My Tattoos (and the Meanings of Them) [Part 1]

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: Bastards on Parade by Dropkick Murphys, Drunken Lullabies by Flogging Molly)

Tattoos, like any art, are a form of self-expression.

As the 21st century comes crashing down on us, millennial ideals mixing with stereotype-breaking triumphs and a backlash from older, more conservative generations, we might say with just a hint of understatement that self-expression is on the rise. Young adults are posting their lives online, blockading streets in anti-Trump rallies, and behaving in ways I never would have even considered back in high school – and I’m only a few years older than them.

Tattoos used to be for sailors; now they’re for everyone. Even some of the librarians I work with are sporting badass arm-dragons or flowers between their shoulder blades.

Still, I can remember my mom looking sadly at me when I left the house with my older brother around the time of my twenty-first birthday to get my first tattoo. I also get those questions from aunts and uncles, parents of friends, whose tones indicate they clearly think they know better:

But why did you have to get it inked into your skin?

Because it means that much to me, I answer. Because I never want to forget the things I tattoo on myself.

They give half-smiles, shake their heads as if the very idea is preposterous, and change the subject. Honestly, it makes me sad. I think, Don’t you have anything worth that much to you?

Maybe that kind of thinking is unfair. Regardless, I want to put to rest this idea that getting a tattoo is a juvenile choice. Like the decision to have sex or drive a car as a teenager, it is a thing people do that can be as juvenile or as adult as you want it to be. Don’t blame tattoos because your son is a punk and thought a flaming skull on his forearm would be a good idea.

So, with that in mind, I want to talk about my first tattoo, which originated in middle school. Yeah, you heard me, people who think tattoos happen spur-of-the-moment.

Back in the day, little Reedy was sitting in seventh grade, not paying attention per usual. He was doodling on his notes and discovered something interesting in his drawings. It spelled out YH8. He thought to himself, Why Hate? That’s kinda cool.

YH8 continued with him throughout high school. He introduced it to people as his iteration of the golden rule. The concept: everyone in the world has had a set of experiences which have furnished them with ideas, opinions, and beliefs. The KKK, the Nazi Party, the people we hope our kids never come into contact with… they all formed these opinions through some sort of cognitive process.

In short, YH8 said if you don’t know the path of someone’s life that brought them to where they are now, you can’t hate on them, no matter what their opinions are. And if you do know someone’s path, it will be impossible to hate them.

Heavy thoughts for a twelve-year-old.

Anyway, YH8 continued to make appearances in my notes throughout high school and college. When my older brother got his first tattoo (I think I was in late high school then), I realized that maybe I could get YH8 tattooed. Then I immediately dismissed the thought, because I was afraid of needles.

In college, I had some interesting experiences (which I will not bore you with) culminating in the realization that I was not as inclusive as I thought I was. Turns out I was actually bad at YH8.


This realization renewed my burning desire to have YH8 tattooed. I bit the bullet on my needle-phobia and got it just before my twenty-first birthday. It was the most frightened I had been in years (with the exception of asking girls out).

Phobics, think about what you would do to avoid the thing you’re afraid of. I have often, loudly, and publicly said that I would rather die foaming at the mouth than get rabies shots. I still hold to it. So when I say I was frightened, I mean I was terrified. Only the idea of having this idealism permanently etched into me kept me going when I was sweating in the chair.

YH8 now rests on my right shoulder – a perfect location, as the responsibility of being unprejudiced falls on my shoulders. Every morning, I wake up to see it, and I remind myself – today I will be tolerant.

If you don’t think that’s worth getting tattooed, I respectfully disagree.

Yours kindly and in good cheer,

-R.R. Buck


4 thoughts on “My Tattoos (and the Meanings of Them) [Part 1]

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