The Boy with the Teacup Tattoo

by Matty Long about a month ago in art

If I tell a funny story will you promise to laugh?

The Boy with the Teacup Tattoo

I have seven tattoos, but the one people seem most eager to see is the teacup on my ankle. They seem to appreciate the lengths to which I have gone to declare my love of tea. I do love tea; in fact it is one of my favourite things. However, this is not why I have adorned myself with its famed receptacle. And, no, it isn't because Ed Sheeran or Louis Tomlinson has one either. But, as it's quite a long story, I often just don't correct people when they assume as much. However, it's nice to have an opportunity such as this to explain the full tale.

Growing up, I was a very shy and introverted person. Being the 21st century, I always felt this was a downside to my personality. The world around me was always very loud and very outgoing, and it always seemed that, to succeed in life, both socially and career-wise, you needed to be just that. Extroversion was something to aspire to, introversion something you should work to overcome. A defect of sorts. And it isn't helpful when you go to an all-boys high school and then when you move into your sixth year you find that they admit girls in the last two years, a development they decided to introduce without any consultation or warning to awkward shy teens like me, resulting in me retreating way too far into that shell people kept reminding me to come out of. Especially when, every time it was my turn to speak in a history lesson, I had a very outgoing girl declaring to the whole class that I'd "gone really red." Thanks, that should help reduce the blushing now that everyone can see it. Please don't think I'm suggesting that only a girl would make such a comment as well, I had to put up with much the same from my very extroverted male history teacher, too. It's more that it was even more awkward for someone who didn't have much experience or education with women from spending so long in an all-male Catholic environment. And I wouldn't wish to send my own children to a same-sex school for that reason.

But times moved on. High school came to an end and I had happily received an offer to read English at Newcastle University, and was excited for a fresh start. Adding to that excitement, too, was that I had discovered the work of Susan Cain that summer. Her TED talk, 'The Power of Introverts' and accompanying book, argued both convincingly and movingly that introverts have a very important place in the modern world, and that being introverted should not be something to aspire to move away from. I told her as much on Twitter as well, and she replied to my message which was nice. All was well.

Would recommend Susan Cain's TED talk to any unhappy introverts

Except university wasn't quite as easy as I might've thought with my new found confidence in being who I was. I found it hard to make friends, and I think I probably blushed more when asked to speak in seminars than I ever had in history lessons, and imagine my horror when, twice in the first week, a LECTURER would just point to me, sitting on my own, in a room of about 200 people, to ask me my opinion. I wasn't having it. I did make some friends, though, who felt the same way. And whilst we were interested in the course, we preferred to teach ourseleves whilst enjoying cups of tea in various cafes around Newcastle. A view shared, we assured our truanting selves, by British polymath Stephen Fry, during his own days studying English at Cambridge. And he was on University Challenge! He was also, like us, awkward, as the clip below shows.

Now, as we were studying changes over time in the English language whilst we were in these cafes, we began to notice something. As people who favoured tea, we often found ourselves reading menus in these establishments where the tea option was listed under the subtitle 'coffee.' Now, tea, as we all know, is not coffee. It's tea. Yet everywhere we went it was listed as as if it was just another method of preparing coffee alongside cappuccino or latte. Now, in Britain, where we live, tea was always the preferred choice. In the US, it's usually coffee. But the coffee culture of the US is starting to be very popular in the UK, and we realised that what we were seeing on these menus was an example of semantic broadening, whereby a word that once meant something specific changes its meaning to mean something broader. Most examples of this in the modern age are with brand names, such as 'Hoover' being used to refer to all vacuum cleaners due to its popularity. In our "hypothesis," coffee had started to be used to refer to all hot drinks in the UK for the same reason. Interestingly, upon research, it is apparent that in Jamaican creoles, something else we studied, the opposite is the case, where 'tea' is used for all hot drinks. Tea is more popular in Jamaica, though. What we noticed happening in the UK was new, and, what with all the cultural associations, we reckoned we had a thesis on our hands. An original theory. And the best part is, we hadn't had to bow down to the extroverted teaching methods of the university. We'd done it in our own. Susan Cain was right! Already, the idea of getting a tattoo was forming in my mind.

On another note, there are some lovely coffee shops in Newcastle

Thrilled with our discovery, we made a rare visit to the actual physical English department, to tell our lecturer the news. Impressed that we'd come up with this idea on our own, she informed us that it wasn't actually original, and that if we'd been attending lectures we would know this ... Ah. That's awkward. Now my whole story seems to fall flat. Served us right, though, for thinking we were better than going to lectures! Basically, kids, whether you work better in a different environment or not, it's never a good idea to skip a whole term of university. Nor is it value for money, come to think of it ...

But that's not quite the end. Later that year, I did come up with an original theory for a different course, and won an academic award. But I feel that it was only facilitated by the fact that I was the only person who took that course (entirely by accident). One-on-one meetings with my tutor, as opposed to big lectures and seminars, were much more suited to my introverted brain's mechanisms. It was, and still is, my proudest achievement, and did help me to accept for good that being an introvert was okay. So, I guess I am saying that adapting the learning process for your introverted self is acceptable. Just, you know, rebelling against the whole system by not going into uni at all isn't exactly beneficial for your education either.

And it would be selfish and unfair of me to suggest that the whole education system/society should change to make the learning process more suitable for introverts. We are only 50% of the population, at the end of the day. Plus, in this age of COVID, we have seen how detrimental to education doing everything online and away from campus has been for students on the whole. What I would campaign for, however, is more of a yin/yang situation, whereby societal institutions learn that being extrovert-centred is not beneficial for half the clientele.

So, in the end, yes, I do still think I had finally recognized the introvert's place in society as well as my own place, and I did want to get a tattoo to commemorate that acceptance. Now, I suppose really I could've got something more straightforwardly symbolic, like a yin/yang symbol, but as you may have realised by now nothing in this story so far has been straightforward. A teacup it was.

In my head, the idea was that when people saw the tattoo they would ask "why have you got a coffee cup tattooed on your ankle?" and I would then reply "it's interesting you say that , [insert name], as it's actually a teacup, and that is a demonstration of semantic lexical broadening." And then I thought I could explain what I meant, as I have done above, and the tattoo would be a symbol of me learning to accept and achieve by being myself, but also be a humorous reminder that, in doing that, I don't expect the whole world to bow down to introverts (or suggest that all students skip lectures). Just to maybe remember we're here and we're different. You know, yin/yang?

Like I say, that was the idea. And when I went to the tattoo parlour and showed them my idea, it already worked, as the woman behind the desk wrote 'coffee cup' in her diary next to my name and appointment. However, this was probably down to my horrendous drawing skills and nothing to do with semantic broadening. If you want to know what I mean, you only have to look at another one of my tattoos, the 'To Kill a Mockingbird' one on my back, alongside the drawing that I handed the tattoo artist. I'm embarrassed and, as a result, twice as impressed at how good it turned out given what they had to work with!

Really like my "To Kill a Mockingbird" tattoo

And, as you can see, my artwork wasn't much to work with

To top it all off, since then, when people see the teacup, (probably because my tattoo artist is actually very good), they usually do recognise it as a teacup, so the joke, and the story, and the profound meaning it symbolises for the changes I've made in my self-perception and outlook on life, are totally lost. And if I do have time to begin to explain it, they ask "why didn't you get a yin/yang symbol?" It is easier to just say I like tea and move on to another topic of conversation. So, again, I'm very grateful for the medium of Vocal for allowing me to explain it all in full. And finally, below is an image of my ink. It does look like a teacup after all, I suppose. But at least you know the whole story!

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Matty Long
Matty Long
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Matty Long

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