Which Came First, the Tattoo or the Symbolism?

Ever have someone ask what your tattoos mean? I used to get uncomfortable at this question, because the truth was I hadn’t assigned much meaning to my tattoos when I got them. I thought of them as art, so for a long time I told people to interpret my two tattoos themselves. But like any art, my tattoos eventually revealed their meaning to me as well, years after I got them.

My first tattoo I got on my left arm the day I turned 18. “What did your parents say?” They said “good job” to the tattoo artist; my parents are the ones who paid for it. I got my last name, Jarvis, tattooed on my forearm. It is looking a little faded these days.


“What is that in case you forget your name?” Ha, good one! At first it was art. But something inspired me to get it. There was something about my last name that I liked. I liked the sound of it, I liked the ancestors, and I love my family. And there it is. Why do I want my last name on my arm? I probably won’t forget my last name. But you can remember your last name, and forget where you came from.

There are Hollywood actors, and popular politicians who have changed their names to play better with the public. I don’t know if it is a coincidence that these people tend to be fake, aloof, and messes (think Carlos Estavez aka Charlie Sheen).

No, I am not going to forget my last name. That is there so that I don’t forget where I came from. It is there as a permanent reminder of who made me what I am today, and who I have to thank for making me the person I am today. If I want to run from any of that, I can start my tearing off the permanent piece of my skin branded with that reminder. That would be painful, as it should be.

About a year and a half later I caught the itch to get another tattoo. Perhaps this was the closest thing to a hippy phase I was going through. It was after freshman year of college, I was transferring schools, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. But I knew that I was totally in touch with like, nature and, like, spirituality man!

I drew the original picture myself, and had the tattoo artist render an acceptable print for permanent publication on my back. It was a tree growing out of the earth, and it was am image I loved. It looked cool. I liked trees, I liked nature, I liked maps. It was art. The imagery made me feel a certain way, and that was why I wanted that piece of art on me.


Again, it was years before I assigned any meaning to the tat. But when I realized what it meant to me, it was the perfect tattoo! The tree of life grows from the seed of earth. What you do on earth, will affect what happens in your after life. Earth is the seed, and depending on how you plant it, fertilize, and water it, the tree that grows could be magnificent, or sickly.

And the tree of life, that connects us to the after life, can be as large and far reaching as you make it. Or it can die as a sapling, and one might be left with no avenue in which to follow in order to gain access to the afterlife. Perhaps if you do not grow your tree large enough, you cannot reach the afterlife, and must start over, with a new seed, in a new life.

But as you can see, my tree dwarfs the earth, which is where I hope to get to. Perhaps someday there will be occasion to add leaves and vibrance. But I’m not too worried. My tattoos were created before they meant anything to me. Likewise the structures we create in this life can seemingly mold themselves into place, before we know how to use them.

This relates back to what I was saying in another post. I like to write, run, forage, and exercise. I enjoy nature, health, philosophy, and social interactions. These thing I have been cultivating, and am sure will be of great use to me. When the time is right, my tree of life may grow leaves. And when the time is right, we can all use our talents, skills, and passions to flesh out the life we want to live.

And remember, what happens on Earth might not just affect this lifetime.


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