In 2015, indie pop, uh, genius Perfume Genius tweeted, “I don't have any tattoos but I feel like going in to parlor with a bunch of printed out Fiona Apple lyrics and just going to town.”
It turns out Perfume Genius semi-seriously joking about that on Twitter is a window into a subculture I found on social media platforms: people who get Fiona Apple lyric tattoos. There’s a certain type of artist whose work moves their fans so deeply beyond the routine acts of fandom that they inspire acts of devotion like getting a visible, permanent reminder stamped on the only carnal vessel we’re given, and it turns out Fiona Apple is definitely one of them.
A quick google search of “Fiona Apple Tattoo” yields at least a hundred carefully selected symbols, images, and lyrics inked forever onto backs, limbs and ribs. Fiona’s work struck such a transformative chord with listeners that these people went through a fair amount of pain to be reminded every day of what her music said and the way her music made them feel.
The image of fans getting tattoos might conjure up gendered stereotypes of “fangirls” performing irrational acts of love and devotion, but if you look at some of the most common reason humans get tattoos—the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, the mark of a milestone, a declaration of self, devotion to a partner—it makes sense that there’s a fair amount of Fiona Apple fans with tattoos in her honor. From the minute Tidal came out, Fiona spoke more poignantly, terrifyingly, boldly to the human condition than many mainstream artists had ever dared to do. The impact of her words, for many individuals, became a momentous life event and a defining, permanent piece of themselves.
Ashley McLaren is one of many fans that carry around a reminder of Fiona’s meaning. Her tattoo, by Seattle artist Tarah Pennington, is two parts, one on each forearm that say “Extraordinary Machine” framed by machine cogs, a reference to the title track of Fiona Apple’s third album.
“This song serves as a reminder to really own and feel good about where you are in life when others may be overly concerned about the way you are getting there—the path you chose to take. I have learned to accept being uncomfortable and do my best personal growth when I am pushing through that instead of trying to go around it.” MacLaren said, “It serves as a reminder that there is nothing wrong in taking ‘the road less traveled’—even if it has been sort of ingrained in you to go the easy way or that you should feel apologetic about doing it your own way.”
MacLaren is hitting the cornerstone of Fiona’s impact: an unashamed force of determination and hard-to-swallow honesty that was embraced in understanding by fans, instead of ostracized for being difficult.
“[I] have an incredible appreciation for a person who is both willing to put to words things others may want to hide about themselves but also recognize the beauty in that vulnerability. Just knowing that there is someone else out there who is willing to do this is extraordinarily beneficial.” MacLaren said. “She has made me feel a little less isolated, shone a light when things felt dark, and made me feel like someone understands me.”
Robbie Treag has multiple references to Fiona wrapped into one piece on his bicep. It’s by the artist Monika Molluska, and Treag said it took over six months for the two of them to conceptualize. The imagery is a heart full of different parts, gears and a microphone, a reference to a lyric in her song “Every Single Night:” "My heart's made of parts from all that surround me, and that's why the devil just can't get around me." The hearts enveloped in lyrics from the same song: “I just want to feel everything.”
“The second reference is to her 1997 MTV Video Music Awards acceptance speech when she said "Go with yourself. I saw this speech live. I was only seven years old at the time, but that statement has always been a mantra for me,” Treag explained.
Fiona’s music opened up a floodgate of emotional honesty that normalized her own entire range of emotion in a world that so often wanted to stifle them. That something Treag wanted to be capture when designing his piece.
“My tattoo means to me that I just want to feel everything. Good and bad, ugly and beautiful, happiness and sorrow...You need it all. Without the lows, the highs wouldn't be as gratifying. I want to feel and appreciate everything this life has to offer,” Treag said.
While Fiona Apple carried so much personal meaning to people like McLaren, Treag, and a myriad of other fans, their marks echo on a greater cultural scale. Fiona, at only 17 years old, packed up every single piece glowing and festering part of being a whole, entire woman into Tidal and every other album since then, and exposed it so rawly that every listener who’d grown believing they had to hide parts of themselves to be stomachable or pleasant breathed a collective sigh of relief. And 21 years later, it still resonates. Her honesty is a cultural tattoo—a singeing pain of declaration, a healing process, a constant reminder of our humanity in its naked whole.
Amileah Sutliff is a New York-based writer, editor and creative producer and an editor of the book The Best Record Stores in the United States.
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