Yes, and that’s the purpose. They got tattoos so that they could look more than just animals, or human beings, to outsiders. Because when a slave came to the colonies, they said, “I am not that kind of man, but I am a slave of the colony.” There’s a lot going on. But then the tattoo became a symbol and a way to show that you were a slave. And it wasn’t just about being slave. I don’t know if they thought it was a symbol of being a black slave, but the tattoo made you look black. Slaveholders, of course, thought it was a symbol of being a free man, and the tattoo made you look free. In New York, when they began to have more slaves, it became a symbol of emancipation as well. It became a kind of symbol of free Blackness and freedom that was not just a Black man. There were people that used the tattoo all over the city. And it became a symbol of the slaves and the freedom that they wanted to achieve, and to be free. It became so popular that, in fact, they would have a person take a picture and have the tattoo put on their body. But, yeah, slaves had to think about all the possibilities. There was nothing more exciting than slaves thinking about freedom.
I’m curious that your relationship to your own tattoos has shifted a lot over the decades with so much history and so many people involved. You had to deal with a lot of people. How did you get along?
Well, first, you had to be careful not to make too much of it. This was the New York that I grew up in. And when you grow up in New York you are trained for a whole lot of things. All the things that you had to be trained for were here. And as a black man in New York, if you got into any trouble, you were going to have to pay for it. And you were just so busy, you didn’t have time for the tattoo. So you had to be careful not to just let it take over you, because you had some responsibilities to take care of. And then there was that other element, which was like, this would be too much. It had to go away right away, because you were going to keep having to worry about it, because then you would have to deal with it. And what was good about the tattoo was that they could get rid of it easily. It didn’t always have to go
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