Tattooing is a body modification in which ink is embedded into the dermis using a needle. The epidermis, in time, heals over its now-modified counterpart, trapping the ink in the body. Done correctly–and I have managed to do it incorrectly–tattoos are permanent. The oldest discovered mummy with tattoos dates to over five thousand years.
Imprecise at-home versions of professional tattooing include stick-n-poking and slice-and-smudging. A stick-n-poke tattoo involves a sterilized sewing needle attached to the end of a pencil, which serves as a handle. The tattooist pokes the ink-soaked needle tip a few millimeters into the skin, creating permanent artwork on the walls of the body. The slice-and-smudge method is somewhat gruesome, but it was the first way of tattooing that our species invented: After the skin is sliced with a blade, the ink is smudged into the cut, then left to heal. Both methods result in shaky masterpieces at a fraction of the cost–if that–of seeing a professional tattoo artist.
I read up on these methods before I ordered the tattoo ink from Amazon. When the package came, I practiced on oranges and potatoes, carefully guiding my pencil-needle rig to trace slowly the sketched outlines of feminist fists and cats and peaches.
Permanence isn’t something I consider often, but my hand shakes as I poke a little alien head into my friend’s hip. She is laughing, a little drunk, without a care in the world.
I picture her in forty years: She is walking on a beach somewhere with a dog, laugh lines carving her tanned face, sun shining in her light eyes, a blotchy alien head peeking out from the waistband of her shorts. I am not there.
I picture my boyfriend in twenty years. He’s well-dressed, drinking a beer, relaxing with friends between sets at an outdoor concert. The breeze tousles his hair and tickles his cheek, and he brushes a hand over his skin. I am not there.
I picture my parents in fifteen years. Their bodies are starting to give up on them, but they are not giving up on their bodies. My mother rides her Huffy bike as my father tees off with his Thursday golfing group. Later, they get lunch with my brother and his children. I am not there.
On my own body, there are two tattoos, black ink set into the skin of my right shoulder and left ankle. Often, I forget they are there. Once, I grazed my palm with my stick-n-poke needle after a particularly creative session on an orange. I didn’t bleed. The black line stained my palm for a few weeks, but the epidermis doesn’t hold on to things as well as the rest of us tends to.
For eighteen years and five months I lived in a room in a house in a county. The room is a home to only plants now, and the house has gray-lavender walls that are beige in my memories. The county has stayed the same; the roads still curve the way I remember, and the trees grow in the same spots. My elementary, middle, and high schools do not remember me, though they stand as they did so many years ago. When I attended them, they did not remember my brother, six years my senior.
Is the wind in that town the same as the wind here? One hundred miles is nothing to the wind. What about ten thousand miles? Will I have to bundle myself tighter in the Australian winter, or will I already have an ally on the other side of the world?
Jarett talks about legacy, and I twist the stitching on the hem of his shirt between three fingers. He says he wants to change the world, and I say I want to, too; but I think it’s impossible. He says he can’t bear the thought of people forgetting him after he dies. I am silent. I can’t fathom desiring something like that–all I want is to walk into the woods and be lost, forgotten as soon as the trees obscure my body from view.
This place is not permanent. Every year, plants die and reinvent themselves; I emulate them: unfurl my green leaves, welcome the sun, then fold in on myself, freefall, become trampled underfoot. Maybe this fall, the wind will whisk me somewhere more forgiving.
Moments are permanent. Here I am, shakily dotting the left eye of an alien head, Amber half-smiling with a can of Natty Boh raised to her lips. This moment will end, certainly, but it will never cease to exist. She is here and I am here and the wind is watching happily from the sliding glass door. It doesn’t matter whether or not either of us remembers this. It will always exist, tucked neatly into the fold of time, lost between the moon landing and the fall of mankind.
I have been in one place for too long and I feel the wind pulling my bones, begging me to uproot and touch down somewhere else. I should refrain from letting my feet dig in any deeper than the surface–if I sink too far, I could leave a permanent mark. I transfer all the money from my savings account and buy a plane ticket to Australia. I have never been there.
Technically our tattoos aren’t permanent. They are only as permanent as we are. One day, as our bodies decay, the ink will rot away with us. My body lies on the forest floor, sinking into the moist earth. Younger creatures recycle my parts: A bluebird uses dry, brown hair to soften her nest; ants feast on letters etched in black ink; a snake curls up to sleep inside a ribcage. I am not there.
In class, a professor delivers a prompt: What impact do you wish to leave on the world?
My essay: I do not.
My classmates scribble furiously for ten minutes. I draw an alien head in the margin of my notebook with black ink–then scribble it out.
The epidermis is always changing. Every forty-eight days, we are encased in a new skin that is oblivious to the horrors we may put it through. The dermis does not regenerate like this; the epidermis protects it so that it does not have to. Over decades, the dermis pulls the ink pigment deeper and deeper into the body, giving the tattoo the appearance of fading. It becomes so deeply embedded in the skin that it begins to look as if it isn’t there at all.
What if it were to be pulled down below the skin, through networks of nerves, permeating muscle tissue to stain the skeleton?
What if freckled skin healed over it, keeping hush the phenomenon transpiring beneath the surface?
Would this body be untarnished then?
Is it the ink that matters, or our awareness of it?
This yearning for removal is itself rooted in permanence: to be enduringly unbound, to float just above it all, drifting in and out of lives on the breeze, staying as long as I want in any one place without feeling like the ground is opening up to detain me forever. If I suddenly collapsed in on myself, became a miniature black hole, would everything I’ve left in this world follow suit? Would my friend look down and see a swirling black mass just above her hip? Would she remember what was there before or how it felt to be pricked like the edge of a blanket for an hour on the wooden floor of our friend’s bedroom?
How much of myself is preserved in those around me?
Tattoo removal is an excruciatingly painful and expensive process. A laser breaks down the ink particles in the dermis, and the body’s immune system is left to expel the ink from its home. A complete removal takes multiple sessions, which may scar the skin at the site of the exorcism.
I am not there.
The past is fleeting and unreliable–definite in objectivity but morphed and useless in its inevitable subjectivity.
The future is undefinable, unknowable, unrelenting in its quest to place tensions on the current.
Present is here. Present is permanent for now. Here we are, definitely. I am not sure of many things, but of this, I am absolutely certain. There can be no concern for a lasting impact on the present. Things are as things are.
I am here writing this, preserved in this moment, and you are here reading this, preserved in this moment, and these moments are cemented in my history, your history, our history, history. We cannot change them.
I may spend my entire life creating and then burning it all.
Rachel Villa is a Towson University English major and an editorial intern at The Believer. Her work is forthcoming in The Believer.