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  • Almost immediately after my brother died, I wanted to get a tattoo to mark his passing, and to mark myself. Though I have little artistic ability—none really—I played around with various ideas. Mostly they were versions of his initials with dates of birth and death, usually in lowercase courier. Like this:


    28 sept ’87 – 15 july ‘10

    I imagined there’d be some image also, something non-text. Even as someone who loves and fetishizes and worries over words, I am wary of wearing them on my person. I thought maybe an owl because I believed at first that “nite owl” was a nickname from the life of his I didn’t know. But as it turned out it was the tag of one of Andrew’s downtown artsy/DJ/model friends. Then I thought I should surround his initials with falling stars but that just seemed kind of kitschy and too simple for something so three dimensional.

    I thought about having his name inked on my arm in his own handwriting. But the only signature of his I have is his pained furious scratching on his suicide note that I’d taken from my parents’ house along with a copy of his death certificate.

    Whatever it was, it was going to be on my left wrist, my writing hand. I’d wear it as a gauntlet, as both protection and punishment.

    After months of sketching and envisioning, I realized though that I didn’t want to carry that on my body for the rest of my life. The more I thought about it, I didn’t want to carry any of it. To have this etched on my skin seemed less like a gauntlet and more like a shackle or an identification number. It was enough that I woke up and went to sleep with him scratched into the space behind my eyelids, and in the between hours, I carried a heavy garbage bag full of nothing over my shoulder. It was enough that my body reeked of his loss. That my brother was dead was always already written all over me. A tattoo would be overkill, self-indulgent, a badge of the shame I felt. I didn’t want to wear a tombstone on my wrist for the rest of my life.

    But I wanted the pain of the motorized needle on a vulnerable fleshy place. And I wanted to see my blood. I wanted also the sign that something had changed. That I had changed. That there was a Before and an After.

    So on my right wrist I got a crisp five-pointed black star, a symbol of hope and possibility across the 20th century for black people across the globe. And a private reminder of Andrew’s and my potential. The kind of gauntlet that allows for passage through the narrowest of spaces. Even then I think I had hope that there would be an After after the After.
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