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I got my first tattoo on the day of my eighteenth birthday. Three months later, I had two more. All my life, I’ve been around tattoos. My uncle, Ron Koupal, is a professional tattoo artist. He works for Void Collective, a tattoo shop located in Copenhagen, Denmark. This is where he gave me my second and third tattoos this past summer. My dad, a veteran who served 21 years in the United States Coast Guard, has tattoos on every limb. The same can be said for another uncle of mine. My mother and older brother also have tattoos. You get the point. 

The months leading up to my eighteenth birthday were basically ruled by one question: What is my first tattoo going to be? This decision plagued me for weeks. I tossed and turned at night, wondering what people would think of me. Is this one too ostentatious? Or too small? Or not meaningful enough? Questions like these were left on repeat until the needle touched my skin. 

My first tattoo was the stick figure from the cover of Jerry Spinelli’s novel Stargirl. She stands proudly on the inside of my right wrist, reminding me to be brave, beautiful and kind. She symbolizes uniqueness and quirkiness—two qualities I’ve been quite lucky to possess. Stargirl taught me how individuality can be a superpower. In a world where so much is the same, standing out feels like an interruption. Existing differently means existing largely. It means you’ll always be bolder, bigger, and brighter. 

For a long time, I didn’t value these qualities. In fact, I resented them. It wasn’t until I branded myself with their symbol that I fully embraced them. Now, I’m not saying getting a tattoo is the only way to accept yourself, except, it could be. It was for me. 

Getting a tattoo was exciting but terrifying. I desperately wanted one as a way to express myself. At the same time, I didn’t want to express myself at all. I despised it—loathed it, even. The thought of conveying a message on my body for everyone to see was grounds for nausea. A tattoo meant a permanent spotlight, and I suffer from chronic stage fright. 

The night before my appointment, I almost canceled. I crafted other people’s potential opinions of me so well that I started to have them myself. I don’t know why I ultimately went to the appointment. Maybe it was to prove a point to my parents that I was ready for one. Maybe it was to validate my newfound adulthood. Maybe, maybe, maybe. 

Maybe you, whoever is reading this, wants a tattoo but is afraid like I was. Don’t be. That’s easier said than done, of course, but please hear me when I say this: exist largely. Exist so boldly, so brightly that you become the spotlight, casting shadows on whatever and whoever doesn’t serve you. Exist so largely that no box fits you. 

Maybe it’s not a tattoo. Maybe it’s a piercing. Maybe it’s an outfit. Maybe it’s a car, a job, or a hobby. Whatever it is, embrace it. Whatever you want, take it. 

While I was getting tattooed, I stared at the ceiling, succumbing to the hot, catscratch quality of the needle. Each time he wiped the blood and ink away, it felt like coming up for air. Once he was finished, I sat up and walked towards the mirror. The first time I saw the tattoo was in the reflection of myself. My curly hair was disheveled, my face was rosy, and my smile was uncontainable. I looked like myself. Except now, I had a message on the inside of my wrist: Be brave, beautiful, and kind. 

Three months later, I was getting prepped for my second tattoo in the back of my uncle’s shop. I got a circus monkey on my right bicep, dedicated to my mom; it’s a long story. Since my uncle had time, I got a third tattoo: two solid, black bands around my left wrist. My dad has the same tattoo. Now, we have matching friendship bracelets for life. 

Getting two more messages — etched into my skin for all to see — wasn’t any easier than the first time. I still felt the pang of doubt moments before the first, sharp swipe across my skin was made. This time, I was just a bit bigger. I outgrew the box I made for myself. This time, I was existing differently. 

This time, as the needle dug in and out, instead of staring at the ceiling, I looked to the inside of my wrist. “Be brave.” 

Alden Koupal

Virginia Tech '26

Hi, my name is Alden Koupal. I'm from Richmond, Virginia. I'm a freshman at Virginia Tech majoring in international studies. I enjoy going for long walks, listening to music, and eating sweets. I'm an introvert at heart and I adore reading and writing. Her Campus feels like a dream come true. The freedom to contribute to such an inclusive community feels infinitely rewarding.