I am getting a tattoo for my 50th birthday. Two stylized penguins will forever grace my left shoulder with their presence.
The buzz of the tattoo needle reminds me of the sound of the electric razor my dad’s barber used on the sides of my head and the back of my neck, only the razor was louder and more painful. I give blood routinely and that involves having a nurse insert a nice thick spike into my brachial artery, so I don’t have to pretend to be a tough guy as Dave, my tattoo artist, works away on my shoulder with with the little machine as it pokes black ink into my dermis. It’s annoying more than painful. My body responds to this invasion by sending white blood cells to the rescue to absorb the foreign matter, but the pigment is too much for the white blood cells to carry, so instead they remain there in stasis.
This is my first, and probably my only tattoo, and I gave a lot of thought to why I want it.
The practice of making designs on human skin with ink, or ash, or pigment goes back about 6000 years. In 1991, some tourists hiking in the Italian Alps took a detour off the main trail and found Ötzi the Iceman, the corpse of a man who lived sometime around 3300 BCE. Ötzi bled to death from an arrow wound and was then preserved frozen in a glacier for thousands of years. He was tattooed and his tattoos were created from incisions rubbed with charcoal. Scientists think the purpose of the tattoos was therapy for body pain rather than decoration. The word tattoo may have its roots in the Samoan “tatau” but in one way or another, the practice of marking the body is global and goes back a long time. Tattoos have been used as punishment, to mark criminals or undesirables, as spiritual practice, as war paint to instil fear, or to delineate royalty. At their worst, we can imagine the power of the tattoo on prisoners in Nazi Death Camps, but tattoos have also long been an art form, as in the example of the horimono in Japan.
Love potion, good luck charm, funereal marking, clan designation, or rite of passage—one of the reasons people have had their skin marked over the centuries is that it looks good and that it means something to the tattooee.
In my case, the tattoo is about my personal mythology — the stories that most significantly contribute to my understanding of who I am. One of those stories is the myth of Castor and Polydeuces who are the twins of Gemini. Leda, the swan, was their mother, but Polydeuces’ father was Zeus and Castor’s father was Tyndareus although they both hatched from the same egg. Castor was mortal, and Polydeuces, being the offspring of gods, was not. When Castor was slain in battle, Polydeuces begged Zeus to restore him and make him immortal too, and though Zeus was not known for his sympathy, he gave Castor his wish on the condition that the two would have to take turns living in the underworld on alternate days and would not be together again, but would pass each other every day as they changed places, as the stars in the constellation Gemini seem to do on the horizon.
For me this story is meaningful not just because I was born in June, but because the Gemini myth is about finding ways to live with paradox. How can you live in the underworld and in the heavens? How can you be mortal and immortal?
I have never been someone who is able to bear dichotomies. If my choice is this or that, my answer is “both.” If I have to have black or white, I’ll have black now, and white later. All my life I have found ways to solve problems. When someone says, you can’t be in two places, I usually find a way.
The other important story for me is the story of my ancestor, Roald Amundsen, the polar explorer who was first to the South and then the North Poles. He was my grandfather’s cousin and I was brought up hearing stories about him and his travels. It was the pursuit of his story that took me to Antarctica in 2011 — 100 years after his arrival at the South Pole — and it is his spirit of adventure and exploration that is sending me to the high Arctic this summer. As Amundsen looked north again after Antarctica, so will I.
So for me, my gemini penguins have a lot of meaning and represent my will to embrace paradox in life and to push toward personal adventure. The image on my skin is adornment, it’s true, and it’s swashbuckling and sailor resonant, but it is also laced with meaning.
I was not brought up in a particularly religious way, and in my late teens and early twenties, I struggled to find what I thought was a sense of meaning and purpose in life. I investigated Catholicism, Anglicanism, Buddhism, Sufism, and Taoism and at this stage of my life, having just turned 50, prefer the label that I once saw in a bookstore: “Miscellaneous Spirituality.” I’m open to the wonders of the world, but don’t follow a particular practice to make meaning from them. Having lived a mere half-century, I know I have a great deal more to learn, but it seems to me from here that unlike my younger, searching self, I don’t need to forage for meaning in my life, I need only to see the meaning that is already there.