Tattoos are not meant for everyone, but they are meant for me

Angela Nguyen

Knowing that this was my sixth time getting tattooed, I felt close to no pain getting my most recent dragonfly tattoos done.

Tattoos are a form of symbolic art that are represented in the form of permanent ink on the body, which is why I have always found them to be interesting, such as my most recent piece — two dragonflies.

Unfortunately, both my grandpas on both sides of my family had passed within the previous year. One passed away peacefully in his sleep and my other grandpa passed away due to a lot of physical pain that grew worse over the last 10 years.

From losing both of them, I realized that time is not something you can get back, but I wanted to find a way to represent both of them. To me, I always found art appealing, therefore I wanted to get two dragonflies on my left forearm to symbolize them. 

Dragonflies in Vietnamese culture represent transformation. I linked these two creatures to them due to their belief in Buddhism as well. In the religion, it is believed that there is reincarnation after death and what we get reincarnated into is dependent on how well you treated yourself and the people around you while you were alive on Earth. 

The second tattoo I got was this snake. I wanted it to be dark and bold to represent my mom since she is born in the year of the snake for the Chinese calendar. I like it dark and bold because it represents how determined she is with everything that she sets her mind to.
I also have another dragonfly, exactly the same as the one seen in my forearm, but on the other side of it. Those two dragonflies would be my most recent pieces – fifth and sixth ones. They represent my two grandpas who recently passed. I chose dragonflies because they symbolize reincarnation and peace after death, much like how in Buddhism, reincarnation in the afterlife is widely believed to be symbolic of how well an individual chooses to live their lives on Earth before their passing.

From getting these two small dragonflies done, I know that it holds meaning to me because they were figures in my life that I got to interact with that helped shape me into the person I am today through means of learning simple things like gardening from them to eating different types of Vietnamese street food. 

I have always felt like I had trouble verbally voicing my emotions and concerns, which is why I had always found interest in making art and seeing art. To me, art is another form of self-expression as much as painters and sculptures take pride in their craft.

On the side, I paint and draw a lot. It started out as something I enjoyed doing in elementary school to become something that I liked to make to give to others. Nowadays, I like to make acrylic and pastel chalk paintings and do digital paintings a lot. 

In a way, this interest in the realm of art transferred over to tattoos smoothly because to me, it is another form of self-expression. 

As for when I first started getting tattoos, I definitely went in with less knowledge about them then I have now on the topic. 

After getting my first tattoo, which was a snake on my left forearm, I realized that I wanted to get more ink on my body. I initially wanted to get this tattoo to have a connection to my mom again. Over the past few years, I felt as if I have grown apart from her because I have learned to have my own morals and ideals that are not necessarily shared viewpoints that she agrees with. This could be partially due to the differences in culture. She was raised in a traditional Asian household in Vietnam while I grew up in California with American and Vietnamese ideals. 

My mom’s reaction to the tattoo was very underplayed compared to how badly I thought she would react in my head. She was not shocked, but more put off because she didn’t expect me to get a tattoo that had heavy shading in a very visible area of my body. Her exact words she said to me was “It would look cuter if it was smaller.” That commentary from her just made me laugh.

Progressively over a year or more,  she realized that I was not going to just get one tattoo, but multiple. She realizes that tattoos are something that I really want to get done even if she verbally disagrees with it, usually saying “Oh, the more you get tattoos, the closer your skin will get to being all blacked out.”
Unfortunately for her, these words have no effect on me.

This idea of wanting to be more heavily tattooed did not necessarily stem from me wanting to fit in with other heavily tattooed people as an aesthetic, but more so as a way to commemorate milestones, people and activities that I had the privilege of witnessing, experiencing and meeting as I grow older.

Tattooing was never really my first thought of self-expression because I grew up in an immigrant culture household where old traditions and values are strictly followed. Tattoos, smoking, partying, drinking and all these other socially acceptable activities in today’s world are still seen to be taboo to them. 

Growing up, I knew I always wanted to get body art done, like tattoos and piercings. I never brought these questions up to my parents because they didn’t seem like they liked them on themselves or on others, except for my mom. When we took a trip to Vietnam a while back, she came back with two small tattoos. 

I hoped that when I got my first tattoo and came back, my mom would be more lenient on me because she also has a couple of them on her.

Before getting inked, I felt like older Asian immigrant people within my family would look at me negatively due to the stigma surrounding it. Even now, when I go to my family parties, I cover all my tattoos up so no one would know. It slightly hurts because I know they may not say it directly to my face that they disapprove of, but they will tell others and gossip. 

I built up the confidence and gut to go get my tattoo when I was 18 because I realized that besides the fact that you only live once, I had to start doing things that would make me happy, not others. 

In a way, outside of the tattoo representing how much I cared for my mom, my first tattoo also represented how much I cared about myself in order to put my own interests first instead of shying away from it due to  fear of getting looked down upon or rejected by my family for doing something that is morally taboo.

This not only gave me a confidence boost because I got to transfer how I felt onto myself in a visually appealing way, but it gave way into opening up a door to help me express myself in an artsy manner. 

My biggest takeaway from becoming a proud owner of six tattoo pieces, and hopefully more down the lane, is that even though not everyone is a fan of having some permanent modification done to their body — like tattoos, I am a fan of it because it helps me to express my beliefs, how I feel and helps me share the experiences, people and events that I have had the privilege of encountering this far in my life.