April 2, 2014  |  MoMA Teen Takeover
MoMA Teens Take Over Inside/Out: Skeletons, Daggers, and Snakes

Every family has its quirks, and you could say that my family wears theirs on their sleeves. I grew up surrounded by tattooed arms—skeletons, hearts, daggers, and snakes. Of course I soon realized this was not “normal” in the strictest sense, as few other parents I knew then had tattoos. My parents stood out, always noticeable at school plays and parent/teacher conferences, and for a long time I hated it. People who know this about my parents ask if they are thrilled about my tattoo, whereas people who have never seen them assume they must disapprove—as if my actions have to be defined as either fulfilling their ideal, or as an act of teen rebellion. The answer lies somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.

Tattoo by Daniel Santoro at Smith Street Tattoo Parlour. Photo by Kaitlyn Stubbs

My tattoo by Daniel Santoro at Smith Street Tattoo Parlour. Photo: Kaitlyn Stubbs

My older brother also got tattooed when he was 18. He was the first person I saw make the decision that my parents had made long before I was born—the choice to modify his body. He spent four hours in a tattooer’s chair while his arm was irreversibly painted with Japanese-style clouds. At 20, he now has sleeves on both arms, beautiful designs that no longer hold a novelty appeal but rather seem to be a part of who he is. People often remark that he is following in my parent’s footsteps, but that is not how I see it. Deciding what you want to put on your body forever is a choice that impacts how people perceive you at first glance. It is a way to assert your individuality, and wear it proudly for the rest of your life.

Deciding to permanently modify my body was not a choice I made lightly, but I don’t feel the need to exaggerate its gravity. So often people ask me about it with a kind of disapproving curiousness, and I am tempted to say to them, yes, I thought about it endlessly, I weighed all of the pros and cons. But ultimately, despite any contemplation I made, choosing to get tattooed the day I turned 18 was an inherently risky decision. It was risky not because I think someday I will regret what I have chosen as a tattoo, but because I know that I am marking myself out to the casual observer. I am making a choice about how I show myself to the world, an image that may be out of my control. I cannot, and do not, assume that everyone is as familiar and comfortable with tattoos as I am, and so I understand that I am now vulnerable to other people’s judgements. So when I actually turned 18 I gave myself guidelines to evaluate whether I was okay with this, okay with forever explaining what the design on my arm means, and okay with having this as part of my identity forever.

When it came time to make my decision, I realized that the guidelines I had set for myself no longer mattered to me, and I was glad. I wasn’t in a shaky mindset of being just “okay” with the consequences of a tattoo, I accepted them fully. I was not afraid of setting myself apart in the eyes of others; I was exhilarated. The thought of putting meaningful imagery on my body far outweighed the uncertain future consequences.

Left: The author, Ada Wolin; Right: The editor, Anamilena Sanguino

Left: The author, Ada Wolin; Right: The editor, Anamilena Sanguino

This week, every post on Inside/Out is created by participants in the MoMA + MoMA PS1 Cross-Museum Collective, a behind-the-scenes program for teenage alumni of our In the Making studio-art classes. Over the course of the 16-week project, the participating teens work with educators, curators, security staff, conservators, and other Museum staff to gain hands-on experience across a number of fields. In addition, they create collaborative artwork with a range of contemporary artists. More info can be found HERE and HERE. Info on our 2014 free summer art courses for teens is available now.