About that semi-colon tattoo…

This year, Mental Health Awareness month is May. And for a few years now, I have seen articles and blog posts about semi-colon tattoos pop up in my timeline. People get them to raise awareness for mental health and suicide awareness, because a semi-colon continues a sentence that would have ended otherwise. Usually the words “powerful” are somewhere to be found in the article.

In my corner of the internet, that is IBD groups and Instagram, every year, people get upset about the mental health angle, because, many people with an ostomy also like the semi-colon tattoo, as form of empowerment (it’s a literal play on the word). Some of these comments are along the lines of “we used the tattoo first”, some of them are worried that their health condition gets less attention than mental health, and some fear being misread.

I have thoughts on this, and I like to think that as an editor, scholar on tattoos and IBD sufferer, I may actually know what I am talking about for a change….

  • As an editor, I hate the semi-colon. I find it a superfluous punctuation mark, because more often than not, it clouds the meaning of your sentences and makes your prose undecipherable. Yes, there are sentences that need a semi-colon, but most of them don’t. I always (jokingly) tell my clients, don’t stigmatize the period! It’s simple and clear, it’s the sign that something ends and something new begins. So while the bare bones definition of “continuing a sentence where it should have ended” is technically true, and I get the metaphoric meaning the tattoo is trying to convey, I personally would not have chosen it as a symbol. But oh, well. My personal preference is personal, someone else may see this differently. Which leads to the next thought.
  • As someone who has worked on tattoos, their meanings and different representations of tattoos for a while, I can tell you that the meaning that you have chosen your tattoo to mean, may not be what it ends up meaning to others, to paraphrase Alice in Wonderland. Tattoos have a communicative value (Atkinson, Sanders, DeMello, Gell, and virtually anyone who has written anything on tattoos ever), and while some tattoos have very unambiguous messages (i.e. a swastika tattoo does not exactly leave a lot of room for interpretation), most of them have the potential to be misunderstood. So in short, just like what we say can be misinterpreted or understood in a different way than intended, so can our tattoos. But, I suggest instead of being worried about people thinking the wrong thing about you (mental health issues instead of IBD), re-frame the story. If someone asks you about it, just say, “Oh, I know that the mental health community also uses this sign, I however got it because of my IBD.” Done. You won’t be able to control what people think one way or another, so don’t worry about those who see your tattoo and randomly assume stuff. People will do what they will do.
  • Often, the issues are connected. People with IBD often have mental health issues, from depression to anxiety. Virtually everyone I know with IBD has been depressed about their condition at some point or another. Therefore, the tattoo’s literal meaning and the metaphorical meaning are closer than one thinks.
  • Lastly, if you’re worried that people assume you have mental health issues, when in reality you have an ostomy, you’re perpetuating stigma against the mental health community. As people who know the stigma of living with what large swaths of the population term a “poop” disease, we should be in solidarity with the mental health community.
  • No tattoo means the exact same thing. There is a wide range of diversity in the IBD community and the mental health community as well. So even if you get the exact same looking tattoo, it will be different. Your struggle is yours alone, and yours alone to talk about (or not, if you choose so).

In contemporary culture, tattoos are fairly meaningful for their wearer- even my tattoo-hating grandmother knew to ask about “the meaning” of my tattoos (once she found out that I had them). So when I see someone with a similar or even same tattoo I have, the least I can do to others is to honor their tattoos.

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