My tattoos are a living ribbon connecting me to a sisterhood of “bad” or non-conforming South Asian girls who negotiate the same slippery slopes of multi-cultural identity.
The first time I ever saw a woman with a tattoo was in Andrew Fleming’s 1996 film The Craft. Seeing the ink on Fairuza Balk’s witchy skin did something to 16-year-old me that I had no language to describe. The next time was Bai Ling’s character in The Crow: her enormous full-back piece gave me chills. I was already quietly deciding that I would one day look like that.
What solidified my obsession with tattoos was meeting a tattooed woman for the first time, a Turkish colleague of my mother’s who had a small butterfly on her ankle. When I inquired about it, she insisted it was the biggest regret of her life and told me never to get one. It would affect my job prospects, people would think of me differently, and I’d regret it too.
I nodded, while disregarding every one of her warnings.
Soon, every chance I got, I was doodling on myself. I’d ask my artist friends to draw on me in the spots I couldn’t reach.
These impermanent sketches would cause row after row at home.
“Sri Lankan girls don’t have tattoos!” my father shouted. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
“But American girls do!”
“Then go be bloody American.” He washed his hands of me.
Unfortunately, there was no getting away from my South Asian-ness: my brown skin gave me away, as well as a deeply ingrained notion of what was proper. I was a walking transgression.
Being biracial and a Third Culture Kid in a time where there was no awareness and no understanding of — or compassion for — a hybrid identity wasn’t easy. Having a conservative Sri Lankan father with sexist, and often twisted, ideas of what it means to be a woman only made matters worse, and increased the already staggering social pressures I was under trying to survive and navigate in a minefield childhood.
I wasn’t the only South Asian girl who was informed that tattoos weren’t for us. Sri Lankan American author Nayomi Munaweera tells me:
“I was brought up with the idea that tattoos were not for me. They were for white folks, and then later they were for brown men but certainly not for brown women. I’m still one of the few Sri Lankan women I’ve seen with such a huge piece.”
With roots in Andhra Pradesh, India, Swati Rayasam remarks:
“My parents were shocked and surprised, and questioning whether or not I knew the permanence of my decision.”
Biracial Indian and white woman Premala Matthen says:
“I was certainly raised with the idea that tattoos were for other people and not me, but it wasn’t a race thing. My mother’s family certainly looked down on the idea of tattoos. I think that was more a class thing. It was the idea that tattoos are not for respectable people with respectable careers.”
Pakistani Mashal responds:
“I was raised with the belief that tattoos are not allowed in our religion. But within our religion there are sects, and one sect says it’s allowed as long as there’s no eyes and no living thing.”
Sarah Astarte is also Pakistani, and notes:
“I was raised to think that tattoos were not something that were for everyone, but for sailors, thugs, gangsters and inmates. … My family did not approve of my tattoos, and my mother scolded/shouted at me on more than one occasion. It did not deter me at all. I got the tattoos then dealt with the fallout. They were living from their values and I was living from my own. ”
Drawing on myself gave me a feeling of control. I would look in the mirror and see an amorphous, racially ambiguous person. Even temporary ink on my skin gave me edges I desperately needed and a sense of grounding I wasn’t getting elsewhere.
The thought of tattoos as permanent — which scared other people — comforted me. There was so little that was stable in my life. Tattoos were unlike everything else; they wouldn’t shift and change and disappear.
It wasn’t just edges I needed when I saw myself, it was constants.
I got my first real tattoo at 19, and by now, at almost 38, I have a huge percentage of my body tattooed. And I’ve never regretted a single one, including the Pali/Sinhala script down my spine my father has made the butt of many jokes.
Again, it turns out I’m not the only South Asian woman for whom tattoos became a defining feature of personal growth, self-definition, and healing.
Indian Anita Felicelli explains:
“I think there’s something magical about illustrating your body, a way of making your body more your own — I was a visual artist when I was younger, and I guess I don’t see that much distinction between the skin and any other surface. Making marks anywhere is a way of making physical or real something intangible inside your mind or soul.”
Swati Rayasam mentions:
“I just love the idea of covering myself in art and I love storytelling, so I feel like tattoos are the epitome of that. Not every piece you get has to have incredible meaning or a deep story, but every tattoo is a little story in and of itself.”
Premala Matthen says:
“I love tattoos, because they’re an expression of where I am in my life and what meaning I’m deriving from my life. I then have long-term relationships with aspects of myself that are being made material at particular moments. By that I mean that my feelings about my tattoos change over time even though the tattoos themselves remain the same, and that’s interesting to me.”
Anita Felicelli also notes:
“I got my first tattoo when I was 20. It’s a circle on my back that says ‘passion’ and ‘empathy’ in a circle in Tamil. I felt like I was in a state of self-definition at the time, and wanted to somehow secretly code on my body what I felt were two most important ideals that I wanted to embody for the rest of my life. … All of these tattoos were an attempt to heal myself and claim my personhood as an adult.”
Nayomi Munaweera points out:
“There is a desire to adorn the body, to mark it in time and space. To claim the body and say, ‘This is mine, I will mark it as I wish.'”
After hearing these stories, my own tattoos have taken on a new level of meaning. My tattoos are now a living ribbon connecting me to a sisterhood of “bad” or non-conforming South Asian girls who were negotiating the same slippery slopes of multi-racial, transnational, and multi-cultural identities as me but in their own specific ways.
As someone who has always felt like an outsider, my tattoos give me a new sense of being at home in a community of like-minded bad girls who make our own rules.
This essay was inspired by Piyali Bhattacharya’s Good Girls Marry Doctors: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion.
Correction: a previous version of this article misidentified the tattooed character in The Crow. It also misattributed a quote from Anita Felicelli. The errors have been corrected.