When I was a kid, I thought tattoos were stupid. Why would you put a mark on your body that would be there forever? What if you didn’t like it anymore? Thankfully, I got over that a few years ago. Now, nine tattoos later, I’m looking back on what it means to have all this ink; particularly, what it means to have the nerdy ink that I have.
Tattoos are like a journal on the body. They’re a way to mark yourself for the things that you’ve done, the dreams you’ve had, your triumphs, and your failures. It’s basically a way to tell your life story. Maybe you imagine a coroner one day looking at your corpse and thinking what an interesting life you led; I don’t know how morbid you are. But at the end of the day, a tattoo is a story. It’s a symbol, a word, a picture, something that has intense personal meaning to you.
Some people tattoo the names of their parents or children, or the names of their deceased loved ones. Some people get portraits. Me? I have a TARDIS. That’s right: I have a blue police box, the Doctor’s time ship, tattooed on my arm for all to see. Is it because I’m obsessed with the show? Honestly, it’s not. I got the tattoo because there was a time in my life when I desperately needed to feel smart, and watching Doctor Who helped me through it. That said, of course I’m obsessed it. I mean, have you seen it?
But thinking of that tattoo, or the one of circular Gallifreyan, or the one of the Mad Hatter’s hat with the playing card from Penn and Teller, I think about what my nerdy tattoos mean. And in doing that, I think about what other people’s nerdy tattoos mean.
And other people have them. Within a few days of proposing the article, practically the entire staff of Twin Cities Geek had chimed in with stories of people they knew with geeky tattoos or pictures of their own. There were Supernatural tattoos, there was Nightcrawler, there were Disney princesses. There was everything from The Lord of the Rings to Spider-Man to Final Fantasy VII. There were autographs, the first line of a book, Piglet, molecular structures of various chemicals, and (of course) other TARDISes. (TARDII? What’s the plural for TARDIS?) Then I looked around at my nerdy friends. I saw the Green Lantern symbol. I saw Slytherin house. I saw Mjölnir and light sabers and Death Stars and Starfleet symbols. All these nerdy tattoos, these marks of geekdom on our skin forever. And I started to wonder: why would we do that?
Getting a tattoo is a huge commitment. It has deep meaning for the person who got it. On the surface, you might think that these tattoos are just about geek pride—we’re not hiding our nerdy leanings, and we’re proud to be obsessed with television shows, movies, and books. Is my TARDIS any different from a pride flag?
Well, yes and no. After all, a pride flag is a symbol of an entire movement, of an important part of people’s identities, a factor of themselves they can’t change. It’s how they are born, and denying that would be denying a part of themselves. To say that my obsession with Doctor Who is in any way comparable with homosexuality would just be insulting, not to mention demeaning and devaluing to a whole community. So obviously, that’s not what I’m saying.
But it still is a symbol of pride. It’s a way of marking myself, permanently, as a member of a group. A way of showing what’s important to me, of demonstrating the parts of myself that I feel are significant sides of my personality. Is Doctor Who just a TV show? Of course (except when it’s a movie, a book, a radio play, a comic book, a coffee cup, a toy, a television remote . . .)—but it’s not just a TV show to me. To me, it’s a wish for the future and a hope for the human condition. It’s a way of looking at things, of trying to solve problems peacefully. It’s a reminder that it’s okay to be smart and clever, and that brains really do trump brawn. It reminds me that everyone is important, that everyone matters. It has changed my life, and it has improved me for the better. So I’m very proud to announce my connection and my allegiance to the fandom. Not because it’s a TV show that I happen to enjoy, but because the message and the meaning behind it matter to me.
Why would any of us do any different? Mjölnir (Thor’s hammer) can only be lifted by the worthy; putting that on your arm definitely says something about your self-esteem. Writing “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility” on your body reminds you of how to live your life.
The truth is, geeky things are often much closer tied to real life than we sometimes think. X-Men is about racism and homophobia. Spider-Man is about puberty. Star Trek teaches us tolerance and curiosity. The Green Lantern corps are chosen as protectors of the universe. The Winchester brothers sacrifice anything, including the world itself, to protect one another, showing love that is unconditional and more important than anything else. The Lord of the Rings reminds us that sometimes it’s the will to do good that matters, not strength or power. A certain chemical formula reminds us that sometimes when we feel depressed, it’s just chemical imbalance that can be fixed.
There’s a particular tattoo that is becoming popular very quietly: a semicolon. I have one on my arm. Some people think it’s because I like writing and think the semicolon should be used more, but that’s not why it’s there. The semicolon is a conscious choice to link two sentences together; it’s a way of continuing on rather than stopping with the finality of a period. In that way, it symbolizes the fight against suicide. It is my promise not to kill myself, and it is a marking to those who recognize it that I will help them if they need it. It is my promise to always keep fighting. By the way, “Always Keep Fighting” is also the slogan started by Jared Padalecki, also known as Sam Winchester on Supernatural, that was sold on T-shirts to support the To Write Love on Her Arms campaign.
Our tattoos are not just about being proud of our geeky ways. They’re not just about showing other people what fandoms we are a part of. They’re more than conversation starters—our tattoos represent us in our deepest selves. We put ourselves in the place of the characters in our fandoms, and we hold ourselves to their standards. We take their principles onto ourselves, and we use these things to remind us to be better people.
Putting the names of those you’ve lost on your skin is great. It’s a way to remember them, and a way to memorialize them. Putting a picture of your grandfather is a way to keep him in your mind. Putting a radioactive spider on your shoulder is a way of reminding you that, like Peter Parker, you may not get to choose when greatness is thrust upon you, but you will have to deal with it, and you’ll remember to deal with it responsibly.
Geek tattoos are how we remember the things that we love, how we pay tribute to the fandoms that have brought us so much. They are how we identify ourselves. To others, they may just be pictures from some dumb TV show. But to us, they are symbols of pride, stories to tell, obstacles overcome. They are entries in the journal that is our skin, and we should be proud of them.
I know I am.