semicolon tattoo
July 14, 2015 9:30 PM   Subscribe

“A semicolon is used when an author could’ve chosen to end their sentence, but chose not to. The author is you and the sentence is your life."

the semicolon project: "Today I went to a tattoo artist, and for $60 I let a man with a giant Jesus-tattoo on his head ink a semi-colon onto my wrist where it will stay until the day I die. By now, enough people have started asking questions that it made sense for me to start talking, and talking about things that aren’t particularly easy.

[...] I got this tattoo as a promise to myself that I would never willingly end my sentence. I got it as a reminder to take this summer as a pause, and then to keep going strong next year. I also got this this tattoo to open up conversations between myself and other humans about mental illness, because as difficult as mental illness is, what’s more difficult is feeling stigmatized. Or like you failed. Or like people are feeling sorry for you."

*Project Semicolon: "your story isn't over yet"
*GIS for "semicolon tattoo"
posted by flex (48 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
 
"A longstanding grammar myth says we’re not supposed to end a sentence with a preposition."*

"I know many of you were taught that you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition, but it’s a myth. In fact, I consider it one of the top ten grammar myths because many people believe it’s true, but nearly all grammarians disagree, at least in some cases..."**

"Some of these groundless rules (termed ‘fetishes’ by Henry Fowler in 1926) have a long history. Back in the 17th and 18th centuries, some notable writers (aka Latin-obsessed 17th century introverts) tried to make English grammar conform to that of Latin – hence the veto on split infinitives and also the ruling against the ending of a sentence with a preposition (also called stranding or deferring a preposition).

These and other language myths are amazingly persistent, though, so who you gonna call? Oxford’s Myth Debunkers, of course! To kick off this occasional series, let’s try to zap the one about stranded prepositions and lay it to rest once and for all."***
posted by flex at 9:54 PM on July 14, 2015 [9 favorites]


I love semicolons. They are my favourite punctuation mark; I use them all the time.
posted by jb at 9:54 PM on July 14, 2015 [28 favorites]


It's interesting how well that usage of the semicolon fits with the MeFi convention of periods in obit threads.
posted by drinkyclown at 10:02 PM on July 14, 2015 [33 favorites]


Wouldn't an ellipsis be more appropriate?
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:08 PM on July 14, 2015 [3 favorites]


I am fond of semicolons, also. It allows for a certain cadence in written discourse that is hard to capture through other means.
posted by SpacemanStix at 10:11 PM on July 14, 2015 [5 favorites]


I made this choice a long time ago, and it's best summarized by the opening line of Dar Williams' "After All": "When I chose to live, there was no joy, it's just a line I crossed."

I have my own future tattoo planned that commemorates this affirmation. It's not this, and is much more personal to me, but I love this movement. Suicide is, by and large, highly impulsive, subject to very subtle differences in environment (such as changing the lighting from red-tinted to blue) and not usually re-attempted. I imagine just seeing evidence of people proudly wearing their decision to live will help a lot of people to make that call themselves.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:24 PM on July 14, 2015 [10 favorites]


I love this. Love love love the attention suicide and mental illness is getting, and it's great that positive images like these, celebrating people winning the struggle, are making mainstream media.

And at the same time, I have Kurt Vonnegut's voice in my head saying "Don't use semicolons! ... All they do is show you've been to college.” Shhhh, Kurt! You're missing the point entirely!
posted by greermahoney at 10:49 PM on July 14, 2015 [6 favorites]


Wasn't there some controversy the other day about a tattoo artist who refused to tattoo an Oxford comma on some gal's neck?
posted by Nevin at 10:49 PM on July 14, 2015 [3 favorites]


Oh, blargh, some of us have semicolon tattoos that have nothing to do with this. Curse you, popular symbols! Curse you.
posted by Charity Garfein at 12:08 AM on July 15, 2015 [8 favorites]


Interesting idea, but by like Joe in Australia , I would have assumed an ellipsis would be more fitting as a symbol for "more to come".
posted by greenhornet at 12:17 AM on July 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


In Greek, the ; symbol is the question mark.
posted by tepidmonkey at 12:33 AM on July 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


Why is the sentence winking at me?!
posted by Brocktoon at 12:34 AM on July 15, 2015


Oh, blargh, some of us have semicolon tattoos that have nothing to do with this.

If you're willing to share, I'd love to know what your semicolon tattoo is involved with.
posted by hippybear at 1:00 AM on July 15, 2015


This is great, and I'm glad that those with depression can find some sense of community with a shared symbol like this. That said! The grammarian part of me questions the usage of the semicolon...to symbolize depression? Not that I can think of a symbol that does, really, but a semicolon is mainly used to fuse together otherwise independent clauses/sentences so that their combination naturally compliments one another. Not sure how depression fits in, but I guess it's at the very least a good conversation starter--which is what tattoos should be doing anyway--so I'll allow it.
posted by zardoz at 1:36 AM on July 15, 2015 [5 favorites]


a good conversation starter--which is what tattoos should be doing anyway

I don't ask people about their tattoos. I probably do not want to know the reason why someone would tattoo a giant Jesus or evil red-nosed clown on their head, but mostly it just seems awkward. Does someone who (maybe impulsively, maybe for deeply personal reasons) inks a semi-colon on their skin really want people to ask about it? It seems rude to presume an invitation where none may exist.

It is helpful to know the trademark meaning of this particular tattoo so I am grateful to read about it here.
posted by three blind mice at 2:20 AM on July 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


I have to say that every person I've met with visible tattoos has always been very happy to talk about them, even when their meaning has been highly personal. Tattoos are a form of communication, and they're not just a way for someone to speak to themselves. YMMV of course...
posted by YAMWAK at 2:29 AM on July 15, 2015


I'm 60. Young, the only people I knew who had tattoos were sailors or marines who got inked on a drunken shore leave. And/or pseudo bad guys, or -- and just a few of these -- guys that really were bad guys, bikers and the like.

I never saw a tattoo on a woman until I moved to Texas in 1977, really rough women with hard, flat eyes, dancers and biker chicks or both of those.

So I never wanted a tattoo, not at all a fit for me, I just couldn't think of anything I'd want to have on my body the rest of my life. (Though I do recall very well a gorgeous prison tatt some guy had on his shoulder and upper back, a three-masted ship under a stout breeze -- this man was wearing Capital A Art on his body. I'd be glad to give someone five hundred bucks to have that on my shoulder.)

Then in maybe 1994 I saw a short movie at the Austin film festival, a woman singer in a thrash-trash band who had a very cool band around her bicep, and for about fifteen or twenty minutes it was cool to have a tattoo. But since then it has turned mostly into a symbol of conformity: "Look at how cool and non-conformist I am with my bright tattoo of a Greek god of antiquity." or whatever, somehow not noticing that everyone else has them also.

I am just now, just here in this past year, I am just now beginning to notice younger people *not* getting tattoos, so as to not be at all associated with their Aunt Myrtle, who got a "Jesus Is Our Lord Savior" tattoo on her shoulder....

I'm reminded of how young people began to bail out of facebook once their Aunt Myrtle got an account there.

I wrote all that to write this: This semi-colon is the only tattoo that I would consider putting on my body. I won't do it, for all the reasons elucidated above, but it's the best use of ink on an arm that I can think of.

Most of us don't need ink on our arms, most of us who have had guns in our mouths I mean -- it's in our eyes, and others who have been there can see it, damn sure can hear it if we're in conversation with one another.

Still, this semi-colon tattoo bit is A Good Thing, seems to me, stamp it loud and proud on an arm, a declaration, and an opening -- "I didn't pull the trigger, and here I am, smiling. Maybe you don't need to pull the trigger either. Wanna go talk?"
posted by dancestoblue at 2:31 AM on July 15, 2015 [29 favorites]


When I die, whether by suicide, illness, accident, or old age, if anyone gets a "memorial tattoo" that has anything to do with me, I will come back to life just to find them and punch them in the face.
posted by crazylegs at 3:21 AM on July 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


In programming, many languages uses a semicolon to denote the end of a statement, as a programmer who have had bouts of depression, this was kinda ironic to me. But I'm all for having people being more willing to discuss depression and suicide.
posted by numaner at 3:43 AM on July 15, 2015 [7 favorites]


Yeah, as a coder, I associate a semicolon with an end-of-line terminator not a continuation symbol.
posted by octothorpe at 4:07 AM on July 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


But since then it has turned mostly into a symbol of conformity: "Look at how cool and non-conformist I am with my bright tattoo of a Greek god of antiquity." or whatever, somehow not noticing that everyone else has them also.

You're projecting! The FPP itself is about one of the many, many other reasons that people get tattoos.
posted by Drexen at 4:10 AM on July 15, 2015 [16 favorites]


I have a friend who has severe Crohn's and has long been pondering a semi-colon tattoo as a representation of her struggles with it. I'm kind of frustrated on her behalf that her subtle snark has been usurped. (I say that as someone who has struggled with depression my entire life...)
posted by librarianamy at 4:41 AM on July 15, 2015 [8 favorites]


Cool, now semicolons are going to trigger me. That's awesome.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 4:49 AM on July 15, 2015


Nah, internet fraud detective squad- you mentally reframe it as people who have had partial colectomies (like me) and then it will just give you the shits (like me). [hugs]
posted by taff at 5:09 AM on July 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


a semicolon is mainly used to fuse together otherwise independent clauses/sentences so that their combination naturally compliments one another
There have been some turning points in my life for which this is actually a pretty good metaphor; come to think of it, my decision to enter therapy for depression was one of them. This gives me an idea...
posted by Zeinab Badawi's Twenty Hotels at 5:19 AM on July 15, 2015


When I die, whether by suicide, illness, accident, or old age, if anyone gets a "memorial tattoo" that has anything to do with me, I will come back to life just to find them and punch them in the face.

You should probably work on your anger issues, then, because that is an overreaction to someone wanting to remember you after you've died.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 5:26 AM on July 15, 2015 [12 favorites]


Semicolon cancer is the third leading cause of literary death
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 5:34 AM on July 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


But it's not a Tumblr fad - it's also a Twitter #hashtag
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 5:46 AM on July 15, 2015


I have ambivalent, not-completely-formed feelings about a bandwagon approach to a deeply personal feeling and gesture. On the one hand, I'm concerned that the trendiness might cheapen the meaning a bit. On the other, I think we're long overdue for a shared, widely acknowledged, accurate, and empathetic understanding of mental illness and especially suicidal ideation, and I can get on board with anything that helps us feel safe to talk about it.
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:52 AM on July 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


Yeah, I have mixed feelings about this... I was taken aback the first time I saw the clickbait "You won't believe what this semicolon tattoo represents!" headline because semicolon tattoos are a pretty longstanding fixture in the IBD (Crohn's and ulcerative colitis) community but not something I would expect outsiders to care about. This is cool and all but it's definitely not what it means to me.
posted by telegraph at 5:53 AM on July 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


Ughhhh. I've had a semicolon tattoo for like 10 years (writer / designer / programmer — works for all three!) and I really hate the idea people are going to start thinking I'm making a statement that I'm not. It's not a bad statement & time will rush on but I will admit "people attempt to redefine unpopular punctuation mark" was not on my list of reasons to consider when getting a tattoo.
posted by dame at 6:17 AM on July 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


I never understood the appeal of tattoos at all until I saw Lutoslawski's explanation of them in a recent thread. I still don't want one personally, but I've buttoned up my snark on them, probably for good. And in the context of these semicolon tattoos, that explanation makes perfect sense.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 6:28 AM on July 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


I've seen this pop up on Facebook a few times lately, framed as "If you see someone with a semicolon tattoo THIS is what it means!" which, ugh. Full respect to that meaning for that person/those people but please. It's frustrating to to see ANY single interpretation/meaning be universally attached or distilled into something that was once interpretable. A narrowing of our collective ability to be thoughtful.
posted by dirtdirt at 7:04 AM on July 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


Another semicolon tattoo sporter here, made a tiny bit uncomfortable by this.

If you're willing to share, I'd love to know what your semicolon tattoo is involved with.

To me it’s a reminder of a kind of optimism and long view that I find helpful, and that in fact has been helpful to me in climbing back out of depression. It says: there’s more ahead, and that what’s ahead will help define what came before but will also be able to stand on its own. To mix metaphors, it reminds me that I’m always at a pivot between independent clauses. It reminds me to take a long breath, and to pay attention to my verbs. I’d been thinking about getting the tattoo for years, but the immediate cause was an anguishing pregnancy loss. (It means other, lighter things to me too; some people regard it as cheeky, or geeky, or silly, or even as an emoticon wink, and all that’s fine to me.)

I am 100% on board with anything that destigmatizes mental illness! Even stigmata! This suicide-related use of semicolon tattoos really resonates with me, and it’s closely aligned with my own reasons for getting one... yet I find the organized use of it vexing. Uncharitably, this might be a whiny touch of “ugh I did that BEFORE it was on buzzfeed” or Snowflake-No-Longer-Quite-So-Specialism. OTOH I heard about Project Semicolon from my MIL, who saw it on upworthy and immediately told me “Oh, so THIS is what your tattoo really means.” I’m not looking forward to that sort of assumption being made about something that has felt deeply personal & private.
posted by miles per flower at 7:44 AM on July 15, 2015 [6 favorites]


If you're willing to share, I'd love to know what your semicolon tattoo is involved with.

Mine is just because I love semicolons, honestly. I love the way they work in sentences to relate what comes before and after in a manner less explicit than a conjunction. Typographically they can be so telling of the typeface's aesthetics. Mine was drawn by a cartoonist friend because I couldn't find a mass-produced one I liked well enough. In parsing programming languages, they serve to indicate the end of an expression and I love that about them, too.
posted by dame at 8:17 AM on July 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


I'm really disappointed in the people who are upset that other people are using this symbol for their own personal meaning, as though -my- choice to participate in this project (have not yet, it's in the works) somehow diminishes the meaning of someone else's choice to have a similar tattoo for other reasons.

Yo - my potential semicolon on my shoulder/upper arm to remind me to keep going with all the things I struggle to keep going every day doesn't diminish your semi-colon that signifies your love of punctuation or your struggles with intestinal disorders, okay? No more than my friends' monarch butterfly tattoo as a symbol of journey and rebirth is lessened by someone else's butterfly tattoo they got because they study bugs, okay?
posted by FritoKAL at 8:33 AM on July 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


We've done 13 semicolon tattoos at the shop (while I've been here) so far this week. People walk in with the idea that they're the only one who thought to get that tattoo, and they hate hearing that we're doing a lot of them. One guy actually changed his mind and got a hideous (my opinion - it was meaningful to him) anchor tattoo instead.

This summer's semicolons are last year's bird outlines are 2000's five-pointed stars.

There's a reason you see the same symbols pop up in tattoos. They are packed with meaning. I have a ton of roses, but never would I ever think I'm the only one who ever thought to get a rose tattoo. My roses mean I took a painful situation (scars from self-harm) and transformed it into something beautiful. Not to cover it up, just augment it. There are memorial roses, religious roses, wedding roses, more kinds of roses than I can count.

Same way with the semicolon. It's easy to dismiss a person who gets one by calling them a trendbag or whatever, but the semicolon people come across to me as really earnest and heartfelt. Especially compared to the bird outline people, a disproportionate number of whom have been nightmare clients.

I myself showed my love of typesetting with a tattoo that says stet in red ink.
posted by S'Tella Fabula at 9:15 AM on July 15, 2015 [16 favorites]


Hmmm. Feeling a little conflicted about this, because while I certainly understand the overall impulse, I also have permanent, visible reminders of (let's say) very bad thoughts, and have learned that the fact that other people are curious about them does not mean that I'm always down to chat about super-heavy shit whenever someone else is. I just wonder if the folks who are getting these tattoos know the extent of what they're signing up for in actively inviting those conversations, because it can really fuck up your day when you're least expecting it.

When people see all the scars on my arms, the vibe gets ultra-solemn even if we're literally at a party -- no one, not even mental health professionals, understands or even acknowledges self-injury uncoupled from lethal intent. Everyone just assumes it's all from suicide attempts and proceeds thusly. Their eyes get big as saucers, they put a comforting hand on my shoulder and ask if I'm all right, and sometimes they even ask me what exactly happened that resulted in those scars (fave answer: shark fight!). But the existence of their questions does not equate to any kind of availability on my part to provide them with the answers they seek. It just means that I happen to have a heavily scarred meat-suit and it's kind of impossible to hide the parts that are scarred without wearing long-sleeved turtlenecks every day of the year. So I get sucked into this whole "seriously, if you're really OK, why did you do that?" conversation WAY more often than I'm actually emotionally capable of having it.

Like I was at a rap show a few weeks ago and a woman I didn't know at all grabbed my arm, flipped it over (I have a big thick scar that runs from wrist to elbow, tattooed over but still very visible) and said, so sincerely, "Girl, are you OK?" And I just fucking BURST INTO TEARS at her, because as much as I try to grit my teeth and smile at well-meaning strangers who say that sort of thing, I wasn't prepared to Go There Right Then. She was perfectly nice and I don't begrudge her concern at all, but I'm so used to living in this fucked-up body that I forget how unusual and alarming, even urgent, it seems to be in other people's eyes. With that in mind... Is everyone who's taking part in this project going to have psychological reserves built up to deal with any/all questions and comments that might arise as a result whenever a curious bystander appears in the wild? I dunno.

The idea of volunteering oneself to have totally intense conversations with strangers and acquaintances at the drop of a dime is an absolute mystery to me but the reasoning really doesn't have to be legible to anyone on earth except the person with the tattoo. And as long as it's not hurting anyone else, I feel duty-bound to give props to any and everything anyone in the world does to help themselves survive.
posted by divined by radio at 9:29 AM on July 15, 2015 [13 favorites]


I'm really disappointed in the people who are upset that other people are using this symbol for their own personal meaning, as though -my- choice to participate in this project (have not yet, it's in the works) somehow diminishes the meaning of someone else's choice to have a similar tattoo for other reasons.

Well for my part, it isn't so much what it means to other folks as the hard push that says "_this_ is what a semicolon means, full stop, for everyone". Already people are getting "I read what your tattoo meant on Upworthy!" and that is kinda crappy. To get a retroactive default meaning that you weren't able to predict or consider when you got it done. And that is probably the risk of getting something permanent, future semantic shift, but I don't think it is unreasonable people are less-than-thrilled about it.
posted by dame at 10:30 AM on July 15, 2015 [8 favorites]


And death i think is no parenthesis
posted by kirkaracha at 10:39 AM on July 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


Before reading this article I thought people were getting this tattoo as a joke after having part of their colon removed, e.g. for diverticulitis or Crohn's.
posted by w0mbat at 11:46 AM on July 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


Thank God it's not my *
(ass-to-risk)
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 11:49 AM on July 15, 2015


w0mbat as we've covered upthread that is actually extremely common (although I don't know if "joke" is the right word for it).
posted by telegraph at 11:54 AM on July 15, 2015


guess it's at the very least a good conversation starter--which is what tattoos should be doing anyway

Ugh. I hate this insistence that all tattoos should have some deeper meaning. I'm glad I've reached the point of coverage where people have stopped asking asinine questions about what deep meanings my tattoos MUST have, and instead merely say stupid shit like, "Wow, you sure have a lot of tattoos!" or "I think you have enough tattoos, honey. You don't need to get anymore."

As for this semi-colon thing, if it gives people hope and helps them out, that's awesome. I don't have enough faith in the overall compassion of the human race that I'd be comfortable getting a tattoo like that in a public location.
posted by mollymayhem at 1:26 PM on July 15, 2015


As for this semi-colon thing, if it gives people hope and helps them out, that's awesome. I don't have enough faith in the overall compassion of the human race that I'd be comfortable getting a tattoo like that in a public location.

This is my concern, this and what divined by radio said above. In concept I think it's pretty damn great. It is astonishing the effect that letting people know that they're not alone has. Giving someone who's damaged a sign that you're damaged too and we're all in this together can be life-changing.

But then there are those who fall somewhere on the social graces spectrum between well-meaning-but-thoughtless and straight-up-motherfucker. And when they see your tattoo you'll have to either be ready for a difficult conversation or else be good at sizing them up and lying about what it means.
posted by middleclasstool at 2:04 PM on July 15, 2015


In Greek, the ; symbol is the question mark.

And it's a separate Unicode character, so if you really really hate a programmer, secretly replace all the semicolons in their code with Greek question marks and never tell them.
posted by Ian A.T. at 2:23 PM on July 15, 2015 [5 favorites]


She was perfectly nice and I don't begrudge her concern at all,
I kind of do. That is not a safe way for her to interact with strangers who have survived physical trauma, never mind that her inference about the cause in your case was at least partially correct. She could not have known and, although I understand why you are giving her the benefit of the doubt in assuming she had your well-being as her sole motivation, the risk that she is going to retraumatize someone by demanding, entirely on the basis of their visible evidence of serious physical damage, that they check in with her, a complete stranger, is much higher than the likelihood that she is going to provide a valuable service to someone in mental health crisis. I get that, "You OK, sis?" is an important community support intervention, but oh my God, use your damn common sense, people.
To bring this around to the FPP, giving the world carte blanche to have a conversation about mental illness is terrific. Giving the world carte blanche to have a conversation about your particular mental illness is no slight undertaking and - given that depression is among the relapsing/remitting chronic mental illnesses - not necessarily the safest decision you could make for yourself (the general you of people who live with mental illness not anyone here in particular).
posted by gingerest at 4:36 PM on July 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


Ugh. I hate this insistence that all tattoos should have some deeper meaning.

Andrew WK gets asked about his tattoos a lot, and his answer is always the same -- they don't mean anything.
posted by hippybear at 2:54 AM on July 16, 2015


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