Tatted Up

by Demetria L. Lucas

In 2001, I got a tattoo. I’d been talking about wanting a black butterfly, specifically one with an Afro, since my junior year. To me, it would have “deep” meaning, be less fashion statement, or trend, unlike the ever-popular “tramp stamp,” Asian symbols, or shoulder tats of their zodiac signs to which most of my friends had committed, some with regret, some without. In the way that butterflies are often used figuratively, mine would represent growth, the change from black girl to black woman as I, well, grew up and chased after my dreams.

At the time, my dreams seemed impossible, and there weren’t many people exactly rooting for me to flourish in the field I’d set my sights on — not because they weren’t supportive, but because they didn’t want me to get rejected. That butterfly would be my reminder, the sign to “keep going” and “keep growing” during all the times I knew I would want to give up and the people who cared about me most would tell me to throw in the towel and “come home.”

It took years to find the design I wanted, and I found it in a sort of happenstance way. During my first visit to Brooklyn, New York, in fall 2000, I was leaving the Brooklyn Museum when someone randomly handed my then-boyfriend a flier for a spoken word event. He casually read it as I watched. Then he flipped it over and I snatched it out of his hand and gasped. It was The Black Butterfly — exactly what I wanted, but didn’t know I did.

I saved the flier for a year. This would be permanent, for a lifetime. If I grew old — like, 80s old — it would still be with me, so what was the rush? On the one-year anniversary of the day I found it, I headed to a reputable tat parlor on West Fourth and had it inked on the back of my neck in plain view and surprisingly hidden at the same time.

I thought about that decision. It was calculated, careful, not whimsical. And it … concerns me that more people don’t. By people, I don’t mean Chad Johnson, who recently tatted an image of his soon-to-be ex-wife, who he was arrested for head-butting and currently is refusing to divorce; or Rihanna, who just got inked with a gigantic image of the Egyptian goddess Isis with her full wingspan extending across Ri-Ri’s rib cage; or even Chris Brown, who just got a “Mexican sugar skull” on his jugular (that looks like the photo of his battered ex). They’re celebrities; they don’t count, even if they do influence.

I’m thinking more like the young women I see on the train with some man’s name in loopy cursive across their biceps or neck marking them as so-and-so’s “girl,” or the cartoon characters on their boobs, or the guys with scrolls of their favorite rap verse on their bicep or money signs and stacks of bills. I’m sure they have meaning, otherwise they wouldn’t be tatted, but I wonder how that plays out when they’re 35, much less when they’re 70.

I enjoy sangria too regularly to make a claim with any authority that the body is a temple, but I do put forth that is a canvas. We should all think twice, if not thrice, about how we paint it.

Demetria L. Lucas is the author of A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life. ABIB is available to download and now in paperback. Follow her on Twitter at @abelleinbk.

  • http://gravatar.com/opulenceochre Lilah

    I love the concept of your tattoo, of a black butterfly. I’m sure, it is very unique. I do have a tattoo of my husband’s name on my chest, and he has my name on his. It’ll be 10 years of marriage for us, next May. However, I think that my situation is not that common. I have friends that want to cover up their tattoos of their exes on them.

  • shadow

    I have tats of my son’s name in the breast are and butterflies in the ankle area. Butterflies to me represented serenity. I thought long and hard about it before getting them since I know it is forever. I think many don’t put the thought in like they should and get really outrageous about it. Before each tat, I basically asked myself what I wouldn’t mind seeing on my body at 80 years old that looked appropriate to me ;)

  • trisha

    Dont like tattoos anymore they can get addictive and you end up looking like the guy at the carnival. I wont let my daughter get one but i used to think it was cute tho

  • OSHH

    I have four small tats, well thought out and strategicaly placed. All tasteful amd all unique to me.
    I’d like to point out the lower back is an ideal spot for a tat. Ironically it is a discrete location, and I wish folk would get over calling it a tramp stamp.

  • Yb

    I don’t think I will ever get a tattoo, but I do like to admire some from afar. For some people their tattoos look like masterpieces of art.

    I used to body police and shame people who would get tattoos (your body is a temple spiel) but I can’t control what one does to their body.

  • tc

    I have four tats, all for very important people/moments in my life. I thought about each and every one of them and placed them in places usually not seen. I think tats are very personal and should be considered heavily. They are with you for ever.

  • Fit_MissC

    I was talking to my girl this morning about Rihanna’s new tattoo which I think is beautiful, but not the tribute her Granny Dolly would be cool with. Her choice of placement will not be as trendy as her clavicle or rib ones. I’ve got some tattoos and think you should definitely take some time to think it through before committing to forever.

  • Jess

    I have several tattoos, and I planned out the design to each and every one years in advance. I also mapped out out a cohesive deign so that each one complements the other and maintained an artistic balance on my body. But that’s the designer in me.

  • http://twitter.com/gennatay Gina (@gennatay)

    I have two tattoos, my first the Chinese symbol of love on my right shoulder and the second is the phrase, “GOD is with me always” in Arabic. I am thinking of getting a 3rd the phrase “GOD grant me the Serenity” in Latin. I see nothing wrong with tattoos as long as they mean something.

  • Crystal

    I have never understood the purpose of tattoos hence why I have never & will likely never get one. Are they for reminders of something/someone that I won’t be able to remember someday.

    Serious question, what is the purpose of a tattoo?

  • Amber

    I don’t think every tattoo has to have a deep meaning. Sometimes it can just be done for the aesthetic quality.

    I like the idea that @Jess had a keen eye for the placement/design of all her tattoos. That’s what I think is pretty important, more than “well what’s the meaning?” Not everyone is as artistically adept when it comes to what they ink on themselves. I try not to judge, but when I see dollar signs and money stacks (like the writer mentioned) I struggle not to cringe and frown too much.

  • ?!?

    These black entertainers have soooo many tattoos.

  • The Taker

    I’ve always wanted to get tattoos. I wanted to do half a sleeve but have it done in all these beautiful colors. I also wanted to do one on the back of my neck. I’m so scared though. Some of the most beautiful art I saw was done on people’s bodies, like walking murals. I do hate tattoos that look like they have been drawn by a 5 year old amped up on sugar and are cheap looking. But it aint my so body so whatever. I also hate when people try to body shame and police people about what they should/shouldn’t do to their bodies. Like who the hell are you?! That pisses me off to no end.

  • Anthony

    I know I am old and old fashioned, but I hate tatoos on women. As a straight man, I can think of nothing more beautiful than a woman’s body. There is absolutely nothing in ink that looks better than the handiwork of God that created the female body.

    Before anyone says it, I know women tatoo for themselves, and not the male gaze. I respect women’s decisions about their bodies. I just think a woman’s body unadorned with tatoos is the most beautiful thing in the world!

  • Jaslene

    A black butterfly with an Afro. Hell naw.

  • Amberella

    My 2 tattoos are a representation of struggles in my life. My first tattoo was a big red bow on my pelvic bone, and I got it because I was having body image issues, and the bow serves as a reminder that my body is a gift and that I should treat as such. My second consists of two hearts made into an infinity symbol on my wrist. After graduating I went into a deep depression, and that tattoo symbolizes the infinite love that I have for life, and how that love will keep me going even in the darkest of times. This year I’m contemplating getting a Sankofa tattoo, I just haven’t decided where yet. I think tattoos can be a great thing when executed properly.

  • Echo

    Love my ink!

  • LaNubiana

    What if the tattoos are traditional? I mean my grandma and my great grandmother both had tattoos. It’s our tradition. It’s a way to show womanhood, commitment to the higher power and in some cases tribal identity. Piercings and tattoos are part of our ancient African history (I’m not talking about the silly meaningless tattoos).


  • http://gravatar.com/nolakiss16 binks

    Personally, I hate the lines of what would it look like at such and such age or the reasoning excuses. There are plenty of people that are tattooed up who are 60+ with questionable tattoos and nobody says anything or people simply don’t care. Or that you have to go on this journey of significance to get a tattoo, it is great if that works for some folks but not everybody has to follow that route nor should they have too. As a fan of body art there is more to the culture than that. If your tattoo means something to you that is just the icing on the cake however, talking to some folks about their body art and them coming up with this long elaborate story of why they got it and defending it gets annoying because they are afraid to say I got it because I like the design. Granted I do think 90% of tattoos now have gotten trivial (whether they are meaningful or just because tats) but hey that’s what happens when something becomes less taboo personally I think the best tattoos are simple in a wonderful locations.

  • http://saidahali.tumblr.com Saidah Ali

    I adore tattoos, but I agree with two of the above recurring comments; a) some tattoos look cheap, trashy and/or cliche, and b) tattoos do NOT have to have “meaning.” Body art is just that; art. Some artists design based on an idea and others design based on what comes to mind and looks right.

    I’m planning three tattoos right now:

    a) A savanna umbrella tree with an elephant under it
    b) The outline of the African continent
    c) The Nelson Mandela quote, “There is no passion in living small- in living a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”

  • Amazonian Midget

    If I didn’t know any better, I’d say I wrote this message, word for word.

  • LeonieUK

    Me and my brothers all have the same tattoo in different places of our bodies. Mine is placed in my lower back, where I thought having something so connected to my spine, was very meaningful to me. Our parents hate it, but we all love it at it’s more about us as a unit.

    I am part of the ink community, and feel Black people don’t really embrace the culture and diversity we bring to the art, but maybe that is just my inside view looking out. Anyone who is contemplating a first or a new body of work, look up artists who’s specialism is in darker skin tones, and of course have an extensive portfolio of work, so you can see how they work on others. Otherwise check out sites like http://www.urbanink.com , this will really give you more information.

  • Anthony

    I know what you are talking about. I rememer when I was Sudan years ago, I would see Ethiopian or Eitrean refugee women with the cross tatooed on their foreheads. THose people did what was done in their culture. Among African Americans, the tatoo is not a long establishes tradition. Once again, people do what they want with their bodies. It is not my place to judge. I just know that I think untatooed bodies are more attractive for my tastes.

  • http://pinkslehuit.wordpress.com pinkslehuit

    I have 10 and they are all beautiful to me. I’m also gainfully employed in a corporate atmosphere. Face tats of the gucci logo aren’t my thing, but far be it from me to tell someone else they shouldn’t have gotten it.

  • Amber

    There is no single answer to that question. Many people see tattoos as a form of body art, or just art for the sake of art. Not everyone has some grand reasoning for getting a tattoo. Some are mementos of things that are meant to be remembered. For example, I have the Spanish Royal Crown tattooed on my back to represent my trip to Spain. I will never forget that. Or when someone commemorates the life of a loved one. That will also be remembered forever. And sometimes you get tattooed just because you like tattoos. Some people get souvenirs, others get tattoos.

  • Amber

    Also check out the documentary Color Outside the Lines, about black tattoo artists and tattooing on dark skin. COTLfilm.com

  • lw

    I have nothing against tattoos per se. But I hate seeing young folk under 25 who are covered in bad work. Back in the day it was seen as a mark of individuality. If everyone has them then it becomes a fad like anything else, done They are so common place now that it is more shocking (and lovely I think) to see someone who has none at all.

  • Rue

    I thought about tattoos but I cant abide to put something on that wont be coming off without some hefty bills and some tears. Also i think they are kinda corny. Pass.
    “I enjoy sangria too regularly to make a claim with any authority that the body is a temple…”=my new catch-phrase :)

  • Rue

    Also the whole “tattoos with meaning” thing makes me cringe with the lack of originality.

  • Veronica Tuesday

    I thought for a long time about my tattoo and where to place it. It’s on my right shoulder. I only ever remember it’s there when someone asks me what it means. I’ve had it for over 10 years and I still love it as much as I did that day in the East Village. It’s quite beautiful. And it makes me happy when I do catch a glimpse of it in the mirror. I’d get at least 2 more tattoos if I had the cojones, but alas, I have not yet grown them.

    I do agree with the comment above about retiring “tramp stamp”. We’re better than that and the meaning behind the phrase is repulsive.

    Funny enough, both of the exes with whom I’ve had long term relationships frowned upon tattoos. For some reason, that made me love mine even more.

  • tea samuel

    I have 4 tats> and yesterday I had wings added to my ankh. Each one means something special 2 me. And you can only see them if i wear sleeveless or short shorts. I do believe that it should be a personal reflect of ur live. And not because ur friends got one.

  • steffy

    As a kid I always knew I would be tattooed when I was an adult. I have one tattoo of a rose on my back to remind me of home. So, no matter where I was stationed I would always have a piece of home with me. Also, I have yet to meet an senior citzen with tattoos who actually care what other people thought about their tattoos.

  • http://twitter.com/VerbalTiye VerbalTiye (@VerbalTiye)


  • Celenia

    Not only do people need to think it two, three or four times they need to be careful who they let tattoo them. The other difference between Breezy and Rihanna’s tattoos and a lot of people I’ve seen is the difference in quality. Theirs can be considered art, whereas so many others just look like a 3 year old crayon chicken scratch.

  • Cari

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and there are a lot of ugly tattoos. Hopefully they have emotional beauty for the tatted, because they don’t enhance their physical beauty.

  • Cari

    You knew the term before choosing to get the tattoo there. How can you claim offense after the fact? You don’t like the connotations associated with the term, then be an example of whom the term does not fit, but don’t tell me I can’t use the term because simply because you’d like to be the exception.

  • http://twitter.com/JumpJunkieJoe Geechee Goddess (@JumpJunkieJoe)

    Tattoos. For as long as I can remember, even as a child I wanted to get a tattoo. I can’t 100% say that I don’t judge others and their tattoo choices. Those females who have their own names (as if they are going to forget it) or a boyfriend’s name do puzzle me. Or the many many people who have Chinese characters all over their bodies without doing any real research or giving a damn about Chinese culture also leave me mystified. But me personally, I love tattoos. I have 4 and just schedule an appointment to get another. Some are spur of the moment, some I put a lot of thought into. I have respect for those who choose to do either. I hate it when people say “what are you going to look like at 80?” Who promised you tomorrow? Who said you’re even going to make it to 30? Besides that it’s still my body, not yours. When I’m 80 I want to look back on all the amazing things I did, not on the amazing things I wish I did.

  • Pingback: Feminine Tattoo Designs Back Neck | World Class Tattoo Designs

  • Amber Loney

    I haven’t gotten one yet because I want to get into my career first.I want to be sure the choice is something that won’t interfere with that. People say to get it somewhere it won’t be visible, but you never know when it could. For instance, I had a friend who got one on her lower abdomen. You never saw it, but then what was the point I asked her. She said it was just to have one and she liked looking at it while she was in her underclothes. It was a big tattoo of a generic diamond and had the words “bling bling” written on the inside. Now, she was not ghetto, she was very put together and spoke properly, she just liked that style, gold tooth and all. We were really young, but her mother didn’t care at all if she got those things done to herself because her mom WAS ghetto. She landed a career with a reputable firm and had a dinner to attend one night. We went out shopping for a dress for the event. She found a gorgeous, flattering and elegant black dress with a area from the bottom of the breasts that made a unique curving pattern and it’s tail ended at the belly and it was sheer in that area. She tried it on. It fit, it was beautiful on her, and it was her…but her tattoo was visible. And it was less than flattering. She was one of only two black individuals to work at the firm, and the only black female. There would be no help for her if someone saw that, and suddenly the perfectly appropriate and jaw dropping dress would have been horrendously inappropriate, trashy, and “ghetto”. Needless to say, she put it back and settled for a cute plum dress that flared at the knees, but it was not as flattering as the other one, and she admitted she wished she could have gotten it instead. You never know when that tattoo you get will haunt you. My cousin who just recently turned 18 has over 10 already. He dresses thuggish, acts thuggish, and has criminal records. He won’t be going anywhere…and I wish I could say I was jumping to conclusions, but he will have to work way too hard, something he will not do.

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