and Proud of It
(c) Heidi Schallberg
Before bar codes on library books were scanned in computerized records, I had a plastic library card with raised numbers. After the librarian punched cards in a machine to check out my books, wet purple ink coated the numbers. The librarian usually asked me, a five-year-old bookworm, if I wanted the imprint of my library card number on the top of my hand. Naive about the historical implications of having an identifying number inked on me, I often said yes.
In high school, I decorated myself in fabric instead of library ink. The sophomore at the locker next to mine once asked me if I owned a pair of jeans. I didn't. I struggled with physics labs decked in non-corrective, rose-colored glasses; a green velveteen hat with ornate gold braid; black silk pants; a black velvet vest with gold braid; and black, cloth Chinese shoes pained with gold spirals and Greek key patterns. On more casual days, I wore baggy brown pants covered in batiked parchment suns and my denim jacket. I had painted the jacket with a spiky ankh, shackled in chains which dripped tears. I captioned it "From behind Monet's cataracts." No wonder my history teacher told me that I should be able to be myself no matter what I was wearing--it was obviously a lesson I needed to learn.
Silk and Chinese slippers were fabulous for skulking around high school halls, but then I went to college. Transferring to an inner city bus from the suburbs on my way to 8 a.m. art history classes demanded urban camouflage and insulation. I bought Docs and jeans.
Since college, I've adopted and discarded other outward identities, from the green blazer I wore when I started my corporate peon job to my chunky-heeled Mary Janes and striped Betsey Johnson dress. Now I wear a uniform of black and green. The simpler the clothes, the happier I am.
Today, I would decline the librarian's offer of ink. Now tattoos make me want to run for a bar of soap. So when a friend of mine wanted to get a tattoo and asked me to come along for moral support, I balked. She had her reasons for wanting a bear tattooed on her belly. After years of others inflicting pain on her body, she was taking charge of her body by making her own mark.
Still, I dreaded the tattoo parlor. I imagined it as a grimy, dark hole, but it was a clean and bright space in a suburban strip mall. First it was a ritual: the tattoo artist stripped off his shirt (revealing skinny, tattooed arms sticking out of his tank top) and turned his black cap around, bill to the back, before he started to work. Then it was a celebration: we ate chocolate desserts with milk afterwards.
If it was so celebratory, then why don't I have a tattoo? I thought I didn't need a symbol to represent anything, but then I realized that recently, I did crave a bodily talisman. Specifically, I wanted a diamond solitaire necklace, an Elsa Peretti one in platinum from Tiffany. Aside from its simple beauty, the diamond symbolized the difficult year I just lived through. Immense pressure compresses and transforms carbon into diamonds. I wanted the necklace as a tangible reminder of the beauty that can burst from difficulty and ugliness. I wanted to be able to reach up and touch it as a talisman, a reassurance, and a beacon--much like what my friend's bear is to her. (Although at $850 compared to a $60 tattoo, she would have gotten the better deal.)
I didn't buy the diamond, and I won't get a tattoo. At the tattoo parlor, I couldn't help imagining that ankh design from my high-school jacket inked on me. What I might have wanted tattooed on me in the throes of adolescent moodiness wouldn't speak for me now--but I'd be stuck with it.
Now I'd rather speak for myself. I've grown from living in illustrated T-shirts to admiring, but not buying, them. I don't want anything emblazoned on me anymore, even if it's my illustration or the name of a zine I love. I don't want to be a walking billboard. Far from suppressing personality, plainer appearances can truly reveal it. If you're not relying on a hip zine T-shirt or a designer label--or a tattoo--to speak for or to you, you've got to speak for yourself.
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