I got my second tattoo yesterday. It is a paper plane, embellished in the watercolour style and is etched flying off my right wrist. This is a depiction of what I’m calling my Paper Plane Philosophy, which formed the basis of my first ever performance piece last month.
To explain this fully, I need to introduce you to my relationship with tattoos.
I have been interested in tattoos since I first heard about them as a kid. I read about sailors and criminals and other ‘bad boy’ elements flaunting designs over their body. Closer home, maids sometimes carried a ubiquitous blue etching on their arms, usually a name or a religious reference. And an occasional classmate had a cross (in the same blue) imprinted under their thumb. Tattoos spoke of low education, a life of physical labour and a high degree of religious faith/blind belief. The life I was being raised to live, was a confusing clash of the attitudes of this section but with the expectations of a more rational, successful, ‘respectable’ segment of society.
I can see the dysfunctional, conflicting sources of India’s urban ethos more clearly today. It took me several years of adulthood to be able to detach from these oppressive, tangled notions and fully embrace an art form that I liked because of how it spoke to me. A tattoo was for life. A tattoo was personal. A tattoo would always be my own. At a more granular level, I was 26 by the time I felt able mentally and financially to stand by what I knew would be a solitary decision to get a tattoo.
Tattoos were not common back in 2005. They were not the urban fad that they are today. I didn’t know anyone in my social circle or my family who had ever had a tattoo. Google was still building on a sparsely populated internet, Mark Zuckerberg was an unknown college kid and tweets were the sound Tweety bird made. All I had to go by was my own mind.
Even back then, I was wary of committing to a symbol that had specific, widespread significance. I didn’t want any religious motifs, well-known images like the peace symbol or flowers or even for that matter, words. Yes, words are symbols too and commitments to a certain idea and a certain language. I know now that I’ve always been a free spirit inside my mind, the only place I experience total freedom. I was not going to let a permanent tattoo tie me down to a particular way of thinking.
The dragon was an image I had liked ever since I read ‘The Hobbitt’ as a kid. I had also seen images of Chinese dragons in folk and popular culture. The dragon was a symbol that was not highly common, slightly recognisable and which meant vastly different things to different people. I chose to pick the fire-breathing element and impose the value of fearlessness on it.
All of this sounds very grandiose and well-structured now. But back then it was just a collection of various senses and lingering notions. And getting up one day and saying,
“I’m going to get a dragon tattoo.”
I’ve written about the experience of getting my first tattoo. In the years that followed, this image brought the power that I assigned to it, into every aspect of my life. Isn’t that what every kind of belief system is? Giving power to an idea with your belief and letting that power flow through your life, in an unadulterated, pure manner. It has been ten years since that that tattoo came into my skin and they have been ten years of big gestures, dramatic highs (and lows). My life from 26 to 35 has been about blazing my way through career, love life, religion, family, health and hobbies with passion, focus, individuality and burning ambition. I have grown to love who I became and the tattoo that symbolised my becoming this.
Now, it’s time to add another idea to my belief pantheon. My dragon years have accumulated a lot of things — achievements and admiration in equal measure to heartbreak, disappointment and confusion. There are a lot of jagged edges inside me, fractured expectations, frayed relationships and the like. I have also emerged as a writer. And one of the truest truths I’ve heard since I became one, is the idea that,
“To become a writer, just hold a pen to a nerve and bleed.”
But in my writing and bleeding, there is now an excess of fire. It’s time to rise up to the higher wisdom, the more superior power of knowing I can but not needing to. I know now that words, passionate words, are my strength. I know I can do battle, charm someone and cut down those I don’t like, using words. I think what I need now is to learn the lessons of letting go, of flight, of whimsy, of lightness and light. A paper plane symbolises all of that to me.
I am still powered my dragon philosophy of burning passion unsullied by social expectations or lies. But I’m now adding the ability to fly, to these. I have been a raging dragon for ten years. It’s now time to board a paper plane and fly.