Reflecting the other day in conversation with a friend who has of late become something of a fan of body art – particularly tattoos in their various shapes and forms – has gotten me thinking about the whole subculture of the activity. Philosophising about the act of getting a tattoo, it would seem that the two most substantial objections to getting one done are 1) Is it possible to pick a rationale which will remain meaningful one, two or more decades from now without being silly and 2) is it possible to capture that design in a way which will not look increasingly daft as time and nature take their course on one’s skin, reducing beautifully sculpted roses to masses of blue cloud. If those two primary objections could be overcome, I think that there is definitely a certain elitist appeal to crossing that particular line between those who go and sit down in the tattoo parlour and those who don’t. These two main problems with tattooing have stuck with me for many years, without ever finding a satisfactory resolution. Until, that is, one night in Bangkok – well, Khaosan road to be specific. I wonder how many truly deviant stories start like that.
I believed at that point, and do still, that there is a rationale that works powerfully for me in answering these two questions. Recent events in my life – breaking up from a long term relationship and changes in nearly every aspect of my intellectual and emotional existence after travelling abroad have reminded me exactly how inescapable and fundamental change is in the course of life. For the longest time, I had come to think that I had managed to piece together a stable and secure existence, largely isolated from the world beyond and the powerful currents of emotion and events that move through it, and so it struck me as something of a shock when so much of the presumed emotional and physical stability of my life unravelled. In retrospect, however, what should have surprised me was the length of time that everything had managed to remain more or less the same, in defiance of any significant personal, emotional or spiritual growth.
Even more startling was the realisation that, despite the confusion and bewilderment that reality brought screaming into my safe little bubble, this was not the first time that I had traded being able to move with the interesting ways and routes of the world at large for the illusion of security afforded by locking down a series of convenient variables in my life and trying to hold them that way for as long as possible. As long as possible typically meaning “until all of the love, passion and magic had been squeezed out of it and only measurable quantities remain”. As a close friend recently put it, one can choose between being comfortable yet bored, or trade that security for a more exciting and interesting existence – the type where you aren’t guaranteed a happy ending but where it still remains a possible destiantion to your journey, undegraded by ‘safer’ plans for the future.
The choice between these two modes of existence has, for years, been an on-off conflict inside me, and is something that far more has been written on by those more qualified in literature than I. I have made the decision, on an intellectual level, that submitting to this endless change and alteration of life and circumstances will give me the richer, more textured version of my life than the safe and known version ever will. The problem, however, is that our desire, especially in love and relationships, for security and companionship often wins out as we rationalise away this commitment to the changing ways of the world in favour of knowing that we can own and maintain a small resource of love and companionship all to ourselves. This emotional betrayal of something I truly believe to be one of the most important trades in the course of one’s life has routinely led me to waking up (literally and figuratively speaking) from experiences and relationships wondering exactly how I could have been so blind to the spiritual medoicrity that I was courting.
That this conflict is an enduring feature of my life at least (and I gather I am not alone in this), would make creating a permanent and pointed reminder of the need to continually chase the pain of the changing unknown over petty emotional bargains a reasonable proposition. The harder part of creating such a permanent reminder would be to answer the question of precisely what form it could take that would be simple enough in design to survive time, and elementary enough in its symbolism to mean as close to the idea of this perpetual change and shift in life without convoluting the message with additional, specific ideas which will look silly in time to come. As a case in point, many of the now-silly chinese writing tattoos were originally chosen to mean something, but have since become defunct as the medium through which the subject communicated that message (the chinese figure) gradually became less and less powerful.
And so this story finds me back in Khaosan road in Bangkok on one of the last nights of wild drinking and excess before we were to depart back to South Africa after a trip which changed so much in my life in ways that I am still uncovering. I wish that there were more detail – a finer brush with which to paint the story of how I came to realise an ideal symbol for such a stated commitment to change. Unfortunately however, I was far too taken by the events of the night and the emotional rollercoaster which had been that trip, to really remember enough to recount with any meaningful texture the thought processes leading up to said epiphany. What I do remember, was realising that of all the symbols I could think of representing the simple notion of change, by far the simplest of these was the mathematical symbol Δ (delta) which represents change. Just a triangle, it is largely immune from the distortion of aging that most other designs might suffer, yet also manages to convey the idea of change (and for me to look at it in years to come) only the idea of change, in a way which is timeless – immune from the gimmicky meanings which so often date more complex pictures or styles.
And so, to finally end this long missive, the perfect tattoo – for me, and what I wish to commit myself to in life – would be that simple delta triangle. Not intended to be pretty or impressive, or even very large, but just a permanent reminder, to be carried through the days, of a compromise that I should never make. Of a reality that can only be embraced if I am to live my richest possible existence. Something important enough that committing it to my body permanently seems a small price to pay to be able to never forget it.