It was Christmas Day, my last day in Thailand, and I was looking for something to make my trip extra special. I roamed the streets of Chiang Mai, listening to Drake’s “The Motto” on my iPod, and I thought about how great those last few weeks had been, and how great the last few months had been in general. After four years on and off in New York City, I had made the decision to move to South Korea to teach English. Making the decision had been rough, and I had a hard time coming to terms with leaving the city. Brunches on Saturdays, partying in the evenings, smoking myself into a purple haze during the week, cookies from Milk Bar: I had carved out a decent little life for myself. Sure, I worked at a cupcake shop part-time and could barely make ends meet, but I was living it up in New York, one of the most diverse, most fun places ever. How could I possibly leave?
I loved the city, and also I had to admit that it just wasn’t giving me what I needed. If I didn’t want to be in my late twenties still living with two roommates that I didn’t know and couldn’t stand, I was going to have to put on my big girl panties and make some real decisions. Friends had been telling me for years what a great opportunity teaching in Asia could be. Still, I dragged my feet for almost a full year before things finally swung into motion. A part of me was excited for the possibility of life in a foreign land again, but another part of me was scared and kind of tired of moving and having to restart my life. Over the course of seven years I had lived in San Francisco, New York, and Amsterdam. I loved my time in each city but being so transient does have its downsides. Sometimes it feels as if I have no roots. Constantly moving makes relationships, friendships and romantic ones, difficult. Plus, I was kind of annoyed that I couldn’t make things happen a bit faster in New York. I finally powered through and started really looking for positions overseas in January of 2013, secured a job in July, left the city in August to spend a month at home in Cleveland, and moved to Korea in September of 2013. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
That morning, as my Christmas break was coming to an end, I thought about all the things I could get into. I could go ride an elephant, or take pictures with tigers, I could even go ziplining. Thailand has no shortage of tourist traps for the adventurous traveler with money to blow. None of those options seemed quite right. As I zig-zagged through the side streets I came across a tattoo shop.
"A new tattoo, that could be interesting," I thought to myself. It'd been years since my last tattoo—Liz Phair song lyrics on the side of my hip. My first tattoos, a rose and a butterfly, I had mostly gotten for decoration. When I turned 22 I decided to get something more meaningful. After some deliberation I settled on words from "Extraordinary," one of my favorite songs growing up. At the time I thought the lyrics, Average everyday sane psycho supergoddess, would make me feel some sort of way. I thought I would feel free, empowered, more womanly, and less like the scared, insecure girl I was back then. The tattoo did nothing for me. I was the same person afterwards. In hindsight I understand that my lack of belief is why nothing changed inside of me. It’s not enough to just slap something on your body permanently, you have to believe in and embody the words. After that, I left tattoos alone for the next few years. But recently I had been toying with the idea of getting something new. I just couldn’t figure out what I wanted. I’m not the type of person to just run out and get permanent art on my body for no reason, so I held off. When the time was right it would happen.
When I was living in Amsterdam, I knew plenty of people who got ink to commemorate their trip. At the time I thought they were silly. Why would someone get something so trivial to remind them of such a small part of their life? Now I thought that I was the silly one. Experiences are only as special as you make them. There isn’t anything goofy about wanting to remember something that feels important, be it with a picture or a tattoo.
This Thai tattoo shop, slightly bigger than your average American bathroom, had pictures of the artist’s work plastered all over. I knew I didn’t have time for anything big and intricate, so I decided on something smaller—perhaps some more meaningful song lyrics or maybe an affirmation of some sort? Almost as a joke, I thought: “What if I got YOLO tattooed on me? Wouldn’t that be a hoot?”
Since "you only live once" was repackaged by Drake in "The Motto," YOLO quickly become a catchphrase for youth and hip-hop communities. It's also thought of as the carpe diem of stupid people. While I definitely don’t agree with that description, when people do stupid things and post them to Twitter with #yolo, well, who can blame the naysayers?
But YOLO's not to blame. People have been behaving in stupid or reckless ways, including on Twitter, well before YOLO was even a thing. The only difference between me doing something I might regret and my parents doing things they surely still regret is there was no Facebook or Twitter to document the stupidity.
The whole YOLO moment kind of went over my head. I tend to shy away from movements of any kind, be they political or pop cultural. But once I started seeing YOLO as a punchline in articles and TV shows, I couldn’t figure out why it was getting such a bad rap. YOLO seems like such a positive affirmation, something not deserving of such a negative disdain. Expressing the idea of living life acknowledging that you only live once sure isn't new; it actually dates at least to the 1700s. But now that the hip-hoppers have latched on to it, suddenly people are having such a problem with it? YOLO didn't ignite the stupidity of teenagers. It seems more likely that people see it as having “sold out,” now that the youth and hip-hop heads have gotten their grubby little hands on it.
Negative connotations totally overshadowed any good that could come. It came to a head when snowboarder Iouri Podladtchikov, nicknamed Ipod, won the gold medal in the men’s half-pipe competition by landing his signature move, the YOLO flip. Despite winning a gold medal in the Olympics, something most of us can only dream of doing, he still got brutal disdain. At Salon, Jen Chaney wrote: "Aren’t there rules that specifically disqualify any athlete who uses the term Yolo in a competitive context? If there aren’t: shouldn’t there be?” Yes, definitely, let's strip him of his medal.
I too almost drank this particular Kool-Aid. But I had to stop and think: when we start shaming people or writing them off because we don’t understand how they could identify or get something positive out of a specific motto, movement, or affirmation, we've gone around the bend.
Honestly the idea of a YOLO tattoo had popped in my head several times over the past few months. I just couldn’t bring myself to take the plunge. What would people think? I’m a grown woman. How could I possibly get the most hated phrase of the last few years branded on me? I’d probably be a laughingstock every time it showed. But then I started thinking: Worrying about what others thought of me wasn’t very YOLO of me, was it? Why would I care about what strangers thought of me enough to keep me from doing something that I wanted to do? A new tattoo wasn't going to inspire me to go drunk driving and write about it on Tumblr. It's a damn good motto to live by.
In a lot of ways, I had been living small. I was afraid to really branch out and do all of the things I dreamed about. I really did have to start living each day like it was my last. That's when life began to blossom for me.
I felt great when I sat down in that chair and watched my tattoo artist prep my skin. I wasn’t getting YOLO tattooed on me because I wanted to be cool or hip or whatever. I was getting it done because I believed it. YOLO's probably a fad, a hashtag on its way out. For me, it’s something that I’ll always carry with me. Literally.
Niesha Davis is a writer who has written for Bust, Bitch, Time Out Amsterdam, Xojane, The Toast, Clutch, and other publications. She currently resides in South Korea. Keep up with her on twitter @nieshasharay.