I Tattooed Innocence and Freedom on My Skin and in My Soul
Tattooing is an art, much like painting or writing. A painter and the owner of his painting, a writer and the reader of his book, the tattoo artist and the tattoo bearer; both express their individuality by pouring ink on the blank page.
People tattoo what’s they think important or beautiful: the teenage girl with the name of her high school sweetheart on her right breast, the muscular trainer in my gym with dragons flying down his biceps, my yoga teacher with a small spiritual symbol on his arm. For me, I let my skin be drilled by needle and bit my lip through the blood because I wanted to permanently write on my body a lifetime reminder of what I chose to become.
I have two tattoos. On my left foot: “See the World”, and on the back of my left shoulder: a feather.
I had my first tattoo in February 2012. Alone, I walked though a tiny, dirty alley of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, entered a small tattoo workshop, gave my foot to a mid-age male tattooist who looked even dodgier than his workplace. Unknowing what compelled me, I walked through that narrow alley after a bewildering failure that shattered my identity. Perhaps, I needed the pain on my skin to feel and understand the pain in my heart. Perhaps, in the midst of nothingness when all had been lost, what I wanted was to create myself again.
On that winter day, I tattooed on my left foot “See the World”. 3 months after, by the end of my soul-stretching internship in Poland, I had another tattoo, this time on the back of my left shoulder: a feather. Almost 3 years has passed from that turning point: the failure, the choice to sweep away my ego’s shattered pieces to rediscover what I was made of. In that process, I grew more than I had imagined. So did the meaning of my tattoos.
At the start, “See the World” simply meant to travel, board a plane, see new places, meet new people – very literal, considering that it is on my feet. That’s what I did. From New York to Sydney, from Rome to New Delhi, from Moscow to Singapore, from Amsterdam to Jakarta, from Cairo to Beijing, countless hours on trains and planes and foot and sometimes rickshaws. The more I travelled the more I realized an important truth. That the miles I journeyed outward would mean nothing, if I failed to journey inward.
Home is wherever we feel centered, safe and free, isn’t it? For a deeply-rooted ego, travelling is nothing but a trip far away from home – if he has a home at all. The tourist sees much but doesn’t learn much, for his vision is obscured by his narrow binoculars. A true traveller brings home everywhere, she seeks exploration, amazement, understanding, by letting go of judgment and seeing the world with innocent eyes. She learns in every steps she walks, even if she never walks outside her home town. This is what “See the World” means for me now.
The feather symbolizes freedom. I wished to spread my wings and soar. I used to think that freedom means being able to go wherever I wanted to go, and do whatever I wanted to do. Only recently I understood that freedom is present not when we act on our own terms, but when we think on our own terms.
Ultimate freedom is freedom in our head – freedom of the mind. I have learned the importance of taking nothing by default: no received wisdoms, no conventional mindsets, no existing norms; of being skeptical towards all doctrines, dogmas, authorities. I want to think with my own brain, judge with my own conscience, and make choices that stay true to who I am. Freedom is also to express myself without fear. I have understood that I have a voice and so does everyone else. I want to share my voice and contribute to the grand symphony of this world.
Most importantly, freedom is being an egoless nonconformist, who rebels not out of arrogance but out of curiosity. Why curiosity? Gazing at the magnificence of life and the mystery of our world, I can’t help but feeling overwhelmed by reverence and a sense of wonder? What is better to do with the little time I have on this earth than to be a curious soul who never stops learning?
That’s the stories of my tattoos. I will never regret having them, not because they are tattooed on my skin, but because they are tattooed in my soul. They are me screaming out loud: “It doesn’t matter who I was. Don’t you dare to define me. This is what I choose to become!”
It’s the end of 2014. My resolutions are to see the world with innocent eyes, and to soar in freedom with a beating heart of an egoless nonconformist. In 2015, and for a lifetime.
Happy New Year, my readers
May you tattoo in your soul what you choose to be.
In case you are curious, here are two memoirs of mine that were mentioned: Your Life’s Biggest Failure can Open the Door to Stillness, That was My Case, and Cleaning Mirror in Strange Land: How Does it Feel to be Yourself