A tea bag in black ink winds its way up my upper arm, lavender and carnations blooming inside of it. The winter chill means it’s mostly hidden from the world. Sometimes I forget it exists. But in the back of my mind, I know it’s there: an amulet I carry with me, a reminder that I exist in the world and care for it deeply. Sometimes, I’ll run my hand absentmindedly over my upper arm through the sleeve and imagine its warmth burning through the fabric.
I have always found the concept of my body difficult to comprehend. It feels so strange that I exist in a form that can be perceived, one that I can’t completely control. Once in a while, I look in the mirror and barely recognize the person looking back at me. Who are they, really, hiding behind those soft-brown eyes and shaky hands? In moments like these, I tend to have a hard time taking care of myself. I float around the edges of my body, slipping in and out of it with detached neutrality. It bumps into corners, lets go of dishes I’m trying to hold onto. It? Me? I’m not really sure.
I’ve always felt that my first tattoo had to be something deeply meaningful, the most thought-through concept possible, one I’ve dreamed of for years. Perhaps a tea bag doesn’t fully meet those criteria. To me, though, it feels like a sign of comfort. I’ve always loved making tea for other people—a tiny, miniscule way I hope to show people I care when I don’t have the words. My little teabag is a tangible thing I can hold onto in this world, a reminder to keep showing love and tenderness. Maybe it’s cliche, but I love it anyway.
In recent years, I’ve become attached to the idea of tattoos as ways of holding on to past versions of myself. I find the idea of permanence terrifying and comforting at the same time. On the one hand, I feel deeply antagonistic towards past versions of myself—the naive middle schooler with two long braids pretending to be a book character and correcting other people’s grammar, the stressed-out high schooler who placed academics above all else, or the college student from yesterday who slipped up talking in class and said something dumb. And yet, there’s something meaningful about carrying relics of these people with me everywhere. Perhaps, in 40 years, I will decide that I hate tea, but I will know that the art on my body meant a great deal to the 20-year-old who inhabited my physical form. It feels like a way of reaching forward in time, to some future Liza I can’t imagine existing, and holding their hand, just for a moment. Reminding them that they do, in fact, have a hand that can be held. Or perhaps they are the one reminding me of that.
This tea bag ties me, somehow, to my physical form. When I don’t feel like taking care of myself, I still want to take care of it. I want the art to stay crisp and fresh, so I must keep it moisturized. When I run my hands over it, I feel a strange amount of tenderness, which I have almost certainly never felt towards myself. Learning to live with myself as I am, shell and filling, may be a work in progress, but I can’t neglect the art someone else has entrusted me with. This tea bag is a part of me, its ink has mixed with my blood, but it’s also somehow a separate being, one that requires my attention.
The work of tattoo artists fascinates me: art is so often portrayed as something removed from the social, a sacred work to be engaged in solitude. Yet to tattoo someone is not only to work with an unpredictable medium, creating gorgeous art on a canvas that shifts and reacts to your touch, but to work with another human, with their emotions and unpredictabilities. To care for your work, then, is to care for a person.
It is a strange sensation, too, to be that person. To be, for once in my small and insignificant life, a place for something permanent to rest. I walked into my appointment flooded with anxiety: afraid of needles, afraid of making the wrong choice, and afraid of having to entrust my arm to a person I’d never met. But perhaps that trust—that I’m making the right choice, that I won’t regret it in 20 years, that I can feel safe with the dull buzz of the tattoo gun as its needle scrapes against my skin—is what makes this choice meaningful for me as someone for whom trust is often difficult. There’s always a chance that I will regret it, that I’ve made the mistake. It’s a leap of faith.
Slowly, I want my body to become a memory book, a patchwork quilt of meaning over time, each tattoo a step closer to shaping my physical form into something I can feel I belong in. My mind is flooded with ideas for new patches. A vintage key from an antique market that ties me to my friends from high school, my first chosen family. A window looking out onto a cloudy sky, in reference to an essay by Jonny Sun. A fig from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (although I have a sneaking suspicion that’s a teenage-angst-induced choice I’d regret). A constellation shaped like a teacup, which a few friends and I claimed for ourselves out of the vast night sky. Hands reaching for each other. Inky patch after inky patch stitching me to myself, imperfect and messy and covered with memories.