In the first world, before the Immortals shattered it, there was a well formed from the corpse of a god, and those who bathed in its waters became without what was within. Their hidden truth became their physical form. Some who leapt beneath its depths believed they would be reborn beautiful and godly, only to emerge monstrous and ugly. And others, lame or little, ascended to perfection when they breached the surface.
Often I have wondered, if I were to fall within it, what form would I take.
At times I thought I would become a dragon, fearsome and flighty. Other times a mass of molten fire, a body built of flaming embers. Or I would sprout wings and feel my skin pulled taught against physical strength I’ve never possessed before. And sometimes, in my darkest of moods, I would fade from something human toward something beastly, wild and unruly, untamed and forged for pure destruction.
But there is no such well in this world to become outside what I see within.
And yet, there is something that seems close: the reconstruction of the physical form, not in new configurations, but as a canvas. Since the earliest days of my writing, characters with physical markings were not as prevalent as possible, but those few who wore their skin tattooed carried greater significance than those around them–and as I see a fraction of myself in every character I create (as I imagine god sees a fraction of himself in each of his creations), so, too, do I see my characters within me–and where their skin has become a canvas for their stories, so, too, do I want to make my skin a canvas for mine.
When I got my first tattoo almost two years ago, it was strangely liberating. Unexpectedly liberating. For a decade or more I had envisioned the Sefirot upon me in meditation, and now that they were physically present, a constant reminder of what the mind can quickly forget, I felt more myself–and more confident in myself. I felt more attractive, more ambitious, more akin to that ideal self I had always been striving to become.
Somehow when I took what was within and inscribed it without, I became more me.
I hadn’t even finished my first before I began imagining my next, but I figured if it had taken me over ten years to gather the courage (and curiosity) to lie beneath the needle that it would take just as long before I found myself itching for another.
I was wrong.
For the past few weeks I’ve been sketching what I want, and while I realize the placement and style still seem amorphous and imperfect (which I blame largely upon my insufficient skill in the visual arts to design what I feel in my mind), I’ve also realized that the inspiration for the designs stretch as far back as my first tattoo–if not further.
In that first world, the first humans were themselves also gods: Called by many names, they were the original personification of duality. Masculine and feminine. Fire and water. Strength and softness. Wild and tame. Fauna and flora.
All that had been created, all life, lay painted upon their bodies: every leaf and vine and tree and flower upon hers, and every wing and claw and fang and fur upon his.
I’ve always imagined my left arm to be hers, and my right to be his; and in between, centered upon my chest, my own personal emblem, my totem: the wolf.
The only uncertainty had long been which plants and animals would be present, which plants and animals best represented me. And slowly, through the years, I’ve determined what could be there, but not yet what should be there.
At least, not in part. My mind lately has settled with certainly upon the divine feminine: my left side, from which the wolf fades into the collage of bark and blossom across my heart, represents home: where I come from, where my spiritual ancestors were born.
Chief among these is seven: the seven species from the Torah–figs and dates and olives and grapes and pomegranates and barley and wheat–woven from forearm to shoulder.
Then there is three: the dogwood, flower of North Carolina, and the sugar maple, tree of Wisconsin, and the Silent Princess, yes, from the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The state representations are obvious, but Zelda is in its own way another home: Some of the first writing I shared publicly was fanfiction inspired by the Legend of Zelda, and these video games have inspired so many elements of my fantasy. The music, the art, the drama from age to age–and the mythology that unites them. I’ve probably written more about Zelda online than any other topic, but alas, those posts were all deleted when Nintendo shut down their NSider Forums so many years ago.
I’d also like to anchor this side with some mathematics: knot theory, in which I wrote my master’s thesis, and in particular, knot 7_3. Hopefully it’s not just me, but don’t those numbers look familiar? Seven and three are the divisions of the earthly and heavenly Sefirot, and furthermore, seven speaks directly to another practice in Judaism: the act of wrapping tefillin, which is where I find my love for leather was born. Wrapping my arm with the seven species is like wrapping the leather seven times around my forearm, as if in some mystical sense it’ll mean I’ve always got that tefillin with me.
Where I’m more uncertain is the right side, the beasts: I haven’t conceptualized the theme yet, except that I know a few key inclusions: the bear, the eagle, the snake, possibly a stag, possibly a hare, maybe a badger, and finally, last but not least, a Growlithe and a Squirtle (if I’ve got Zelda on one arm, gotta have some Pokemon on the other).
The Pokemon are the easiest to explain: Squirtle was my first starter, my first companion in a decades-long (and ongoing) journey to catch ’em all and continually grow and improve my strength, an emblem of dedication and perseverance, adventure and triumph. Growlithe has always been the first among Pokemon I’d have if they were living creatures outside their presence in video games, and one of my most vivid memories of my first playthrough of Pokemon Red was searching for a Growlithe outside Celadon City, and when I finally caught one, I was elated–only to find that moments later my spirit was crushed when my batteries died and I hadn’t saved yet. So while Growlithe still represents companionship, it also represents heartbreak and healing and hope.
Also: they represent fire and water.
The eagle has two-fold significance: First, it’s the sign of my first Hogwarts house: Ravenclaw, “where those of wit and learning will always find their kind.” Harry Potter was the series that hooked me on reading, without which most of what followed in my life would have had no foundation. Then, during my exploration of Wicca and Paganism in my teenage years (which through a roundabout way led me to many of the spiritual traditions I still follow that had merely been aspects of Judaism I had never known before), I took a sacred name that meant “gracious eagle,” and for a time it was through this persona that I was the narrator of the mythology I had only recently begun writing. I no longer feel a need to implant myself as a character in the tale, but that relationship to the eagle as storyteller still remains an important part of my development.
(Here’s also a good a place as any to say why the badger is a possible addition: When I finally took the official Sorting Hat quiz on Pottermore.com, I was sorted squarely into Hufflepuff–whose emblem, like the eagle for Ravenclaw, is a badger. I experienced quite the existential crisis at the time, but many peers assured me that I do personify many of the qualities of a Hufflepuff, “just and loyal…unafraid of toil,” so it must be true.)
Then the bear: a savage protector, but also a pun on being a bear. That is, in the gay subculture sort of sense. Bear culture (related if not equivalent to Leather culture) grew as a countercultural movement during the AIDS epidemic, with a trend toward idealizing more traditional conceptions of masculinity. While that aspect of the subculture has evolved over time, two other elements continue to resonate with me: first, an anti-racist ideology that has, more than likely, existed more in theory than practice (but which I still hold to strongly), and second, an anti-sizist philosophy that aims to find beauty in all bodies, regardless of height/weight proportions, body fat, and levels of hirsuteness.
Then I suppose, if we’re digging deep into the subculture, I could also throw in an otter, because they’re playful (which at times I am) and cute and hold hands when they’re sleeping, and that has always been such a tender and meaningful image to me.
Also: one might say the eagle represents air, and the bear earth.
So in a way, at least some of these beasts represent the elements, which when I first “discovered” them in studying astrology, became the first singular inspiration of the stories that in time would grow into the mythology I’m still writing today.
The snake represents both my being born in the year of the Snake as well as infinity, since world snakes have often represented the beginning and end of time, and a common snake symbol is the ouroboros, a serpent latched on to its own tail. Similarly, my birth month corresponds to the Hare in Chinese astrology, but of all these animals, I’m least committed to this one, so it likely won’t become part of the tattoo.
Finally, the stag is another call back to my excursion in Paganism: the stag is a common symbol of the divine masculine, and the branching pattern of the Horned God’s antlers is also fractal, and to incorporate a fractal motif in the design also interests me greatly since it was one of the first areas of mathematics I truly fell in love with.
As I’ve written these words, I’ve noticed a trend emerge, and perhaps you have as well: these beasts are symbols of influence, the nurture alongside the nature of where I come from: they are the open doors that led me along the path to becoming myself.
It’ll still be a long time before I go ahead with this tattoo (especially since it’s practically two sleeves and a full chest piece, which’ll cost a significant amount of money and require an incredible amount of time beneath the needle), but writing it here, painting in words what I want immortalized in ink, makes me feel…excited…and certain, more confident in who I am, closer to the person I want to become. Do I need tattoos to be that man I see in my mind’s reflection? No. But taking that step brings me nearer to the idea of who I want to be, and presents outside the stories presently swirling inside.
And when the outside matches the inside, when the inside mirrors the outside, that’s when I’ll be my truest self: it’s not nearly as total a transformation as if I were to plunge into that well of truth from the first world, but it’s the closest I could possibly come.