Belfast Telegraph

The last word on choosing the right quotation for my latest tattoo

By Mary Kenny

A little while ago, I decided that each springtime - until I shuffle off this mortal coil - I would acquire a new tattoo, and April's a fine time to do it. Last year's tattoo was a sweet little shamrock on my upper arm, but for the new one, I am keen on some form of writing on the flesh.

I see young people with beautiful written tattoos on their necks, ankles, and other exposed parts, often (like David Beckham's) in Sanskrit, or perhaps Tibetan. Tattoo script can be a work of art as well as an inspiring adage.

So what message to choose? For some time, I have pondered over Beckett's famous advice to an actor who feared he was failing at what he was trying to do. "No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." This might be an inspiring aide-memoire to have inscribed into my arm, and the full quote is even longer, beginning "Ever tried: ever failed.." But then my friend Marjorie said it was too downbeat as a permanent marker, and that sowed doubts about its suitability.

There's another Beckett sentence that is even more downbeat which might also have been a contender: "You must go on. I can't go on. I'll go on." Though melancholy, it is also encouraging. The full quotation might be a bit long and existential: "Where I am, I don't know, I'll never know in the silence …"

My late sister Ursula kept a commonplace book of quotations and I perused this tome to see if I should consign any of these cherished words of wisdom to the tattooist's art. I looked at some of the shorter phrases she liked, that might fit across my wrist: "The only really valuable thing is intuition" - that comes from Einstein. I could feel pleasure in looking at that.

Marcus Aurelius, a Stoic from the Roman world who coined many a fine phrase, advised: "Think not so much of what thou hast not, as of what thou hast" - in smaller writing, perhaps, on palm or knuckles. Niftier, and more grimly realistic is a Samurai saying: "Expect nothing; be prepared for anything."

It might be fun to annoy with TS Eliot's crack: "What is Socialism? The hardest, bumpiest, most painful way to capitalism."

A tattoo is something you have to think about, reflect over and feel committed to. I know people have acquired a spontaneous tattoo when they're drunk in Ibiza, and perhaps there's a madcap recklessness about that that's almost admirable, but on the whole, it's not to be recommended. When you are planning your tattoo, you must bear in mind that when you die, this is what will be written on your body. So, I have to choose the message I really, really mean.

I pondered for some time over Soren Kierkegaard's wise axiom: "Life has to be lived forward, but can only be understood backwards." I'm fond of the Gloomy Dane - an honest and radical Christian who believes that a church should never relax into its comfort zone. I like this saying so much - and I think it's so true - that I actually booked a tattoo session to have it cut into my arm.

Then someone suggested that it would be more "authentic" if it was quoted in the original Danish. I deferred the appointment, not just because I thought it might be a bit too pretentious in Danish, but because I began to wonder if this saying, though wise and true, adds anything of practical value to everyday life.

And there's a rueful aspect of the aphorism: understanding life backwards can lead to so many regrets.

If not the Gloomy Dane, how about counsel from the Mad German, old Fred Nietzsche himself? "Live dangerously!" "There are no facts, only interpretations." "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger" - it's disputed whether Nietzsche ever said this, and in any case, I don't think it's true enough to have it electromagnetically inserted on the body. (What doesn't kill you can also weaken you).

Carefully considering what tattoo you'll choose makes you think about why you want a tattoo and, to be honest, I can't fully explain why. Maybe there's a certain excitement about getting a tattoo. Maybe it's faintly pleasurable - the procedure, with its pins-and-needles effect, is said to release dopamine, the pleasure hormone. Maybe it's mildly perverse. Maybe it's a genuine gesture to body art, drawn on some long atavistic memory of our primitive selves.

But I've finally settled on my new spring tattoo, and finally found what I want to have stencilled on my person. When I saw it quoted recently I knew it was exactly right. It's a phrase from John Henry Newman which is so perceptive and so reassuring: "To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often."

What would you choose?

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