Everyone Panic: Divorce Tattoos Are a Thing

May 05, 2014 • Art

divorce tattoo

“Tons of young divorcees are posting their #divorcetattoos on social media, publicly acknowledging their inked documentation of a failed marriage,” writes Wesley Bonner in a recent Nerve piece titled “Why Are Young Women Getting #DivorceTattoos and Posting Them Online?” You can almost hear him hyperventilating into a paper bag.

Bonner recently stumbled on a Pinterest board dedicated to tattoos commemorating the trial of divorce, that is managed by Joelle Caputa of TrashTheDress — a blog dedicated to starting life again after divorcing in your 20s — and decided that this frightening growing trend among the ladies needed to be addressed and corrected.

“Being in a heightened emotional state is really not the best time to be making life changing decisions,” he begins. “What happens after you’ve moved past the divorce? Your next partner will have to stare at a giant scripted text of ‘This Too Shall Pass’ on your back in bed. The bottom line is, a life moment as traditionally negative as divorce (though, sometimes positive) will have a place on you forever. You will recover from your divorce in time, but the Tumblr-esque inspirational balloon will stick around.”

When Vocativ picked up the story today, they followed the same line, ridiculing women who choose to use ink to commemorate their journey through divorce as cheesy and dramatic. “For some women, the traditional heap of mourning doesn’t cut it,” writes Emily Levy, wasting no time before reminding women of their eventual saggy fate: “At best, the tats are a dramatic, albeit personal, celebration of womanly independence. At worst, they’re an expensive patch-up job that will only look worse with age. Regardless, they’re making Kelly Clarkson proud.”

Growing up on a Pacific island, I was exposed to tattoos in a much different context than I would have been had I stayed in my native country of Peru. From a young age, my parents tried to instill in me the idea that any body modification short of piercing the ears (and even that), was something people of a certain “sort” did. I don’t know what “sort” we were, but it was made clear that we were not that “sort.” I could never get a straight answer about this “sort” business, but the takeaway was very clear: that “sort” distinguished by body modifications was something you never wanted to be.

Then we arrived at the islands and it became difficult to acknowledge that the “sort” who walked around tattooed were anything short of extraordinary. I was told that Polynesian tattoos were different than the other tattoos. Polynesian tattoos were “cultural,” my parents told me — and they were earned. The Samoan pe’a, for example, is a symbol of courage. It marks the transition from childhood into adulthood.

It was this transition that I was marking when, upon turning 18, I bent over the bench at a tattoo parlor and had a symbol inked into my back. The symbol represents Newton’s third law of motion — both a warning and a hopeful message. It was not a cultural thing. It was a personal thing. Some of us spend a long time being loners before we find our tribes. I wouldn’t find mine until the 2011 publication of Carl Zimmer’s Science Ink and the subsequent ScienceOnline conference where I got to mingle with other people who had felt so identified in some aspect of science, that they inked it into their flesh.

Tattoos have long since become a form of self-expression, less and less associated with any “sort.” Teachers have them, scientists have them, parents have them, athletes have them, doctors have them, actors have them, babysitters have them, chefs have them — the Pew Research Center estimates that 45 million Americans have at least one tattoo. Among Millenials (aged 18 to 29), that’s four in every ten with a tat. People’s stories about their tattoos vary, from those who “just knew” the moment they laid eyes on a design to those who spent years mulling over images.

For the record, no popular blogs or mainstream outlets have ever wrung their hands about the prospect of a lover having to stare at a caffeine molecule on their partner’s back or Euler’s identity on a partner’s inner thigh. No one has ever rolled their eyes at a science tattoo even after hearing that its owner got drunk at a conference before getting it. But somehow, the phrase or image used to commemorate a new beginning in a deeply emotional moment of a woman’s life is viewed as less. Science is cool, we’ve decided as a society. Emotions, however, still have a ways to go.

There is a slightly gendered message there, which may not be obvious until you reach deeper into these articles. What is the media saying to these women about their choice to modify their bodies? That she will sag and the tattoo will be unattractive for people to look at. That the next man in her life won’t like to see that she has been with anyone else (“you’re just giving yourself something to endlessly argue about throughout your next relationship,” writes Anthony Selden at EliteDaily). The two main issues people have with women getting divorce tattoos have nothing to do with the women themselves and everything to do with people who will look at them.

The other issue is that of divorce as failure. The fairy tale motif requires a happily ever after and anything short of that is failure. “Why do these women want a reminder of something so negative?” people ask. Never mind that most of these tattoos would be right at home alongside inspirational quotes if you traded flesh for a background image of a sunset.

The idea that we should look at a marriage that didn’t last as a failure and hold it close like a shameful secret reminds me of all the reasons things like TrashTheDress need to exist. The end of a marriage couples the painful death of a relationship with the logistical challenge of cleaving everything in one’s life into two. The only thing that could possibly make it worse is the isolation so many describe while using words like “strength” and “dignity.” Silence is not golden. Silence hurts.

Time heals, but sharing — whether through words or other form of self-expression — puts that time on fast forward, whereas silence slows it by a magnitude of three.

My partner got a tattoo shortly after his divorce. It has nothing to do with his divorce and yet it does — because his tattoo is an expression of who he is and his divorce is a part of that. We are the star stuff we’re made of. We are the genes in us and the society that raised us. We are our relationships, good and bad. We are our joys and our trauma. We are our inspiration and our fears. When we walk through fire — and make no mistake, divorce, like any loss, is a furnace more life-altering than even love — what are we doing if not participating in a rite of passage? Would you tell a young Samoan who just got his pe’a that he’s being dramatic about becoming a man? Would you tell a newly-forged chemist who just defended her dissertation that she’s being dramatic about inking the chemical structure of diazepam on her collar bone? Would you tell someone who fared Cape Horn in a leaky cutter that she’s being dramatic about tattooing the latitude and longitude of where the first williwaw hit?

Who are you that you think you can tell people what events in life matter, which events are worthy of writing on flesh and which aren’t? What does someone else’s skin have to do with you, anyway? Are you worried that someone you might fall in love with might have a “Live Free” tattoo on her shoulder blade, a permanent reminder that someone else once spooned her?

Get over it.

If you can only love the woman in your arms despite what path she walked before she met you, then you don’t deserve her. If she needs to hide her pain, her loss, her previous loves from you, she will never be complete. That’s not to say that you are entitled to everything about her — her stories are hers to tell when and if she sees fit, but she should be with someone who will be for her an emotional safe place, both in the present and with regard to her past. And these things are equally true for you.

Header image via TrashThatDress.