Why I’m Getting a Tattoo of Mordin Solus

Or: an ode to the very model of a scientist salarian.

Right now I have a drawing on the wrist of my right arm. It’s a cartoonish black Sharpie outline of the head of Mass Effect’s Mordin Solus, with the weird floating neck brace that’s permanently affixed to his space suit. There’s some lazy shading on the top half, to mimic his complicated facial colour pattern. My girlfriend, Dana, drew it on so that I could “try on” my first potential tattoo.

A rewind. I see live music pretty often, usually of my friend’s bands. The doorperson — whatever poor friend or significant other that got suckered into doing menial work for a small portion of the measly amount of cash their compatriot makes from the night— will usually ask to mark a denizen’s wrist upon entry. At the bigger venues, this will instead be an official looking stamp. The next morning, I wake up, look down at my wrist, see the now-faded mark — “The Mod Club” in block letters, or maybe just a sloppy X — and think “man, that looks cool.” I think this the whole day; I catch glimpses of it while practicing my ride cymbal swing patterns, or see it staring back at me from the bathroom mirror when I wash my hands, and nod to myself in approval. It eventually becomes a ghost of the image, then a smudge, then is wiped off completely, and my life goes back to its normal, unmarked self. What a wild day or two that was, I think. Hoo boy.

Rewind again. In late high school I began to assume that I’d get a tattoo eventually. The idea of going through an entire life without knowing what getting a tattoo feels like is weird to me. I’m not really a “try everything once before you die” sort of person, so I don’t know why I feel so strongly about this.

Fast forward to two weeks ago. In Toronto there’s a Facebook group called “Bunz Trading Zone”. It’s a group for bartering with strangers; the dominant currencies are subway tokens and tall cans. It’s been very useful for me since I moved to the city from the suburbs of Thornhill — usually it just means I can get rid of junk I don’t need without having to toss it in the garbage, and get a small token, literally, in return. Occasionally it’s better than that, like when I exchanged a crash cymbal that I hadn’t used in years for the HDMI-capable monitor that I’m using to type this very article.

A tattoo artist on Bunz was willing to trade a piece of her own work for a Playstation Vita. I bought a Vita last year, partly because I had a 300 dollar Best Buy gift card that I didn’t know what to do with, and partly because of my pet rabbit, who needed 4 hours a day to roam around my bedroom outside of his cage. This was my childhood bedroom in my parents’ house, and it didn’t contain a TV or a computer, so — the Vita. But then I moved in with Dana a few months later, and now the rabbit doesn’t have a cage anymore, so the Vita has been collecting dust. This seemed to be my chance.

I was held back by the thing that always holds me back: I didn’t have anything that I wanted on my body permanently. I’d gone through a few phases of potential designs, all with their own meaning; some basic, some more complex. In high school, I figured I’d maybe get the logo of my favourite band at the time, The Aquabats, simply because I liked The Aquabats a whole lot. I wanted a Golem of Prague after reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, reframing it as a reminder not to get too overzealous in search of the truth. But then, I’m not a journalist, nor a detective, so that didn’t seem right. Most recently, I thought I’d get an octopus with a different line of Bomb the Music Industry!’s “The Shit That You Hate” on each arm, because octopuses are my favourite animal and the message of that song — sorrow don’t answer problems — is a good one to keep in mind. I didn’t want any swear words on my body, so that transformed into an octopus again with a different tool in each hand representing each of my hobbies. Too vain; besides, I didn’t actually have eight hobbies.

And now, Mordin Solus. I feel pretty good about this one. It feels right. I have a couple more days to get back to the tattoo artist, and I’m 75% sure I’m going to go through with it. I figure that if I can really vocalize why this particular image — this particular character — is such a big deal to me, I’ll be able to validate getting it. Like most things, I find the best way to straighten everything out in my brain is to write about it.

So, the skepticism. First the obvious — the pain, of course, plus the likely disapproval from my parents. Like any child, I’ve disappointed my parents more than a few times, and I don’t like how it feels. We’re close, and I won’t like disappointing them again, even though most of their own prejudice likely comes from the erroneous belief that having a tattoo means you can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery. I’m struggling with how to tell them too; whether to do it before, or just show up at their door the next time I have band practice in their basement and nonchalantly throw it in. I’ll likely do the second, which will make this the most classically rebellious thing I’ve ever done.

Then, the image. Part of my reluctance comes from the fact that, despite being a pop culture junkie of sorts, I’ve never wanted a pop culture tattoo. Aside from the fact that tastes change drastically over time, I can see the problems with having an object of consumerism on my body. I don’t want to just slap a logo on myself. I should have something more meaningful, less obvious. The nerd with a pop culture property tattooed on him; how utterly basic.

But I’ve become okay with this for a few reasons. One is that the Mordin Solus design currently etched on my wrist is subtle enough that it just looks like a cool symbol to the uninitiated. It feels like taking ownership of a trilogy that I have a deep love for. It’s not one of the common visual icons of that series; an N7 logo or the Paragon/Renegade symbols. This is not meant to shame people who choose to express their love of a thing in this way — I ordered a sweater from the Bioware store, the one with an N7 on the chest and a red stripe down the side of the arm, and wear it almost every day. Most of my t-shirts are band shirts. So I’m certainly not against this type of personal branding; it’s just not what I want on my body. Instead, it’s a design from my own brain, shouting out my favourite character in a way that nobody else has. It feels like engaging with and celebrating this pop culture property on my own terms.

Typically, the ways in which one is able to interact with their passion for a pop culture object are dictated by the company putting out merchandise; you can only display your affection in the ways that they deem acceptable. Similarly, these sorts of objects are built into the game — again, the N7, the Paragon/Renegade signs, the Spectre or Cerberus logos. These are designed to be iconic; a tacit recommendation of the visual signifiers that you’re supposed to use to express your love of the thing. This is part of what makes fan art, fan fiction, and Etsy quietly subversive; it allows fans alternative ways to appreciate their favourite properties.

So, yeah, I love the Mass Effect games. I don’t feel like I need to go into the reasons why in this particular space, but my love for the series has been especially cemented by replaying these games with Dana, me in the driver’s seat, her making choices. It’s become more obvious throughout the replay that Mass Effect is my favourite game series.

That playthrough is another reason why the tattoo means a lot to me, as Mass Effect has become emblematic of the strongest relationship I’ve ever had.

Every relationship has certain things that I can use to strongly associate with the person. For one girl, it’s Arcade Fire; for another, Beck. For Dana, it’s Mass Effect. The truth is, I’ve never gotten as “deep” into a relationship as I have with Dana, and so the tattoo becomes a representation of it. If the relationship works out, it’s a constant testament to the strength of it. But the beauty of a pop culture tattoo is that if the relationship doesn’t shake out, well, I still have an image that I like a lot on it’s own.

That image is of Mordin Solus, the best character in Mass Effect. I know Garrus is the fan favourite, and everyone loves the krogan characters for good reason. But Mordin is the best. He’s a fairly trope-ish character; the super-smart scientist who sometimes has issues with relating to others. He has too much in his brain to deal with the slow speed of speech, and thus has to completely cut pronouns out. He’s direct, and casually ruthless too; he will shoot someone in the face with no hesitation if he needs to. But he prefers not to, and he’s not really being a badass for the camera. He just does what’s necessary.

But here’s the twist: he has the conscience to know that “what’s necessary” changes over time. Sometimes, what was necessary is not so any longer. Sometimes, what’s necessary now is to destroy what was necessary before. Mordin’s main source of internal tension comes from his involvement in advancing the genophage, which is keeping the krogan race sterile. He realizes this was a mistake; both that his race, the salarians, shouldn’t have shown the krogan advanced space travel before they were ready for it (which they did for purely selfish interests, in order to win a previous war), and that the genophage which followed was wrong. His arc is a redemptive one.

It’s really easy for these sorts of characters to be intolerable, to function as scions for nerds to point to for validation of terrible, cold, “reason-based” behaviour. But Mordin isn’t one of these; he’s a man of science, but by the time he’s been introduced to us in Mass Effect 2, has already realized that scientific progress is not always worth its cost to organic life. He’s well-rounded, not pontificating on the value of science above all else, but recognizing that art and science are sort of the same thing — that they both come from a curiosity about the world around us, and a desire to theorize about the nature of existence. Mordin has even tried faith to deal with his emotional issues, and while it wasn’t for him, he doesn’t have a problem with its existence. He’s not an internet atheist shouting his beliefs at people, and he’s not an MRA spouting crap about evolutionary psychology to feminists. If Mordin is unfamiliar with something, he doesn’t get angry; he just gets more interested. He studies, and analyzes, and hypothesizes until he reaches an understanding.

Meanwhile, despite his short, sometimes cold demeanor, Mordin is actually a legitimately warm soul. It’s telling that his first action after furthering the genophage is to try to do some good for others, opening up a clinic for people on Omega, the merc-laden space station on the fringes of the galaxy. He likes working with people that he respects, going so far as to try to rescue his old assistant when it appears that he’s been kidnapped, and he truly wants to help Shepard, giving her relationship advice and even sex tips regarding whatever romance option the player has chosen. Near the end of Mass Effect 2, Mordin, despite his talk of the greater good, reveals that thinking about his favourite nephew is his real motivation to keep going. To do what he can to try to make the world a better place. He has goals that are personally significant, and that affect the galaxy at large, but it’s his connection to other people that makes those worthwhile.

It helps that Mordin is also hilarious.

It’s an aspirational tattoo, in short. I want to try to be as good a person as Mordin. This fictional character.

In the end, I don’t know if I can achieve this. I doubt I’ll be as smart, or as accomplished, or have my actions affect as many people. I am lazy, but I am trying not to be. I am trying to do what good I can. I think having him as a constant reminder on my body will help.

Fast forward again to today; Thursday, January 29, 2016. On my right arm, slightly higher than my wrist, and bigger than I imagined it, is a tattooed outline of the head of Mass Effect’s Mordin Solus, with the weird floating neck brace that’s permanently affixed to his space suit underneath. The inside of his face is mostly blank, other than the emblem pattern that runs from his forehead to his nose and some light shading near the top, for depth. The skin is peeling and so itchy, I just want to scratch it all day, but can’t, lest I ruin the whole thing.

The process took an hour and 15 minutes, only 30 of those minutes actually taking place in the chair. It didn’t really hurt.

I told my parents a few hours afterwards, while they drove me home from my sister’s new condo. It was still wrapped in a bandage. They just laughed about it and asked some questions. I guess I have cool parents.

Today, I got home from my current repetitive contract job. I meditated for 5 minutes, did 12 push-ups, and forced myself to clean up and publish this article. It’s not much, but it’s a start. This image of Mordin, which is now a part of me, helped.