By Steven Harowitz (Central Florida)
I broke a well-known rule of life: Don’t get a tattoo on spring break in Panama City when you’re 18.
I placed the Fraternity letters on my right shoulder one sunny day with some of my brothers circled around me. It wasn’t planned and definitely not thought out, but in the moment I felt like it meant enough to me to have the letters placed publicly on my body.
Fast-forward a few months. I’m visiting friends in a sleeveless T-shirt (which warrants an entirely different discussion) when one remarks about my “frat tat.” It was the first of many less-then-enjoyable conversations over the next few years with one central theme:
“Why would you get that on your body… forever?”
It seems that most individuals, even those involved in Greek life, did not feel this permanent choice was wise. As if being a fraternity member was only acceptable as long as I wore my letters in a non-permanent way.
I’m willing to admit this only now with a few years of reflection: I bought into the shaming. I believed the friends and acquaintances who took my choice away from me.
Maybe I shouldn’t have gotten that tattoo. Maybe I should always have it covered so people don’t judge. Maybe I shouldn’t have placed something on my body that wouldn’t identify me as a “frat boy” the rest of my life.
For the majority of the last five years I refused to show my tattoo to people. I would make up an excuse, or say it wasn’t done, or just downright say no. I was afraid I would be labeled, yet again, as a dumb “frat boy” who made a bad choice one spring break. My arms, and fraternal pride, went into hiding.
I placed the letters on my body because I wanted a reminder to myself, and to those who see it, that I strive to live a life based on a set of values.
I helped facilitate an Undergraduate Interfraternity Institute last summer during which I asked a participant to redefine the term “frat hard.” It was written in his Twitter profile and when I pointed it out he apologized and then deleted it. I pushed back, telling him not to run from the term, but to tell people what “fraternity-ing hard” actually meant: living by your values, caring for your brothers and the greater community, leading a life of integrity. A renewed sense of pride rushed over me until I remembered my own refusal to own my fraternal roots. I let those around me take the symbolism of my tattoo and skew it into a generalized, stereotyped version of fraternity. I didn’t have Greek letters (and in correlation, my values) placed on to this once-in-forever body for others; I placed the letters on my body because I wanted a reminder to myself, and to those who see it, that I strive to live a life based on a set of values.
How dare they see this symbol and think it’s a mistake. Those values are tattooed to my heart, mind, and soul; what’s a shoulder in comparison? Even as I write this article at a crowded coffee shop I get antsy thinking the woman next to me saw the title of my article and upon reading “My Fraternity Tattoo” decided I was just another frat boy. It’s an ongoing struggle.
I strive to live a different life. I refuse to let Greek members who live incongruently with their values ruin an experience that helped thousands become leaders in their communities.
I refuse to let people take an experience that has shaped me into the person I am today and decide that it must be the same as that of all others.
I refuse to let others turn my tattoo into a symbol of raging parties that upset entire neighborhoods. I refuse to let my tattoo stand for disrespecting other’s identities. I refuse to let my tattoo stand for hosting theme parties that disparage a community. I refuse to let my tattoo stand for hazing new members because of a skewed perspective of what building brotherhood means.
My tattoo stands for actual community service, where brothers spend their time directly helping others, not planning a philanthropy that just swaps money between organizations. My tattoo stands for not being a bystander if I see someone acting dishonorably. My tattoo stands for supporting my brothers in all their endeavors, not just by liking a Facebook status, but actually showing up at their athletic events or at their bedside when sick.
My tattoo stands for refusing to let Greek professionals be harassed because they held a Greek community accountable for the community’s actions or inactions.
I now wear sleeveless shirts – not because it’s hot outside or because I feel like I have muscles to show off (which believe me, I do not) but rather because I invite the discussion.
“Yeah, I do have a tattoo. I’ve had it for a few years.”
“Yep, those are Greek Letters. I am a member of a Fraternity”
“No, I did not get hazed.”
“No, I didn’t pay for my friends.”
“Do you have a few minutes, I would love to tell you what a true Greek experience looks like.”
My tattoo stands for opportunity to educate others on what Greek membership really stands for. My tattoo stands for Love, Honor, and Truth. My tattoo stands for the pride I carry from being a Sigma Nu and a fraternity man. Want to talk about it?
Steven Harowitz is an initiate of the Mu Psi Chapter at Central Florida and the Coordinator of Student Involvement and Leadership at Washington University in St. Louis.