“Dude, are you alright?” I looked over at the tattoo artist, covered in ink and black clothes, and shot him a grin and a quick response, “Yeah, I’m fine, why?”
He then told an 18-year-old me that people have passed out in his chair, and he just wanted to make sure I wasn’t about to be the latest person to do so on his watch. Nah, I was too “cool” and “tough” to even admit to the fact that it hurt (hey, it kind of did), so I kept up my air of confidence and proudly watched the piece come together.
I watched as he slowly and permanently injected my skin with ink that read “Only God Can Judge Me.” It was a nod to one of my favorite songs by 2Pac, a.k.a. the greatest artist to ever walk the planet according to 18-year-old Andrew. I was proud to have this connection with my hero. Pac's music taught me everything I ever thought I could know about pain, heartbreak, the inner-city, alcohol, drugs—you name it. I lived vicariously through his more aggressive movements (“Hit ‘em Up” of course being the most outlandish) down to his most genuine (a slew of tracks on his best album, Me Against The World). I told myself that there would never come a time when I didn't feel this way about 2Pac, the person who influenced my creativity, who wrote all of my favorite songs, who died way too young (that is still very true!), and who saved me from myself.
It’s hard to pinpoint when the obsession began, though it was definitely around age 15 or 16. It was then that I gravitated toward some of his bigger singles, which landed on my late-night gaming playlists (Starcraft and Diablo II), solely based on the hooks, beats, and songwriting. I, of course, adored and memorized “California Love” like everyone else in the world, and I did the same for “Dear Mama,” “To Live & Die In L.A.,” and “2 of Amerika’z Most Wanted,” among others.
But then something happened and I transformed into a true 2Pac obsessive, scraping my change together to collect every one of his CDs, books about his life or his poetry, and ultimately (semi-)permanently having one of his song titles on my person. Like most 18-year-old kids, I didn’t know who the hell I was or what I wanted to do with myself, so I embraced 2Pac’s angsty, thoughtful, aggressive, heartfelt, and altogether honest music.
Could I really relate to any of it? No. Did I think I did at the time? Of course. And it’s not like it ever got terribly creepy or anything, but here’s a slightly embarrassing revelation: I wrote about how dude was “the most influential person” in my life for my college applications. Not a parent, teacher, or coach; a dead artist whom I’d never met, only idolized.
When I wrote the essay, I wanted to go to school for creative writing, and there was no one more suited to influence me in that regard than 2Pac. I admired his love for the arts, and how he studied acting at the Baltimore School for the Arts. But it was his writing that connected with me, that honesty and genuine feel you get from hearing his voice.
So I started writing, too, mostly horrendous poetry that I’m thrilled to say is difficult to find in any form these days. I wrote about how troubled and alone I was, and I’m 99 percent sure I ripped off the entirety of his song “Until The End of Time” and most of his The Rose That Grew From Concrete collection in my scribblings. Additionally, I just embraced the Me Against The World mindset so much that I felt like everyone was against me (I promise you, they weren’t).
Thinking about it, I’m surprised that the words “Me Against The World” never got stamped on my left bicep. If I had the funds to do so, I probably would have. But I was sure that “Only God Can Judge Me” was the right tat for me. Not only was it one of my favorite 2Pac songs—that synthesized vocal of “Only god can judge me nowwww” is the best—but it also felt like a proud middle-finger to the world. The world that didn’t seem to “get” me at all.
But there were other reasons, too. I desperately wanted something permanent in my life, as everything around me changing, from transitioning to my freshman year of college to my parents getting ready to move away (from Rhode Island to Ohio) And it’s hard to admit it even now, but I was terribly depressed then, to the extent I wish someone had noticed or stepped in to tell me things were going to get better and that it was going to be okay. Instead, I shut nearly everyone out. I had friends and I socialized, but I also contemplated killing myself more than a handful of times. I never attempted it or hurt myself in any way, but if things ever got bad, I had a plan for how it would go (driving into a light pole at a very high speed).
Luckily, though, I had 2Pac’s music. I found solace in his pain because I thought I knew what the hell he was going through. I thought I knew what it was like to be young, black, and rich in a world that I felt was trying to destroy me. All I really knew, though, was that I was young and lost, heartbroken and alone after a breakup, and hoping someone would help. That help came through 2Pac's music, his written words, and in his 2003 biopic, Tupac: Resurrection, which I loved. These words reminded me that I wasn’t the only one who ever felt that way.
I was constantly memorizing and jotting down lyrics in my journal, which I kept as a means of chronicling my thoughts and working on my writing. I can remember pulling from tracks like “Me Against The World” (With all this extra stressin'/ The question I wonder is after death, after my last breath/ When will I finally get to rest through this suppression?), “Until The End Of Time” (Perhaps I was addicted to the dark side/ Somewhere inside my childhood witnessed my heart die), “Unconditional Love” (Hoping for better days/ Maybe a peaceful night, baby don't cry/ Cause everything gonna be alright), and countless others. I used those lyrics and others as my away messages on AOL Instant Messenger, too, wishing that someone would read them and at least ask if I was doing alright. That never happened, though, and instead I continued listening, writing, and spiraling.
In spite of my depression, the tattoo gave me a bit of a bright spot and a minor shot of confidence. In addition to feeling somewhat badass for getting it, I loved explaining what I meant, even in the face of perceived judgment. I figured my dad would get upset over my ink (he’s kind of conservative about tattoos), so I was sweating through my shirt with anxiety when I showed it to him. But as I grew increasingly excited during my explanation of impermanence and 2Pac’s meaning to my creativity, I could tell he was just happy that I was happy.
Yet as the years passed, I grew tired of explaining the tattoo and what it meant. What was once thrilling became an embarrassment, primarily because my connection to 2Pac was fading fast. By age 24, I was moving from one musical obsession to the next: Swedish indie pop, to shoegaze and noise rock, to spiritual jazz and bebop, to nearly every corner of hip-hop. But 2Pac? Nope. My new favorite artists were the Foreign Exchange, the Roots, Kanye West, Queens of the Stone Age, Boris, the Melvins, Neko Case.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t use some of their music to cope with emotions, even serious ones (hey, I proposed to my wife at a Foreign Exchange show), but those feelings of rage and depression escaped me. I couldn’t tell you the last time I actively listened to a song by my former idol (aside from doing “California Love” a few times at a karaoke spot). I’ve heard “Dear Mama” and “Changes” on the radio dozens of times over the years, and I can still rap along to every word. But have I fired up Me Against The World and contemplated my existence? No, and I probably never will again.
I just can’t imagine returning to that place of depression and anger that allowed me to feel so deeply connected to 2Pac’s music. I like to believe that I went through that pain so I wouldn’t have to live that particular emotional pain again. I haven’t felt that devastating level of sadness in many years, and I’m no longer lost. I consider myself very lucky for that, especially I have an amazing wife and family I can call on whenever I come remotely close to feeling down. I cherish that more than I could ever describe. My tattoo and 2Pac’s music and poetry may have actually meant something to me (and stayed on my body) had I died at like… 22. But as a happy, well-adjusted, and confident 31-year-old who just wants to fish on the beach with the option to take his shirt off and not give some convoluted explanation of his ink? I’ll take the nearly $600 bill and rounds of lasers, please.
On June 4, 2016 I was in a similar venue to the tattoo parlor, but with a few key differences. This one smelled of burnt hair (laser hair removal is offered there) and was definitely not trying to be hip. From the table I was perched on, to the tools surrounding it, the room resembled a doctor’s office.
“Has anyone ever cried while you’ve done this?” I asked Noushi Haeussler, the laser technician gearing up to point a hot-as-the-goddamned-sun device at my right bicep. She laughed and told me that, no, no one’s ever cried during the procedure. But, she added, as I took her up on her offer to grip a stuffed football to cope with the pain, “I’ve had people pass out.”
I can assure you that the lasers most definitely hurt. Noushi never asked what the tattoo meant or why it was coming off. She laughed instead as she told me about a patient who went through two rounds of lasering in one sitting because he so urgently wanted his cheating ex-spouse’s name off his body. For me, though, the whole idea of getting a tattoo had nothing to do with a relationship or any particular triumph or fond memory that had since been soured. It was the opposite: I was depressed, and I wanted to feel connected to my hero. But now? The fading ink on my arm is a relic of my depression—something I’m happy to report has turned into a manageable neurosis.
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