Articulated by Sharmeen Chauhdry
A woman. A skull. Ink on my skin. Friday, the 13th. Thirteen-dollar tattoo. Over the course of the term, we have engaged in conversation and literature surrounding the sentient non-humans. There are many things that interact in the assemblage of Kalamazoo College, and I have chosen to consider my most recent tattoo. The tattoo is a part of the social and physical assemblage that I am a part of and brings different things to each.
Jane Bennet, in her book, Vibrant Matter, introduced the idea of assemblages within our class through her discussions of electrical power grids, our bodies, and the plethora of other complex systems of being that exist. Assemblages encompass human and non-human actants, receiving the same amount of agency within a particular system, thereby decentering humanity. Most recently, Anna Tsing’s discussion of matsutake mushrooms in The Mushroom at the End of the World, displayed an assemblage that included mushroom pickers, landscapes, mushrooms, the capitalist system, and many other things. When thinking of Kalamazoo College, these two texts remind me how complex its assemblage is and remind me to not overlook the seemingly small parts of it. These and other readings have also shown the importance of thinking of things outside of “things owned and subject to humanity.” Enter: lady-skull tattoo.
The physical: My tattoo is a combination of a woman and a skull. It is on my upper right arm, visible if I’m wearing short sleeves. It is a part of my body’s assemblage, and Kalamazoo College’s physical assemblage. For me, the tattoo very directly impacts my day to day life, especially in its relatively young age (about two months). I switched from using scented lotion after I the ink mingled with my skin, to ensure it was safe and unharmed. When it was introduced onto my body, the hair in the surrounding area was removed. In this case, the tattoo took the place of what formerly resided on my upper arm. However, the physicality of the tattoo does not hold total control of my right upper arm, as little blond hairs are starting to regrow where they had been forcibly removed from, cause the woman’s inked hair to blend with my own physical hair. In the larger assemblage of Kalamazoo college, my lady-skull asserts its authority as well. Kalamazoo College cancels classes and announces a Day of Gracious Living, I pack my things, which now more carefully include both sunscreen and lotion, and head to the beach. My lady-skull necessitates protection that my skin formerly did not require, I do not burn (or tan) easily, and can often, skip the sunscreen for a day at the lake. However, lady-skull doesn’t have my Pakistani-sun-resistant skin, its ink is fragile and burns easily. The sunscreen that lady-skull is responsible for is passed around and used by friends, and acquaintances. In this case, lady-skull, a part of the college’s assemblage, adds more things to the assemblage: sunscreen. DOGL is over, I have a job interview to get to. The position? Kalamazoo College, Office of Communications Junior Writer. I am prepared for this interview, but before I go, I must choose my shirt in relation to lady-skull. The social implications will be addressed shortly, but the interview requires a physicality that lady-skull simply doesn’t fit. I choose a quarter-length sleeve shirt, and head over. Although it may seem that a silver dollar sized tattoo on my arm may not physically impact Kalamazoo College’s assemblage, it persists in its own way, not subscribing to the habits or rules that I, it’s place of existence may subscribe to. Lady-skull has agency. It does not comply to my desires, or wants, it simply exists on my arm, and bears consequences for its existence, just as any being, or thing does. I, adapt, I make sure I live in harmony with it. I go out of my way to ensure its safety. It does not exist for me. It simply exists.
The social: Lady-skull’s social implications are more complex than its physical ones appear to be. Its existence requires many moving parts of an assemblage to work together, and its existence disrupts parts of Kalamazoo College’s assemblage. I acquired the idea of lady-skull because the date was Friday, April 13th. The date was important because Fridays and thirteenths have a social significance, one of spookiness and out of the ordinary happenings. Tattoos likewise have a social significance, one that although is starting to change, is perceived as out of the ordinary, or in less kind terms, not normal. Many tattoo parlors take advantage of the social stigma around tattoos and turn in it into a profitable marketing scheme: enter capitalism, me, my money, my friends, my ability to drive, my ability to sway opinion, and the creation of lady-skull. The Jester’s Quarters was the only shop in the Kalamazoo area offering a Friday the 13th deal. However, it was only a ten-minute drive away. I have gotten a tattoo there before, so I immediately told my friends about the deal, and in a matter of minutes, all three of my roommates were ready to go. Capitalist marketing strategy: check. I work three jobs and have a lot of school debt so usually money is an object, but $13 + $5 gratuity was definitely an available balance. My money: check. As I just mentioned, my friends, all three of which had never gotten a tattoo before, were willing to go, two for moral support, one to get herself some ink. Friends: check. Although my friends are supportive, they don’t have cars on campus, and the one that did, wasn’t supportive enough to use it because I also have one here. Fair enough, my idea, my car. My ability to drive: check. We got to the shop and there was a long wait as expected, so I had time to kill. In those two hours or so, I had convinced the remaining two, to also get a tattoo since they had come all the way down. And after browsing the hundreds of options they had, and one of them choosing her own (to the annoyance of the owner) they all got on board. Ability to sway: check. Finally, 2.5 hours later, I lady-skull was etched into my skin forever. Now all of this is great, but how does it fall into Kalamazoo College’s assemblage?
Lady-skull wouldn’t exist outside of Kalamazoo College’s assemblage and here’s why. I am from a strict family who doesn’t believe tattoos are in any way acceptable. I have six but that’s besides the point. This family lives in Metro-Detroit. All of my previous tattoos were not quite that visible, and although my parents know about them, they were very clear that no more were allowed. Kalamazoo College is where I spend September-June. However, due to the classes I took my sophomore year, I landed an internship with the City of Kalamazoo (partnered with the college). I no longer live at home, I will now live in Kalamazoo Sept. 2018-Aug. 2020. (hopefully graduate school will lead me to NY or CA or MA). The assemblage of classes, professors, supervisors, proprietors, roommates, institutional goals, institutional grants, and opportunity made it possible for me to not have to move back to my parent’s home. Two out of three of my friends, all of whom I met through Kalamazoo College, had similar parental restrictions on them. Therefore, the only way it was possible for them to go and support me and later get their own tattoos, was because of the existence of Kalamazoo College, it’s long, trimester system, and its distance from their homes (Maine, Pennsylvania, California). Furthermore, lady-skull’s existence now holds its own social location. The previous interview I discussed, required the institution’s idea of professional, which excluded tattoos, especially those that included naked women. It is a taboo for the school’s professional staff but at the same time, is a conversation starter for both professors and other students. Lady-skull’s existence has time and again sparked conversations I would have otherwise never had. It speaks for me, it is there, it is hard not to see, so people notice it; they ask about it, why a naked woman? Why a skull? It opens the door for relationships to be formed and holds the risk of relationships being terminated. Lady-skull possess power that I did not have before, one look at it, and people either smile, or get confused. It sparks emotion. It exists, outside of me having it. It is a point of relation, those with tattoos feel familiarity, those without enter a mode of curiosity or judgement. The impact lady-skull has could not be replicated by anything else, not even a different tattoo. The fact that it is a naked woman, and a skull are part in parcel to its social location and how people at Kalamazoo College perceive it.
Lady-skull exists, a part of K’s assemblage but not restricted by anthropocentric ideals, it exists as a tattoo, nothing more, nothing less, negotiating with no one.