I am a work in progress …

A Japanese bodysuit in progress ....

I can imagine most tattooed people, that is anyone with more than one tattoo, are asked frequently by friends or family “when will you be done?”. I have been asked that question often, and in the beginning my answer was “I am a work in progress, and when I feel done, then I will be done”, but around third year of my undergraduate degree I found a response that better (and more philosophically) addressed the question. In 1999, I discovered Sartre, and like most young, slightly dramatic, black-clothed (maybe even beret wearing), Marxist sounding, coffee drinking (& smoking) philosophers, I fell in love with Being and Nothingness and existentialism. Being an atheist too, existentialism just made sense. I still to this day have a soft spot for writers like Sartre, Beauvoir, and of course the very sexy Camus. The mantra that captivated me was the infamous “existence precedes essence”.
According to Sartre, existence is a fact, a presence, a “thisness”. Being born into this world is a fact. Essence, on the other hand, is the nature of the thing, the kind of thing it is, “what it is”. Who you become after you are born is essence, and that is determined by your choices alone. We are thrown into this world without a purpose and not of our own choosing, condemned to create what we will be … condemned to be free and responsible for our choices, hurled towards a future. Ahhh … the French drama of it all. This of course contrasts with some mainstream religions that say man is born into ‘original sin’, or any other idea that man’s life is somehow pre-determined: his/her essence is prior to existence. And, in saying that choices determine one’s essence also implies a life isn’t finished until it’s dead — life is one big continuous project and then you die. Tattoos are a way a person creates their essence, it is apart of who they become, and is a physical mark of their choices and their individual essence (their personality, their feelings, what is meaningful to them, etc.). No one’s essence is ever really complete or finished, and I would argue tattoos are that way as well. Tattoos need touch-ups and maintenance over time to keep looking their best, and can be affected by personal choices such as sun tanning, or pregnancy, or even simply with the loss of skin elasticity associated with aging (tattoos change shape, colour, texture, etc.). Choosing not to touch-up a tattoo is also a choice affecting essence, and the faded tattoo reflects that. Choosing to update a tattoo or cover it up with a new one is also wrapped up in essence formation. The meaning of a tattoo can change over time as well. In short, tattoos are a vivid reminder of how our lives are a work in progress that is determined by our freedom of choice.

Sartre also wrote that “hell is other people”, and this phrase seems to come to mind every time I am asked “when will you be done?”.

Feel the nothingness and the freedom of it all ...


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