Polyphonic and Problematic: My Culturally Appropriative Tattoo

Polyphonic and Problematic: My Culturally Appropriative Tattoo

What do you do when your bold 17-year-old self gets a culturally appropriative tattoo?

When I was 17 I had already made up my mind about what my first tattoo would be. I had it all planned out — the word “polyphonic” written in Hindi script. Of course, there's more of a backstory to it than flipping to a random page in the thesaurus and pointing to the first pretty word I could find. My best friend at the time was half Indian, and we had her grandfather (who lived in Mumbai) translate it for us before he passed away. Technically speaking, there is no direct translation for polyphonic in Hindi, so बहुस्वर (pronounced “bahuswar”) means “many voices.” We thought this was incredibly creative on our part, with visions of our future college-aged selves casually sipping on a Miller High Life in a shadowy room at a house party. We imagined someone sauntering over to us, asking what it says on our arms and diving head first into an explanation about the word “polyphonic”: “I think it’s a beautiful word that also happens to perfectly describe me and my best friend, you see, she’s half Indian.”  And BAM! we'd be the life of the party. Needless to say... we were also probably the most pretentious 17-year-olds to come out of the Dallas/Fort Worth area.

So off we went, my dad in tow (because, you know, underage) to his personal tattoo artist in the middle-of-nowhere Texas. It took no more than twenty minutes, and BOOM, I was branded. In retrospect, I should have heeded my mother’s countless pleas to reconsider the tattoo, or to consider the fact that I was a half white/half Mexican seventeen-year-old from Texas, that in no way spoke Hindi, or had any connection to India other than the girl I was getting the tattoo with but I protested. “I’m 17! I’m old enough to make an informed decision about what’s going to be on my body forever, mom! GOD!

It’s been nine years since I got my first and only tattoo on that fateful day in Bumfuck, Texas, and every time I can no longer bear the intense summer heat and opt for a sleeveless shirt that reveals the script on my arm, I cringe a little. Yes, I’m one of those people. I’m one of the countless white Americans with a culturally appropriative tattoo. The most common reaction being, “Do you know what that says?”, and the honest answer is that, no, I don’t. In fact, I didn’t even know how to pronounce it until an exceptionally kind Dunkin’ Donuts worker who was originally from Nepal took pity on me, writing down the pronunciation on the back of my receipt, and making sure I could say it before sending me and my coffee on our merry, ignorant way.

I have no business having a language and a culture that I know nothing about and am in absolutely no way a part of, tattooed on my arm. Regardless of my original intention, the effect is the same — each time someone questions what my tattoo says, I am actively participating in the global phenomenon of white people claiming a culture that doesn’t belong to them for the sake of "aesthetic."

I am not Indian. I have no claim to the Hindi language, and never have. For nine years I have been wrongly appropriating the Indian culture, and I cannot atone for my actions. So now what? The truth is that I'm not quite sure. I've played out the different scenarios in my head for years now, and still find myself at an impasse. Do I pay thousands of dollars to get it removed? Possibly, but I doubt it's prudent to put myself into that kind of debt, and saving up would take years. Cover it? I should probably mention that aside from being a culturally appropriative tattoo, it's an astoundingly bad tattoo, and by that I mean, it's composed of black, thick lines that have bled into my skin and that are still raised to this day from the artist going too deep. Covering it up completely would be a near impossible task, but perhaps that's the point? 

Maybe I'm not meant to forget my ignorant, childish decision, but rather cover it to the best of my ability, and have it serve as a reminder of the choice I made when I was 17. You cannot undo your mistakes, and you should never forget them; maybe having them serve as a constant reminder, learning from them and trying to move on is the best that we could possibly hope for. At least, that's how I feel about it right now. Ask me in another nine years.

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