The girl with the plant tattoo

Monday, February 3, 2020 - 2:42pm

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Keemya Esmael/Daily

As I enter the second semester of my senior year of college, I’ve found that one of the most wonderful parts of this era of life is the evenings spent on friends’ couches drinking wine, surrounded by people I’ve grown close to over the past years. As the chaos, deadlines, anxiety of forming new bonds and all the noise of the first few years of college die down, this stage of life feels like a comfortable, much-needed settling in.

During one of these evenings, this time in the form of a book club, friends I’ve known since week one of college and we found ourselves reflecting on how we’ve changed from those wide-eyed freshmen carting their belongings up to South Quad Residence Halls dorm rooms almost four years ago, to the seniors now sitting around with mugs of wine, discussing our favorite books of the moment, collectively playing adults. 

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about this evolution, which is perhaps a natural consequence of being toward the end of a major phase of life and on the cusp of something different and unknown. I’ve been comparing the image of myself now to the girl who showed up on campus in what feels like another lifetime — a girl who seems worlds removed from the person I am today. 

As much as I try to conceptualize how I’ve changed, the physical changes tend to feel the easiest to focus on. I now have bangs and a nose ring. I dress differently — wearing more thrifted sweaters and big earrings. I’ve certainly learned not to shy away from stereotypes, leaning more and more into the vaguely-artsy liberal college student persona as each year of college passes.

But bangs can grow out, nose piercings can close up and clothes can be donated to Goodwill. There’s one change, however, that’s going to be a bit more difficult to leave behind — the tattoo inked onto the skin above my left rib cage.

The tattoo — four sprigs of herbs, all in a row — didn’t feel like a big deal to get at the time. This is strange, as my mother had spent years warning me about the permanence of tattoos, and I’d spent the same amount of time believing I would never get one. I don’t know myself well enough for that, I would think. I reasoned: Very few people really know themselves that well, right? Those who say they do are usually only kidding themselves. These people will grow, change and look back at the ink on their bodies with regret. They’ll realize their tattoo doesn’t represent who they are anymore and have to live the rest of their lives in a body that’s untrue to the person they’ve become.

Yet, despite all this thoroughly thought-out reasoning, in mid-November of last year, I decided to hell with all that. I’d had a spark of inspiration the night before, and less than 24 hours later, walked out of Name Brand Tattoo with a patch covering the smarting, red skin on my left rib cage, freshly emblazoned with four herbs in a row: parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. I’d been raised on Simon and Garfunkel, and this visual representation of my favorite album of theirs felt right. It was generically pretty, yet still felt personal, like a piece of my identity projected upon the surface of my body.

I don’t know when I stopped taking tattoos less seriously. Maybe it was an aftereffect of seeing so many people around me sport ink casually, a form of adornment once edgy and taboo now making its way into the cultural mainstream

But my shift in opinion was also a more fundamental change than that: it was the result of watching myself change over the past years of my life. I’d realized — through years of friendships that waxed and waned, passing relationships and countless reinventions of myself — that the person I am is never going to be a fixed entity, and that the skin I walk around in is never going to carry the same person from day to day. 

When I first came to college, if I got a tattoo, it probably would have been something stereotypically Californian. During that stage of my life, I was living away from home for the first time and being from California felt like the most fundamental part of my identity. A year ago, when I was studying abroad in Paris, I mused over getting my favorite French artist’s work inked into my skin. So really, it was just an accident of time that my first tattoo ended up being a tribute to folk music. 

And while my constantly changing sense of self-perception might seem a reason to never get a tattoo, it ended up being the reason I got one. I can feel myself changing and evolving with every passing semester and life experience. This feels wonderful and needed and exciting, but I also don’t want to forget who I am now, at 21. I don’t want to forget what feels important to me right now, at this moment — so much so that I want it etched on my skin. 

As I’m on the verge of leaving college, I realize that a few years down the road I might not even like Simon and Garfunkel. The herbs on my side could feel like a cliché, a byproduct of an era where every other woman I meet seems to have some form of flora inked on her body. 

But I’m OK with that, because 10, 20 or 30 years in the future, I’ll have this reminder of what 21 was like. I’ll remember what it was like to be a senior in college and walk through the snow and ice of Michigan winter listening to “Cloudy” and “A Simple Desultory Philippic,” thinking about my home in California and my home in Michigan and all the ups and downs this music has carried me through.

At this particular moment in time, more than ever before, I’m realizing just how much I’m a conglomeration of all the different things and people that have felt most important to me during the stages of my life, constantly building upon past versions of myself to present some cohesive image to the outside world. 

Of course, that image isn’t ever going to align completely or comprehensively with how I perceive myself or how I want to be perceived, but maybe that’s OK. By commemorating moments and feelings on my skin and attempting to chronicle versions of my past self, I’m holding on to some building block of the person I’m becoming. I recognize that the person I am now — one who is coming upon the end of her college career — is only going to stick around in her current form for so long. But I embrace that person, and her particular affinity for Simon and Garfunkel, all the same.