I first heard of the Semicolon Tattoo Project last year, when photos began turning up on Facebook of people tattooed with semicolons—with black marks, a period atop a comma, a black hole above the swirl of a galaxy, a curve of road leading to a break and then a pit—marks that had meant one thing since 1494 and that now meant something else entirely.
The Semicolon Tattoo Project began as an internet meme, on Facebook and Tumblr, with people around the world drawing pictures of semicolons on their wrists and then posting photos. The idea was that if a person was feeling suicidal, was feeling like putting a period at the end of his or her life sentence, then he or she should put a semicolon there instead. It was a way for those who were suicidal to show resolve and for others to show solidarity.
Last year a couple of Albuquerque locals noticed the meme. They suggested that maybe instead of just drawing semicolons on themselves, they’d tattoo them, get others to do the same and make it a charity event. King’s Kreation Tattoo joined in, and almost 300 people came. For most of a day, five tattoo artists were kept busy.
“Everybody showed up. It was this amazing kind of thing where people came together. Students ... professionals ... older ... younger ... there was no one demographic,” says project manager Jonathon Cottrell. “Suicide and self-harm touch every part of our community, and there’s such a stigma about talking about them. Everybody is going through this. Everybody is having to deal with these issues.”
Depression and suicide have long been a part of my family, and for that reason I can be skeptical of anything that seems to say, in essence, Willpower! Or, Just remember, life is worth it! Because it’s always more complicated than that.
This year, the 2nd Annual Semicolon Tattoo event will be even bigger than the first, bringing together eight Albuquerque tattoo shops. Forty different tattoo artists at eight different tattoo parlors—Aces Tattoo (2737 San Mateo NE), Archetype Dermigraphic Studio/Gallery (529 Adams), Ascension Body Modification (3600 Central SE), Blue Jay Tattoo (1605 Golf Course SE), King’s Kreation Tattoo (117 Seventh Street NW), Por Vida Tattoo (1014 Central SW), Stay Gold Tattoo (123 Yale SE) and 71 Tattoo (9800 Montgomery NE)—will spend all of Saturday, March 15, in a semicolon-tattooing frenzy. There will be raffle prizes donated by charitable local businesses, an afterparty called Rhythm and Words at ArtBar (119 Gold SW) at 7pm, and a benefit concert, A Cause for Rock!, at the Launchpad (618 Central SW) at the same time. All of these events will benefit the Agora Crisis Center, a valuable clinic and service provider that does necessary counseling work for the community. Agora also has a suicide hotline, 1-866-HELP-1-NM, that people can call when they’re in trouble or simply need to talk. For more information, see the event’s website at signalonethreemedia.com/
I have to admit that when I first heard about this project, I was skeptical. I have an unspoken general policy against inscribing Facebook memes permanently on my skin. But mainly, I come from a family riven with issues of depression and suicide, and I’m wary of easy responses. My dad’s sister killed herself, my older sister killed herself, my mom chose to die by refusing to continue dialysis or get a kidney transplant, I can get pretty depressed myself, and lately my younger brother has been in and out of emergency rooms and rehab clinics—for alcohol poisoning, overdoses and attempted suicide. Depression and suicide have long been a part of my family, and for that reason I can be skeptical of anything that seems to say, in essence, Willpower! Or, Just remember, life is worth it! Because it’s always more complicated than that.
But then I learned of all the money that this project will raise for Agora and Agora’s invaluable hotline. …
These tattoos allow people to discuss something that needs to be discussed, and they create a living, shifting, local archipelago of caring people.
I’ve known, for instance, that my brother needs something. But what I highly doubted—what I found incredibly unlikely—is that what he needed was to pay $30 to get a little tattoo of a semicolon to remind himself that life is worth living: to remind him not to put a period on his life, but to use the sort of punctuation that allows a sentence to continue. It sounded to me, at first, like an inadequate trifle, like a bit of feel-good emo sentiment detached from an impossibly difficult reality.
But then I learned of all the money that this project will raise for Agora and Agora’s invaluable hotline. I talked to people for whom this project has made a real difference. Gregory Pleshaw, a local writer and former Alibi staffer/editor, got one last year as his first tattoo ever and now says, “It kept me alive this year. It’s been a crazy year. ... The symbolism is very appropriate. Like, very real.”
These tattoos allow people to discuss something that needs to be discussed, and they create a living, shifting, local archipelago of caring people. See someone with a semicolon tattoo, and it’s somewhat safe to assume you could talk to that person and find in them a degree of sympathy and understanding. And it’s a way for people to remind themselves not to give up, to hang on, that situations change, that you change, that everything might improve if only you can make it through the very worst of it.
It’s also—and don’t underestimate this—something to try. Something to try when you don’t know what to try. Something for when, sometimes, life is so painful, you’d try anything to make it better.