Caribbean (which is why she is squatting in a amphibian like position). I asked that the skin tag be positioned in between her legs to act as either an enlarged clitoris or a penis. I like the idea of having her be a gender-bending goddess. I also like that my hair can cover it and I can share this image when I chose to. It was one way I chose to come to terms with having my skin tags and it has worked!

Although my parents constantly tell me that this was probably the "worst decision I've ever made in my life" (I'm glad that dedicating my life to a sex-positive agenda is not the first one!), I'm happy with the person I've become and the media I continue to make. I do know that there are people who may not see their ink as a form of media, yet I think for many of the people I know and the artists I've worked with it is media, it is art, and, as a past lover has said, art is evolving life. I evolve through my media and my media that is with me wherever I go is my ink.

I've written in the past on things to consider and how to prepare for new ink especially as a way for surviving and healing scars on our body. To read that article, click here. If you are inked, or if you aren't, what are your thoughts about consenting to wearing media on our bodies forever?

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