Interviewed by John Haggerty

Read Briana Loveall’s nonfiction piece, Tatau


John: One of the interesting things this brave and honest piece explores is that nexus between permanence and ephemerality that a tattoo occupies. The moment inspiring the tattoo is gone, and yet the tattoo itself remains. Does the tattoo then become a sort of lens through which we perceive our past? What is the effect of this?

Briana: For me, my tattoos have always served as reminders. I think it’s interesting to think of tattoos as a historical lens. The unfortunate thing is that many people don’t want to be reminded of the past, or, their feelings about it have changed. Memory is sticky business. My sister, after reading this essay, told me that I got some of the facts wrong, although she reiterated that her version of the truth didn’t alter the message of the essay. It’s easy for us to change the way we remember things, or even the effect the past had on us. So, if you have a tattoo that represents a specific memory or feeling, I think it’s more difficult to blithely rearrange the facts to fit your current narrative.

You point out that most of the traces that life leaves on us are invisible, but a tattoo externalizes this. In your essay, the tattoo seems to act both as a sign of trauma and the transcendence of it. In the final analysis, was the tattoo more of a help or a hindrance on your path to healing?

The new tattoo was absolutely a part of the healing process. I had such a negative experience with my first tattoo, that to replace it with a positive one, was as much a part of the healing as letting go of my guilt that I didn’t save my sister. When I look at my tattoo now, I’m not reminded of the time I felt I didn’t have authority over my body. Now I get to remember that I chose to surmount that negative experience and replace it with a better one.

In Polynesian cultures, the tattoo is a mark of belonging. Cain’s is one of exclusion. In modern America, they often just seem to be random manifestations, which leads to regrettable things like 40-year-old stockbrokers with Red Hot Chili Peppers tribal art. Should we take our cues from other cultures and be more systematic about this?

There is this saying that you should, “Think before you ink.” I’ve met a lot of people with bad, very regrettable tattoos. But I bet a lot of people have looked at my tattoos and felt sorry for me, because they thought my tattoos sucked. I’ve also had people ask me, “What happens if you regret your tattoos later?” I think this kind of ties in with your first question, because to a certain extent, we all have things in our past we regret. Only some of us have artfully (or not so artfully) displayed them on our bodies. So, when I’m asked this, I always tell people there’s a very real chance I will regret the tattoo later, but there are a lot of things in my life I regret, that I still wouldn’t change. The tattoo is a part of me, good or bad.

You say that the tattoo was, at least partially, a symbol of your inability to save your sister. Beyond the fact that this seems like a terribly heavy burden to lay at the feet of an adolescent girl, I’ve lately come to believe that we can’t save anyone—the best we can do is provide conditions that make it easier for others to save themselves. What is your current thinking on salvation, either for ourselves or others?

As a Christian, I shy away from thinking I’m capable of offering salvation, in the sense that I can absolve anyone’s sins, especially my own. But, I think we unknowingly save people, in what we think are inconsequential ways, every day.