For many years, when asked about getting ear piercings or tattoos, I would say, “I’m going out the same way I came in, with no extra holes or colors.”
That turned out to be a lie.
I (currently) have five tattoos, inked into my flesh in seven sessions, over the course of around 15 hours of my life. Each one of them has meaning for me, and a few are intended to mean things to other people. All of them are hidden if I wear long-sleeved shirts; only two are visible normally.
In order of application:
The Mani Mantra
Over my heart is tattooed the Sanskrit for the Mani Mantra (om mani padme hum). It is a complicated sigil to explain, so bear with me.
There is a painting called The Treachery of Images by René Magritte. I’m certain you’ve seen it. It is an image of a pipe and with the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (literally, “This is not a pipe”). The painting is a comment on the existentialist position that the symbol of a thing is not the thing itself.
Did you ever see the Bruce Lee film, Enter the Dragon? There is a short (but important) scene where Lee instructs a student. He has a great line: “Words are fingers that point at the moon. Once you see the moon, you no longer need the finger.” The word “apple” is not a physical apple, it is a representation of an apple.
The concept of “symbol” not being the “object” is one that has stymied philosophers for thousands of years. It seems basic, that words are representations.
The Mani Mantra is the opposite of that idea.
The Mantra is the embodiment of Avalokiteśvara, a bodhisattva who embodies the idea of compassion. In context, there is no difference between the bodhisattva and the words used to describe it. To say the words is to invoke the deity.
Many believe that reciting the mantra brings the world closer to perfection. The more it is said, the further we (as a an existing thing) walk down the path towards unifying compassion. In Nepal I obtained a prayer wheel. Inside there is a scroll upon which the mantra is written hundreds of times. Each time the wheel is spun, it is as if the mantra is said hundreds of times as well. Each spin brings us to compassion.
Likewise, every time I take a breath.
It is said that simply knowing that the mantra exists shall protect a person in the deepest of hells. So this tattoo serves a dual purpose: it is both a spiritual armor and an engine for bringing the universe into perfection.
The Protection Sigils
Some time ago I came into possession of a rare book that concerns itself with the practice of “Tibetan Demonology.” How this tome came into my possession is a story in and of itself:
One day a package arrived for me, sent from West Virginia by a friend. He explained thus: “My next door neighbor died of a heart attack last week, and a package was left on his doorstep the next day. I took it, opened it, and thought, ‘Brandon would love this’.” So he sent it to me.
The book’s author died at a young age, ostensibly from pneumonia. However, an urban legend has grown up around this, saying that the very demons he studied were those what caused his death. Accordingly, the book is considered cursed, the idea being that the demons in the world don’t necessarily want mere mortals to have the knowledge of how to protect themselves.
There are rules about handling this book. Never set it flat on the ground. Never point your feet at it. And so forth.
I have a fairly large library and many of the tomes within it concern themselves with spiritual things that I do not believe in. However, despite my relative atheism, I remain a pragmatist, and sometimes it is better to not anger Things We Do Not Understand.
So, of course, I got some protective sigils tattooed over my right kidney. From top to bottom, they protect me from:
- All kinds of evil caused by the eight classes of supernatural beings
- Epidemics and illnesses
- Injury caused by weapons
So more armor.
The Blue Birds and their Tree
I had been planning and designing this tattoo for three years before it was finally applied. It was such a large work that I wanted to be absolutely certain that I was going to cherish it for the rest of my life. It was laid out in two sessions, both lasting about five hours.
The tattoo changed during its construction. I had originally planned to have cherry leaves swirling down my arm, but after the first session both the artist and I agreed that hundreds of leaves probably wouldn’t work. I said, “well, how about some birds, then?” and he agreed that was a good idea.
I had envisioned several dark ravens flapping around in the moonlight. But when I arrived for my next appointment, he showed me a different vision entirely: a pair of fat little blue birds, happily singing in the sun. I was surprised for all of thirty seconds before I realized, with absolute certainty, that his direction was the only way to go.
At the time, I was going through Some Shit. I was depressed and dreary. I felt my life was going nowhere. If he had drawn up ravens, the tattoo would have become about winter. About life ending and shutting down. Instead, with the bluebirds, the image is about an eternal spring: renewal, hope, and moving ever forward.
From that day forward I decided to just trust the artists.
The Indelible Barnstar
Wikipedians express gratitude and congratulations by awarding each other virtual “Barnstars.” The idea is that “it takes many people to build the barn” and you have done your part. There are many, many types of Barnstars.
As a reward for his hard work, several of us pooled money together to buy my friend Oliver a tattoo. Heather designed the “Indelible Barnstar”: a Barnstar with crossbones. Several of us took him to the needle shop to get it; it was a thing. Even our Executive Director, Sue Gardner, showed up to watch.
Now, we’d been talking and joking during the days leading up to the event. Who else could be convinced to get a Barnstar tattoo? There was a lot of “if Sue gets one, I’ll get one.”
Well. I didn’t need a lot of convincing. My life is about Free Culture. To express that is a no-brainer. So I got one (and so did my friend Steven). They got theirs in black; mine in grey. Later I had color added to it.
For Wikimania 2012 I had a thousand temporary tattoos made of Barnstars and handed them out to everyone.
On the outside of my left forearm is tattooed the word “courage“. I got it with my friend Steven. He wanted a Barnstar on his left shoulder (to match the one on his right) and I said I would go with him to the needle shop because I wanted a new tattoo as well.
This tattoo is not for me. It is for other people.
I had been thinking a lot about the things that define me – my core values and principles. What I wanted to project to the world and what I wanted to see reflected there. I thought long and hard about what those were, and I came up with a mantra to use going forward:
“Let courage be thy bulwark and compassion be thy sword.”
The shield is how we react to the world. The weapon is how we respond. There are many awful and amazing things that happen to us in our journeys; all should be met with unflinching courage. Compassion for the world is how we cleave it.
Whether or not my parents and their parents intended it, I was instilled with a great deal of courage. Courage is not the same thing as “fearless”. Those who lack fear are stupid. Many situations call for fear and its absence is dangerous.
Courage is acting despite being afraid.
I think everyone has courage but they forget. For a time, Dan Rather ended his broadcasts by saying “Courage” to the audience. I liked that; it was inspiring.
The left arm is classically where one wears a shield. Hence its location: outwards-facing, towards the world.
I’m thinking about getting “Compassion” tattooed on the other arm. The jury is still out.