Play of the day

This play of the day is really a play of many days: my tattoo.

Porteños love my tattoo. Not a week passes without someone commenting on, asking about, or staring at it. Just today I caught a gringo on a bus eyeing my arm. This has meant I have had to learn to explain it in Spanish. I’m able to do this relatively well, although it is considerably easier to explain its history in my own tongue. My description here in Buenos Aires goes something like this: “Es un diagrama que viene de un texto de la lingüística por Ferdinand de Saussure. Indica la distancia entre lo que decimos o escribimos y lo que queremos decir.”

This usually works, though I’ve been asked to further explain, which I do, usually by giving an example. Like this: “Cuando decimos ‘perro,’ hay una distancia conceptual entre la palabra y el perro de que estamos hablando. La palabra y la cosa no son nunca la misma cosa.”

I can’t say that Saussure would be particularly pleased with my interpretation, but surely he would have understood the attempt. The point is this: the tattoo is the best conversation starter I’ve had throughout my stay here. It is the easiest way to meet a stranger, to talk to someone new. It also serves as a marker of who I am. The fishmonger down the block remembers me because of it, so does the jeweler at the closest ferria. Even the girl who works at the university coffee shop remembers me as “la chica con el tatuaje genial.” She goes straight for the espresso machine to make my café con leche.

This is made all the more satisfying because it is a tattoo about language, about the difficulty of saying what one means. Needless to say, I have trouble saying what I mean all the time, in any language.

Marking oneself in such a way gives your body a different sort of life. You become a text. The danger, of course, is that like all texts, you cannot control its readings, its life on the page or the arm or the screen. Your mark bears with it all kinds of meanings, many of which you might wish it did not. In the end, I suppose, this is true of all of the things we use to indicate who we are, tattoos or words or anything else. That glance from the other seems forever to read us in ways we do not read ourselves or do not wish to be read. This is a glorious thing, sometimes, and a wretched thing, sometimes.

Either way: here’s to the moments when at least the act of reading or speaking brings the word and the thing it is supposed to mean at least a little bit closer together–even if only for a moment and even if the gap between them, though mitigated, always looms. And to the moments when, if you’re lucky, you can communicate something, anything, about who you are to the people around you.

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