Oh, it's so easy to judge poor, misguided Rihanna for tattooing the Tupac Shakur slogan "Thug Life" across her knuckles. "[Y]ou're not a thug. stop it." tweeted one of her followers.

No, you're right, sassy Rihanna follower, she is not a thug. She's not wearing a porkpie and carrying a tommy gun, busting up banks and fixing horse races. Nor is she the kind of early '90s thug that you'd associate with Shakur and the warring factions of urban gangsters around which rap music spread and evolved.

But let me give you a little vocabulary lesson. Thug Life, according to Urban Dictionary (not a 100% trustworthy source but it's not like the OED would help us here), is a phrase developed by Shakur, "commonly mistaken for a Criminal." The entry goes on to say that Thug Life "is the opposite of someone having all he needs to succeed. Thug life is when you have nothing, and succeed, when you have overcome all obstacles to reach your aim."

Is this the definition Rihanna, 23, was thinking of when she decided to tattoo the words, in "Tibetan" white ink, on her fingers? I don't know. But the tweets accompanying her pic posting sound something like this commitment to defending herself against threats in order to rise above adversity. "I can't deny it, ima riot… u don't wanna f*ck with me! #THUGLIFE haaaaaaa" she wrote.

Rihanna, her ephemeral tweets hashtagged with "Thug Life" in a mocking gesture of her knuckles' permanent design, is doing more than just invoking the memory of Shakur, who was shot to death in 1996. She's owning up to an identity rooted in a personal journey of overcoming hardship. Of being strong. Of celebrating her impulses, fleeting or adolescent as they may be, with an irrevocable reminder to her future self of who she once was, lest that self become so weathered that it is subsequently forgotten. This is what it means to get a tattoo.

Why does this matter? Well, publicized accounts of famous women's private lives generate discussion around the issue of imitation. Is Rihanna, who recently surpassed Lady Gaga as the most YouTubed star, doing right by her millions of young fans by getting a "Thug Life" tattoo? Is it worse that recent paparazzi photos appeared to depict the singer using drugs? How angry or worried should the star's admirers be at her?

These questions, which by the way are identical to the ones asked about Shakur's violent behavior and lyrics in the early '90s, revolve around the quintessence of hip hop music — the ore that fuels the industry, the art and the artists' conduct. One word: authenticity. Rihanna knows that she is admired not just for her beauty and talent but for a gutsiness she learned on the island of Barbados, where she grew up. By refusing to over-censor herself, she draws fans closer. By trumpeting her own decision-making powers, she invites young women to do the same.


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I don't begrudge Rihanna any means to buoy herself among a sea of impostors, frauds and morally righteous phonies. I think a tattoo is the least harmful thing she could have done to assert what appears to be a deeply felt sense of accomplishment, and "Thug Life" — given its complicated history as a slogan and its even more complicated referent as homage — is the right message to send.

She's complicated, OK? Get over it.

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