The body as a canvas: tattoos and the stories they tell

I was reading through past articles done by the Misc when I came across Tattoo spotlight: Students’ ink prove deeply personal, artful. Having recently gotten my first tattoo, I was inspired to do my own investigation into the ink of Vassar students.

Courtesy of Sarah Kageyama ’25

My Gi-Chan loved ginkgo trees because of the silent strength that they represent. In this way, they remind me of him. My Gi-Chan and I often sat in silence, but our shared understanding transcended words. Moreover, he was a man that stood for what was right, and one that you could always rely on. My first tattoo–a pair of ginkgo leaves on my right ankle–serves as a tribute to him.

Courtesy of Xia Lai ’24

I got my tattoo from my friend Xia Lai ’24, known on Instagram as @vassar_tatts. “I’ve been an artist all my life, specifically drawing. It is one of my favorite things in the whole world,” Lai shares. They began experimenting with tattoos as an art form during the pandemic: “I did my first on my toe, just to see how painful it would be. It was a little triangle, which I didn’t do deep enough, so it flaked off during the healing process.” She adds, “It has now evolved into a crescent moon and triangle thingy. I don’t really know what it is, but it’s cute.”

Although Lai didn’t initially intend to tattoo other people, there seemed to be a lot of interest on campus. Furthermore, Lai “hated the idea of someone doing it themselves because they didn’t want to go off campus to get one or pay a ton for [one at] a tattoo parlor.” They joke, “Don’t let your roommate give you a shitty stick and poke at 3 a.m. on a Wednesday night when you are mid-mental breakdown!” She explains how this way is more painful, time consuming and likely to cause an infection.

 

Courtesy of Alisha Arden ’25

I had been considering a tattoo for a while, but it was my friend Alisha Arden ’25 who inspired me to follow through with my plans. Over October break, they got a ‘tranarchy’ tattoo. Arden tells me, “I had been planning to get a matching tranarchy tattoo with my best friend for a while and so decided to take the opportunity that I had.” Tranarchy, they explain, is “essentially a combination of the transgender and anarchy symbols…I thought it was fitting that my first tattoo would be something so definitively representative of my identity.” 

Furthermore, Arden believes that “Tattoos can be a way of reclaiming your own body for trans people and [are] also not assumed to be gendered (as so many ways of expression can be), and I can safely say that having this tattoo and the process of getting it has been very gender affirming.”

 

Courtesy of Zola Sullivan ’25

Of her twenty-nine tattoos, Zola Sullivan ’25 has a section for her Mema, “it’s mainly sewing themed since she was a talented seamstress and we sewed a lot together. My favorite in that section is a needle with thread that wraps around my ankle and into my Mema’s name in cursive.” They note that, while they are unsure of how many more they might want in the future, “I do want to be pretty covered as I see myself as a canvas.” 

Like Xia, Sullivan also has experience as a tattoo artist. Sullivan’s first tattoo takes the form of a small mushroom on her ankle. They believe that “The most important thing is that your tattoos bring you happiness. In the end, whether you enjoy past tattoos or not, they tell a story about who you have been and I think that is just as valuable as the initial enjoyment you have for new tattoos.”

Courtesy of Sarays Cobo Sanchez ’25

The first tattoo Sarays Cobo Sanchez ’25 got is of their niece’s and nephew’s initials with a symbol for each. She explains each symbol: “I have an “L” for my oldest niece and a crown because she is a princess, an “A” for my niece that passed away and [now has] angel wings, and an “O” for my nephew with a baby foot since he’s the youngest.” The tattoo which holds the most significance to them, however, is of Smurfette, since it’s reminiscent of their childhood, “Sometimes we get so involved with the day to day and our current issues that we forget about simpler times when all that mattered was the new Smurf movie.”

Courtesy of Sarays Cobo Sanchez ’25

Cobo Sanchez hopes to get more tattoos in the future, “I want my body to tell a story of who I am and what really matters to me…When I’m old and wrinkly, I won’t regret my tattoos because they meant that I lived.”

Courtesy of Jean Fassler ’24

Jean Fassler ’24 has a tattoo of a small dog in Keith Haring’s art style on their right arm. They chose this spot because “it’s visible but not necessarily noticeable if I get a job in the future that doesn’t let me have tattoos.” Fassler decided to get it done this past August, after finishing the first full draft of a play they had been working on for three years, Therewolves. They explain, “I chose the dog because the play is about werewolves, among other things, and I wanted to commemorate it without it being too obvious or tacky.”

Fassler’s tattoo, however, came with complications, of which included an overnight hospital stay. They believe the medical complications to have been unrelated, but nevertheless, their parents blame the tattoo. Despite this, Fassler hasn’t regretted their tattoo and has received many compliments. “When I first got it, it was a sign that I’d finished a project, the first of many plays I want to write going forward. Now, it’s a reminder that I’m a bad bitch: you can’t kill me,” they joke.

Courtesy of Clio Maya-Johnson ’25

While many people advise against having tattoos done by friends rather than professionals in order to minimize the risk of infection, for some, the artist adds to the significance. Having my tattoo done by Lai was important to me, as I now carry with me the art of a dear friend. For Clio Maya-Johnson ’25, her tattoo artist was her twin sister. 

Maya-Johnson’s tattoo is of a brown bear, an animal her sister felt connected to since they were kids. Her sister has a similar tattoo, but of Clio’s favorite animal. “Having a piece of her tattooed on my body in the same spot she has a piece of me, especially done by her hand, makes me feel grounded,” Maya-Johnson shares. She also notes that “Even though mine is meaningful, I don’t think a tattoo has to have a big reason behind it to make it not ‘regrettable.’”

 

Courtesy of Gabor Fu Ptacek ’22

Gabor Fu Ptacek ’22 has a similar mindset to Maya-Johnson when it comes to tattoos. He tells me that, of the five tattoos he currently has, none necessarily hold a personal meaning. At the same time, “None of them are ‘for’ anyone else,” he explains, “they’re all beautiful adornments, not things that need serious significance.” Ptacek hopes to someday be covered in tattoos from the neck down. To him, tattoos have been a way for him to reclaim his body and appearance. “For a long time I struggled with feeling at home in my own body/feeling comfortable with my appearance, but tattoos have helped me love my body more by filling the space with things that I care about,” he explained.

Society has a general tendency to frown upon tattoos, viewing them as a mark of delinquency; however, I believe that tattoos should be viewed for what they are: art. Tattoos provide a means of expression: for some, they hold memories; for others, they simply add to a person’s overall aesthetic. Perhaps we’ll regret them when we’re older, or perhaps we won’t. But as my friend Eva Lennert ’25 elegantly put it, “If that’s what we regret in 20 years, we’ve lived a good life.”

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