Just Gonna Say It: Getting A Tattoo From My Culture Came With More Baggage Than I Expected

Gabby Mercelline and her Sri Lankan cultural tattoo
Contributor: Gabby Marcelline

Getting a cultural tattoo can be an exciting leap into acknowledging the intricacies of yourself, but as I’ve recently learned, there’s more to the journey than you’d expect. As tattoos become more popular, let’s explore what getting a culturally-significant tattoo really looks like: good *and* bad.

I think the day I decided to get my first ever cultural tattoo was the first day I stopped wondering how to explain being Sri Lankan to others, and started thinking about what it looks like to myself.

As a brown woman, the reason I decided to get a cultural tattoo was to demonstrate to myself who I am. My skin, which I carry around with me every day, is completely inescapable. The tattoos I’ve happily adorned it with are relatively the same. And I think I like that.

But that led me to a dilemma: how do I summarise my entire culture in just one image?

When you get a tattoo from your culture, there will have to be learning involved. You’ll have to learn about yourself, and that’s always a little scary. If I was going to do it, I wanted to do it right.

The first step was consulting with my family; my fellow Sri Lankans. My cousin was someone I could sheepishly admit my gaps of knowledge to, even if I felt like a total and complete poser.

After much discussion, I decided to get a tattoo of a Sri Lankan jackal holding a Sri Lankan demon mask in its mouth on my arm.

When I got the concept art from my tattoo artist, I asked my cousin what he thought. After gushing that he loved it, he told me that these jackals are colloquially called nariya and gently corrected me to call the mask a yaka mask. He was very supportive, but I’ll admit it burned to realise I didn’t already know these things.

Explaining my version of Sri Lanka to a white tattoo artist was difficult. Unfortunately, it can be hard to find renowned brown artists in Brisbane. I could talk about colourism in the ink industry for hours, but I digress.

Thankfully, the artist I found was respectful. But as I leaned back on the studio chair to get my tattoo, I wondered if I would have felt more sure of myself if the person holding the needle was brown like me. However, I still left the studio with cling wrap on my arm and a smile on my face.

What I wasn’t prepared for was how much other people would make me second-guess my ink.

Sri Lankan cultural tattoo
“I decided to get a tattoo of a Sri Lankan jackal holding a Sri Lankan demon mask in its mouth on my arm.” Source: supplied.

My white boss asked me what my tattoo was while scrutinising it skeptically. I dismissed it to him: “Oh, just a Sri Lankan jackal holding a mask”.

This left me anxious about what my other white peers would think. For some first-generation Australians, this is how we operate: we’ve spent so much of our lives trying to blend in, it’s hard to get out of that mindset and embrace standing out.

That same day, another white coworker suddenly ran her hands over my skin, where my tattoo was.

“It’s beautiful,” she remarked. “It looks so exotic.”

The first thing I thought was: it’s not for you. I suddenly found myself less in love with my tattoo because I felt exotified, a feeling I’m sure many minorities in Australia can relate to.

Of course, it’s not wrong to ask about my tattoo. But tone matters.

When people ask about my tattoo, it’s often either with a level of suspicion (what is this strange and different thing?) or with wonder that made me feel unfamiliar (that’s so fun and cool because I don’t understand it). Surely there’s a middle ground?

I refuse to let this stand in my way, though. My tattoo represents how I view Sri Lanka. An exciting amalgamation of complex and confusing history, framed by my alienated point of view from across the sea. A somewhat tailored, but still earnest vision of the flawed country it is.

There’s no real meaning or explanation to your cultural tattoo that will satisfy everyone. I still live a little afraid that someone more well-versed in my culture may find my tattoo to be a confused attempt at being a part of something they feel I am not.

But I got this for myself.

I may find myself happy to explain the meaning behind what brought me to get this tattoo, but I’m learning that I don’t always have to have the perfect answer.

Getting this tattoo to represent my Sri Lankan heritage came with unexpected baggage, but that doesn’t make me regret my choice. I wouldn’t take it back, and I have learned a lot about myself in the process.

If you’re thinking of getting a tattoo from your culture, go for it. Confront yourself, discover the things you haven’t learned yet, and stand in your power when people ask questions.

Do it because you have the knowledge that you don’t always have to have an explanation for the meaning behind it. Its meaning lies in whatever you feel it means to you.

Gabby Marcelline is a Sri Lankan-Australian freelance writer and journalist. She has a love for delving into the gritty parts of all things culture. You can find her on Instagram at @itsnotnotgabby.