December 4, 2006

Self-Portrait Challenge- RED: One Of These Birds Is Doing His Own Thing

This month's Self-Portrait Challenge prompt is simply RED. I have taken some liberties with my interpretation of this prompt, so bare with me and enjoy:

Inevitably, the first time someone sees my tattoos they ask one or both of the following questions: “Do your tattoos mean anything?” and/or “Did that hurt?” This questioning shouldn’t bother me, because I think most people who have tattoos are looking for some type of attention, but I am still a bit annoyed. Sure, tattoos are a cheap ploy at making people look at you; they are a way of saying, “Hey look at me and notice how unique I am”, but you would think that people could use a bit of imagination when it comes to viewing tattoos.

There is more to tattooing than simple vanity. For people who are “inked”, we couldn’t imagine our bodies without the art on our skin. We feel that the tattoos are more than mere ink beneath our skin, but that the images come from somewhere deeper than our physical selves. Our ethereal imaginations are made physical, on the most organic canvas in the world. We see each other walking down the street and we quietly admire each other’s arms or backs. We don’t ask questions because we know the answer to why someone would cover their entire arm in a scene they’ve seen in a dream. We simply admire and let the art speak for itself. If you have to ask a person what their tattoos mean then you don’t understand tattoos. I feel tattoos, when they are more than mere symbols, should be interpreted like any other art. Art allows for many people to look at the same thing and attach their own meaning.

But still, people continue to ask me, “why birds?” or “what does the red one mean?” I have two half sleeves of ink on my forearms. They are symmetrical images of fish and birds. Both images are based on a painting that my father painted when I was a child. I have been in love with the idea behind the print since I was very young. In the picture, there is a school of about twenty-five black fish swimming in unison, while one solitary red fish swims in the opposite direction. My dad, although I don’t think has ever read Robert Frost, was a firm believer in taking the path not taken philosophy, and he instilled in me the idea that following the crowd is not usually the best idea. Lead don’t follow was the mantra in my house growing up. Since I can remember, I have seen myself as the red fish. I have imagined myself as the young adventurer never satisfied with the norm, always swimming against the stream.

These days, I usually just nod and smile when people say, “you must really love fish.” I did not get my tattoos for the entertainment of others. I honestly feel they are a part of my spiritual make up. I don’t believe in a traditional god; I have no church and there is no creed I adhere to. I am simply trying to find my balance in the world, and my birds and fish are simply visual manifestations of the battles I fight on a daily basis as I breathe and cook and work and live my life.

I have been thinking lately that part of having tattoos is the ability to rethink and challenge your previous, perhaps more immature ideas. Because the images are so permanent, it is vital that you are always asking yourself if the illustrations etched beneath your skin still represent the person who dons them. Now that my twenties are over, and I have calmed to the idea that it is me against the world, the idea of the Red fish or bird needs re-examination. I still feel that it is important to be an individual and stand up for my beliefs, but as I immerse myself in my two favorite isms: Buddhism and Communism, I am starting to see that perhaps this idea of the individual may actually be detrimental to the universe.

Why do we feel the need to differentiate ourselves to such a degree? The American Dream forces us to be dynamic individuals, but where are we taught that it is more important to be a team player? I am starting to feel that to live for the benefit of others is a much more admirable lifestyle. Perhaps working as a member of a community is more important than fighting against it. The older I get, I am learning that perhaps always fighting against the world may not be the best solution in creating a more sustainable, peaceful world.

Please don’t get me wrong- I have not sold out or diluted my ideals. I still love the fact that I refuse to be a sheep. I guess what I am saying is that it may be more mature to try and work with the other sheep to walk in the right direction. I am no more special or unique than any other being in the universe, says the Buddha, because I am part of a greater whole. I am no better than any class, says Karl Marx, because we are all trying to build a more just society. I am a team player; I am nothing, because I do not exist separately from others. There are no red birds or black birds. There are only birds, and together we fly, sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it. I want to work on using my energies to find the flow rather than always flying in the opposite direction.

They say that you can read a person’s entire life in their tattoos. The people of Borneo, where tattoos began, map their travels and stories in ink to mark where they have been and what they have experienced. People think that tattoos are permanent and fixed, but in reality they evolve and grow as we change and mature. They can and should be adapted and manipulated to reflect the ever-changing soul beneath the skin. The barer of the images must simply be responsible enough to update his or her stories. Perhaps it is time to add a few birds of other colors to my arm. The single Red bird has served me well, but it is not important for me to be so rare these days. Untill I get around to it, however, the single Red bird in a flock of black ones will always have a special place in my heart. It is hard to admit that you do not exist as a separate self. This attachment to the self is the cause of suffering the Buddha teaches us. To realize that perhaps the Red bird is no different than the black ones, or actually he is no different than the clouds, or the rain, or the sun…well? These are the ideas of which enlightenment are made. The journey continues...


  1. As always, your posts and photos give a lot of food for thought. You definitely are still the red bird but with your new perspective as a husband and father. Maturity......hmmmm........

  2. athena1:44 AM

    once upon a time in my culture you could read a person's life by their moko (or tatoo). the men usually had full face tatoos and the women had their tatoos on their lips and chin. we had no written language so their tatoos was also their signature.

  3. deeeeep.

    i love this. here is my thought on individuality. i think that a truly perfect society would be like water. each of us can be individual, beautiful and perfect in our own drop of rain or flake of snow or knob of hail. every individual is unique and special and vital. but the end goal, the final destination for every drop, is to come together as a giant body of water. moving and roiling and flowing together as one. if every drop took off in its own direction, there would be no ocean. but that doesn't make us as the individual unimportant or lemming-like. we need to celebrate ourselves and others for who we are, knowing that we all belong together in the giant sea of life.

  4. This was an AMAZING post on many different levels.

    I've always been hesitant to update the tattoos on my body that I don't like because it seems like it will just make it more difficult if I want to get them removed someday (plus I've been told one of them would be really hard to work around/cover up) but your post has really sparked thought.. which is what a good piece of writing should do.


    My tiny SPC tattoo pic looks very small in comparison! Your arm is beautiful.

    You must love birds (kidding!)


  5. kristen9:51 PM

    i love having my tattoos even if i'm not in love with some of the images.
    i've always loved the look of a sleeve and yours is captivating.

  6. beautiful post!
    "Live to love life, and love to live life" - Sammy Gouti

  7. this was a beautiful piece of writing and has left me much to think about.

    this balance you are finding, feels peaceful.

    although, i think you will always be someone that has strong, unique qualities that move people in the direction perhaps they are suppose to go.

    your tattoo is beautiful. i know it annoys you to be asked the meaning behind it but the story is full of wisdom and perhaps it is good for all to hear this. you are imprinted with a wonderful message, my friend.

  8. Anonymous3:31 AM

    File this in the "he just doesn't understand" category, but I've just never seen a picture that I liked so well that i wanted to be buried wearing it.

  9. You 'refuse to be a sheep'?! I concur... that's why this sheep is less likely to follow the herd. :)

    Thanks for remembering to share the link with me Jabiz. I see body art in a whole new way...

  10. Hi Jabiz,
    Thank you for sending me this link. I learnt a lot. Even from the humble faux pas I make on a continual basis when meeting someone with body art, yep I always ask those annoying questions.

    I wonder if expressing your individualism isn't still apart of being in that collective consciousness anyway. After all we were all designed differently,with a different purpose but for the collective good of the whole. Does it really matter what vehicle we've been given to fulfill that purpose and how we choose to decorate it? Maybe,maybe not. Isn't each journey unique, different and our perception of that experience depending on our individualism anyway? Ultimately we always find our way back to the true meaning of it all. Each one of us has our own egoic actions and minds to overcome it and that is the essence of it. Some people deal with an aging body fading beauty, others with an aging mind and depleted intelligence. Each person has their own journey and mountain to climb.

    I like the idea that your spiritual journey can be seen through a visual story on your body, and that perhaps overtime this story will change, if not visually at least spiritually. That is a wonderful way to appreciate your life.