My friends and I got tattoos so we could feel dangerous. Not very dangerous, because very dangerous people went to jail, but slightly dangerous, like a thrilling drop of botulism in a jar of jelly.
We walked down the narrow white hallway of the only tattoo shop near our Midwestern college and glanced at the sample tattoos lining the walls. My friends chose flowers and a lower-back tribal stripe. And I, convinced I had better style, asked for the perfect design I spotted just above the cash register. Two hours later, I had four Chinese characters on my left shoulder that meant “fame and fortune.”
I did this in the early 2000s, well before Instagram appeared to teach people like me that there were better options than pointing to a wall and saying, “I want that,” like a 2-year-old asking for Cheerios.
But I wasn’t helpless. I could have asked my Chinese American best friend for advice beforehand. But instead I showed her the tattoo afterward, and she was the first of many people to sigh and ask me what I thought it meant. It meant what I thought it meant — “fame and fortune” — but it took me three more years and one more tattoo to understand what she was really asking.
The second tattoo was supposed to spell my name.
I come from a family that was descended from slavery and knows pretty much nothing about our history. There aren’t even records to show when my grandparents were born because, apparently, they weren’t the kind of Black Southerners whom local officials bothered to record.
The way my parents sometimes filled the void was to make stuff up. They told me my name meant “fortunate” in Swahili, which isn’t true. But I grew attached to the idea that my name could mean something. And lots of people I met during my years as a traveling lawyer told me it meant something in lots of other languages: Polish, Urdu, Arabic.
I can’t remember what the person who gushed about the Arabic meaning of my name told me it meant, and in the years since I haven’t been able to confirm that it means anything at all in that language. But I know I liked the look of Arabic script the best out of all the options in this magical world where my name had a meaning more substantial than “whatever not actually African thing my parents pretended it meant.”
I ran my name through an online translator. Then I got the result tattooed on the upper part of my right arm in an East Village tattoo shop with egg-yolk yellow lighting. The tattoo artist mustered all the enthusiasm his deadpan self could in telling me that the Arabic script I had printed off the internet “looked nice.”
For a few years I walked around confident that I had finally restored some meaning to my name, until an Arabic-speaking friend spotted my tattoo at lunch.
“What do you think it means?” she asked.
I was brought back to the time my best friend had asked me about the “fame and fortune” tattoo, not to mention my encounters with various Chinese-speaking people who had come up to me in the street or cornered me in locker rooms with pointed questions of their own.
I crossed my fingers and told her.
Instead of complimenting me on the beautiful, permanent version of my name needled onto my arm, my Arabic-speaking friend paused. Apparently, tattoo No. 2 was actually one of those 404 Error messages, when an online search comes up blank. So my arm said, more or less: “Result not found.”
“Congratulations for getting a true internet tattoo,” she said.
As a reluctant pioneer in the field of bad tattooing, I spent years afterward stubbornly telling people it meant “the eternal search.” It sounded more elegant than “I didn’t find a correct translation of my name on the internet.”
Everyone I ever lied to about the meaning of my tattoo waited a beat before we spent a moment laughing together. The other person was laughing because I was stupid, and I was laughing because I wanted to seem like I was in on the joke. It would have been so much more convenient if being stupid had protected me from the consequences of my own stupidity.
So what did my tattoos mean? I had the technical explanations, but the best way to think about them came from a chat I had with an older Chinese-speaking woman in a university locker room when we were changing clothes.
She asked me what I thought the Chinese characters on my shoulder meant, and I told her. Then she asked me what I was at school to study, and I said law. She frowned and told me the tattoo was better suited for someone in the arts — that I should hurry up and get into the arts. We both laughed.
I ran her explanation over in my head for weeks. I had picked a pair of designs that looked cool to me, without caring that they had specific meanings for people who fully understood what they meant.
The phrase cultural appropriation is a dull academic term to describe my sin: taking something that has real meaning for other people and making it into a meaningless gesture for myself. The Chinese characters on my shoulder spoke to a life I hadn’t lived in the arts. The Arabic script suggested a life in which I had a firm idea of what I wanted to say before committing it to my skin in permanent ink.
I decided to get both tattoos covered up.
In Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a guy in the middle of a world tattooing tour painstakingly concealed the Arabic script on my right arm with an abstract design that looked like stained glass.
A few years later, just north of Los Angeles, I sat in a large white room overlooking the Santa Monica Mountains while a woman covered the Chinese characters on my left shoulder with a Pop Art-style chrysanthemum that reminded me of the chrysanthemums I used to see in my hometown every fall.
After 10 hours under the tattoo gun, I drove home, savoring the pain as evidence of a life I had actually lived.
Episode is a column chronicling a moment in a writer’s life. Kashana Cauley, a former staff writer for “The Daily Show,” is the author of the forthcoming novel “The Survivalists.”