A couple of times in the past two weeks I’ve stumbled into discussions on one particular topic: tattoos, and TCKs who get them. Over the years I’ve heard lots of tattoo stories from TCKs around the world. I’ve come across a lot of shared tattoo trends, and thought it was time to write a blog post to share what I’ve learned about TCK tattoos.
The TCK tattoo trends I’ve observed fall into three general categories, representing different connections: to places, to languages, and to values. Often these sorts of tattoos combine elements of all three.
Some TCKs deliberately choose very obvious places for their tattoos, because when they are noticed, they give a reason to share part of their story. Others put them in less easily visible locations, to serve as a reminder that this part of their lives others don’t see is still real. Tattoos can serve as public identification, and as private consolation.
Connection to places
Part of the TCK experience is connecting to places – usually more than one place, usually at least one place where you are not legally connected (no passport), perhaps a place where you are visibly foreign, perhaps a place you haven’t been to in many years. Whatever the reason, it’s very common for TCKs to have at least one place they feel a strong connection to which is not seen as a legitimate connection by others. A place that feels like home, but which they don’t feel completely justified calling home.
A tattoo representing a place a TCK feels a strong connection to gives them a TANGIBLE connection. A permanent mark. The place that is invisibly etched on their heart is now visibly etched on their skin. This can be an incredibly comforting thing.
Examples of place tattoos I’ve come across include:
- longtitude/lattitude or GPS coordinates
- maps (a country/region outline, subway diagram, stylised road map, etc.)
- a list of countries/cities
- passport stamps
- symbols of place (a local flower, native animal, etc.)
- location/s in which tattoos were inked (rather than the content of the tattoo)
Connection to languages
Language is a huge part of how we communicate with each other, and therefore it’s unsurprising that we often have strong emotional ties to languages. A language-based tattoo highlights a TCK’s connection to a particular language. It can also bring multiple languages together.
Not all TCKs are multi-lingual. Some carry guilt, sadness, or regret over languages they don’t speak (or don’t speak as well as they think they “should”). Even those who do speak more than one language spend much of their lives compartmentalising each language to certain people and places.
A tattoo in a language that is meaningful to a TCK gives them a permanent, tangible connection to that language – even if the place is far away, or their language abilities fade.
Examples of langauge tattoos I’ve come across include:
- a word/phrase from a language the TCK feels a connection to
- a single word written in several langauges/scripts
- their own name, in one or more different scripts
- names of places in the language of that place
- a quote from one culture written in the language of another culture
“I have one that that means “to have found the place you call home” in Gaelic – very meaningful to carry a bit of home around with me on my arm!” – Iona
Connection to values
Tattoos can also show the importance of certain values a TCK holds, values which may set them apart in certain settings. This is a category of tattoos that may not be location or language specific, but still connect closely to childhood experiences and emotional connections developed through international life. Those experiences create connections to certain concepts and values.
Value-based tattoos often serve as reminders of values TCKs cherish and want to hold on to, no matter what the life they currently live looks like. They can serve as reminders of experiences they’ve had or lessons they’ve learned at different times in their international journeys.
Examples of values tattoos I’ve come across include:
- the value of having roots (shown with trees, or plants)
- the value of travel (plane, airports, world map, compass)
- cultural values
- relationships (especially family)
- “group” tattoos (where several closely connected people choose to get the same tattoo, expressing shared locations or values, as well as the importance of their relationships with each other)
I had heard these sorts of stories and seen these sorts of tattoos for years before it became way more personal – because I got a tattoo of my own, combining all of the elements I’ve described here! It’s not something I talk about much, especially not publicly (mine definitely falls more in the private consolation category). But writing about this now – yep, it’s definitely time to tell my own tattoo story. So stay tuned for that next week!