Photo courtesy of Laila Said
Two years ago, when I brought up the issue of getting tattooed with a friend, he vehemently disagreed. He called it “scarring,” “burning one’s skin” and downright foolish and irresponsible. He even sent me a screenshot of a woman who had written a post on Facebook, lamenting the day she decided to get a tattoo after the red dye her artist had used on her caused her skin cancer. She had to undergo three surgeries to remove her tumor. I wasn’t deterred.
My friend was disappointed when I returned to Egypt proudly tattooed. He was scared for me, and he was the only one who stood up for what he perceived to be my sake. But I never got to explain why I would risk so much for a tattoo most people didn’t know I had. It wasn’t for them; and he knew that, but I never said more.
To me, getting a tattoo was not a whim or a desire to ride the wave of popularity. Not at all. Getting a tattoo is akin to marking one’s growth on the bedroom’s door sill.
If you’re waiting for the reason, there isn’t one; it was a culmination of blows. In 2015, I had broken apart so much it was, to me at least, a miracle I am still to put together. I witnessed my mother undergo her first year of dialysis and it hit me that I no longer had the luxury of being foolish or irresponsible. I was 19, but I had missed my entire childhood it seemed. I blinked and suddenly I was now in charge of taking care of her.
I was barely holding at the seams. Even if I had mentioned it passing or even complained sometimes about how hard it was for me, I never really said anything I felt. It was just a rule for me; I never say exactly how I feel. I always say the ‘adjacent feeling,’ the neighboring one, the one that isn’t dominating or isn’t going to bother me for long.
But poet Dante Collin once said that tragedy was synonymous with silence, and the phrase has stuck with me ever since. “When my uncle was killed we had to send out a search party to find my father’s voice,” Collin recited. I, on the other hand, hadn’t recognized that I needed to send a search party for mine.
When I looked around me and decided to ask several other people who had tattoos why they’d done it, I found that most of them were doing the same thing I was; trying to hold onto something.
“‘Hallelujah’ [the word he got tattooed on his arm] played a part in reminding me that things get better, despite how bad it seems at the time or despite how you think you won’t grow out stronger and better; you will, eventually. Anytime I feel the same way, I remember all the times I worked my way out of whatever [hardship] was going on, what I call a ‘Hallelujah Point,’” Mina Ghattas Ayoub explains during an online interview. Ayoub wanted something to hold onto; a whistle, a lighthouse, a lifebuoy.
Mirit Agaiby - Photo by Hend Hodhod
Trapped in a toxic relationship for over a year, Mariam Naghi got a bird tattooed close to her heart to remind her that freedom wasn’t a lifeless chant in a rally. Eventually, her ink has become a part of who she is. “At first, it was really exciting and I couldn’t stop obsessing over it. Then it became a part of me like it’s always been there, you know?” she says.
Mohamed ElBegirmy got a phrase tattooed on his arm from the novel The Spiritualist. “The problem of the people is that they are not in control of their emotions. To deny is to invite madness and to accept is to control,” the novel read, and ElBegirmy got the second sentence inked on his forearm because it spoke to him. He got tattooed to conquer.
Nour Khaled chronicled loss and release with a little balloon drawn above her ankle. “It symbolized letting go, of my grandfather and in general, and making sure I always keep my inner child alive,” she says. It also symbolizes “happiness with simplicity,” she adds.
We all wanted—one way or the other—to hold onto something. To say something and to show it. We wanted to celebrate. We wanted to tell the world that we can handle this. So, we all chose a symbol of strength, a starting point and a finish line, and we all marked how far we’d go between the markers we put down for ourselves.
Ayoub chose a prayer and a compass with his mother right in the middle to remember where he’s going and where he came from. ElBegirmy chose a wakeup call, Naghi chose a pair of wings, and Khaled chose to accept letting go. There were others who were simply celebrating life and their own selves; to simply say “this is who I am.”
Photo courtesy of Mina Ghattas Ayoub
Shahir Eskander, a physicist by profession and a musician by passion, opted for a tattoo that would display his two passions in life. Combining two designs together, one to do with physics and the other to do with music, he came up with his own portrayal. It took him three years to find the right one.
It was the same for Laila Said, who dons a yin and yang right below the back of her neck. “I’ve always felt a connection with nature, and I’m happiest when I’m near the sea and mountains. My tattoo is basically the yin and yang symbol, with the sea on one side and the mountains on the other. It resembles the unity of life, the wholesomeness of nature in and of itself and within me at the same time. My two favorite elements of nature and I am not complete without either.”
As for me, I was becoming. I was becoming a survival mechanism; I was becoming, whether I liked it or not, someone else. Someone my surroundings required. So I chose a phoenix because they consume themselves by themselves into better, stronger creatures. They die unto themselves and are reborn of themselves: a natural process unfolding unseen, unheard; in solitude, silently.
Our bodies sustain wounds and scars all the time; some heal and some don’t. I can’t stop my skin from randomly getting torn by a broken wooden rod and I couldn’t help my leg from scarring that time I fell on coral reefs by the beach. I don’t deny my scars; but why should I be held back from showing you one that I couldn’t speak about? What’s the difference? Is flesh really more
valuable than what is inside?
I got tattooed because I wanted an anchor. Everyone seemed scared of permanent and I craved it badly. Maybe that was the thing for me: I was so heartbroken over everything; I was losing with time that I just wanted one thing, one thing that
would still be constant.
Two years and a half later, that tattoo has become akin to that scar that I’ve had on the back of my left hand ever since I was two: it never changes and I never mind.
Photo courtesy of Mina Ghattas Ayoub