Could something as messy as my living, breathing identity be captured in a tattoo’s ink?

Karie Luidens
Aug 15 · 4 min read

“I” am a hundred and fifty-odd pounds of warm brain, nerves and crimson blood and sensations running through every inch of me. I am a single pulsing system that is conscious of itself, and of the sunlight, and of the wind hushing and stirring my hair. My body has gut instincts; my emotions live in my lungs, my intestines. My fingertips are the distal ends of my mind.

For years I wanted to celebrate this self by marking my flesh with a tattoo. Its ink would be a declaration of self-possession: “Be warned, world, this body you see is also a mind.”

A tattoo, but of what? Could something as messy as my living, breathing identity have its essence captured in ink?

The question threaded and curled unseen at the back of my mind. Day by day I tried to reason my way through it.

I am writing these words by hand. My mind pinches the pen with its distal tips and presses its ink into threads of half-cursive that start wet and go dry. I pause to reread the lines: my mind is in conversation with itself. Writing-reading is a physical form of thinking in which the thoughts grow tendril-like from my gray matter onto the white page.

Are these words neural dendrites?

Is this black ink a bodily fluid?

If I decide later that I don’t care for this writing, here are a few things I can do to the paper on which it’s written:

  • shred it
  • burn it
  • crease it into an origami crane
  • use its fibers to mop up spilt milk, whose opaque whiteness would soak in, melt the ink, and swirl my words away

A tattoo turns black ink into bodily fluid.

Whatever I needled into my skin would be permanent. There’d be no crumpling my idea and chucking the ball of it into some cosmic waste bin. This body is the first, the last, the only draft of me there will ever be.

What design could possibly speak to my mind-body identity with concision, clarity, beauty, timelessness?

For years — years — I turned the question over and over in the abstract like a hesitant pen in my hand.

Gradually I realized… Ah, that was the point.

The turning of questions.

The pressing of pens.

The table was smooth leather. The artist had me lie on my right side. I curled like a comma and let my eyes close. He folded my ear forward to reveal the peek of skin behind it, that small curve at the back of my mind haloed by soft hairs. A pillow of gauze held my ear in place. The buzzing needle came in unseen like dental equipment and whined loudly next to my skull. When it made contact, my jaw rattled. My hands tightened, fingers pinching. The needle’s scrape was harsh — not slick like a scalpel slicing things apart, but sharp like a pen. It stung. Still, I smiled as it came and went, scratching thickly. This brief pain was something I wanted. I designed. The idea of my tattoo had been abstract for so long. At last I’d coaxed it into corporeality — blood and nerves and press, ink soaking into me.


…word made flesh, word of many meanings. The logic of consciousness melded with the liquids of the physical world.

My tattoo now lives as I live, warm ink suspended in the skin behind my left ear. Like my body, its meanings will evolve with time. Like my mind, its lettering has no form without my body.

This piece originally appeared in the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts by Matter Press.

Karie Luidens

Written by

I’m an Albuquerque-based writer of criticism, commentary, current events, and semi-connected musings.

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