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© 2023 by London St. Juniper

Tattoos and Misreading Performative Fandom

Yesterday I spent five hours under a tattoo needle, starting a large tattoo I almost talked myself out of getting.


Clearly the problem isn't tattoos in general; I have to sit down and list all of my tattoos to even remember how many I have. Instead, my hesitation was from a hard lesson I learned after getting my (much-loved) villain sleeve: highly visible tattoos inspire constant comment, misreadings, accusations, and examinations. As my wife so astutely remarked, to have tattoos is to constantly explain your tattoos. And I know, given the skill of my artist, that this new tattoo will always catch attention, and will always be misread.


As a significant and very visible tattoo, my sleeve inspires a great number of conversations I don't actually wish to have, as a socially awkward and generally unfriendly person. I try to avoid conversations with strangers, but my tattoos make that difficult, especially since I don't actually wish to be rude (unless given good reason, and even then will hesitate). A clear and specific example was the time a grocery employee held me socially hostage for his own entertainment. To avoid awkward small talk I was using the self-checkout kiosk, when the attendant approached and started verbally identifying the figures on my arm. I quickly finished his list to wrap up the interaction, and he upbraided me because he "wanted to guess them all." He then started grilling me on superhero movies, testing my loyalties and pushing fandoms upon me as I just tried to finish my shopping as quickly as possible. He wanted me to have strong opinions I would argue in public with strangers; I wanted cheese and crackers and to hurry back home.


There's a lot to unpack about fandoms, gender, and tattoos (too much at the moment). When I designed and received my rogue's gallery sleeve I did not anticipate the frequency with which I would be charged with defending my fandom, or the further assumptions people would make upon observation. And by "people," I mean masculine-presenting humans in their twenties and thirties; while I receive compliments from tattoo fans in general, there is only one demographic that initiates contests of fandom - debates which I am not invested in having with strangers.* But the point here is that my tattoo gives these strangers social access, which they use to interrogate my motivations, media consumption, IP loyalties, and more.** It feels overwhelmingly aggressive.


And this is my normal as a visibly-tattooed woman. I've always bought into the frequently-espoused advice that tattoos should be personally meaningful - "get something personal, but not someone's name" - but I didn't anticipate the tension between intended readers (myself, and close companions who would already understand my tattoos) and actual readers (the people I encounter in the world). This, my twenty-second, is the first I've found myself choosing between a personal tattoo I absolutely wanted, and the knowledge that it would inspire misreadings and a certain future of being grilled about fandoms in which I don't participate.


I chose the tattoo, of course, and in those five hours my tattoo artist finished a third of the dragon half-sleeve we've designed together. I have no intention of "'yucking' someone else's 'yum'," as the saying goes, but, no, I am not a fan of Game of Thrones, I do not read fantasy novels, and I do not play Dungeons and Dragons or Magic the Gathering (questions I am anticipating). The story behind my dragon is much more domestic: one evening, when First Born was about four, he went around the dinner table assigning everyone a dinosaur. "[Middle Child] is a triceratops, [Youngest] is a pterodactyl, Maddy is a brachiosaurus, and I'm a T-Rex."

"What about Mommy?" my wife asked.

"Mommy's a dragon," First Born responded quickly and without inflection or further comment. And thus was born a familial truth and constant household quip. Mommy's a dragon. When I started learning fire eating and breathing Middle Child told me I was reaching my final form, and when I started talking about getting a dragon tattoo the children thought it made perfect sense. "That's because you ARE a dragon."


My tattoo is very sassy, and I love her. And I once again want to investigate the readings and misreadings of tattoos, and the social factors that go into tattoo interrogations in the wild.




*I admit to teasing friends who love Superman, but those no-stakes conversations and jokes are really only enjoyable with people I know.


** Strangers will also use my tattoos as an invitation to invade my personal space, physically grabbing me and touching me - another consequence I did not anticipate before being tattooed. I'm learning to step quickly out of reach, often saying "look with your eyes, not with your hands," but my doing so has made some people very angry, as if I am wrong for rejecting their grasp.