I have always found it hard to describe my relationship to my tattoos. For a long time, though they were carved into me, embedded deeply in my skin to adorn my body for evermore, I struggled to articulate how it felt on a personal level to be decorated by ink in this way. I felt that they had changed something within me, but exactly what I couldn’t put my finger on. The marks on my arms were mine: on me, and yet of me – superficial and yet inextricable. My chosen designs and the weeks of careful aftercare were encased in what felt like the very layers of my being. But it was hard to put into words how remarkable this process felt without sounding utterly ridiculous.
It does, after all, probably sound rather lofty to refer to drawings etched into my arms in this way, or to suggest there is some kind of hidden, remarkable feeling within it all. For it is not as if I am even covered in them; large sections of my arms are still virginal, with patches of skin yet to be penetrated by a tattoo gun. But though the handful of them I do have seem nothing but superficial – mere embellishments on my body, akin to jewellery or accessories – they have irreversibly altered me, and in turn, my relationship with myself. They have even, it seems, altered my brain chemicals: pre-tattoos, I never dreamed about them; post becoming inked, my slumbers are regularly interrupted by nightmarish visions in which I am struggling to wrest myself free from a tattoo artist doing a terrible job. Or I am haunted by grotesque, incomprehensibly large back tattoos that I cannot remember acquiring but that will not budge however much I try to scrub, a la Lady Macbeth (out damned tattoo!).
I suppose the irreversible change I felt in my relationship to my body lies with the fact that tattoos seem to possess an almost mystical power to transform, beyond the purely superficial alteration they offer. Though on my body externally, they catalysed an internal shift within me. They carried me away from a previous incarnation of myself, and helped me to rekindle some self-confidence.
Like many teenagers, I wrestled with a dislike for the skin I was in for much of my hormonal pubescent years. The usual teen-angst and self-scrutiny was certainly not helped by my emotionally abusive father policing my appearance. In the years since – since I have cut off contact from my father and have retrieved an ounce or two of self-worth – a lingering sense of shame has persisted. Despite therapy, supportive friends and family, a loving partner and a helping hand from medications, there remained a degree of guilt attached to taking an interest in how I looked; how I adorned myself with clothes and jewellery, or how I painted myself with cosmetics.
I did not have a lot of choice about my appearance under my father’s scrutinous gaze. His manipulation and coercive control meant that I could not physically exist in the way I wanted to. I went to great pains – and spent obscene amounts of money on make-up remover wipes – to hide the evidence of my transgressive mascara-wearing at school. I was not allowed to wear skinny jeans, open or heeled shoes, short skirts or low-cut dresses. And I certainly wasn’t allowed to explore the realm of personal grooming. Shaving was out of the question, as was any kind of skincare. I could not be seen to be taking any interest in the way I looked, for it would be deemed ‘suspicious’, regarded as a slippery slope towards the unbearable: condoms and birth control – not things a teenage daughter raging with hormones should, according to my father, have on her mind.
In becoming tattooed, my flesh became dramatically more conspicuous. As it did so, much of the guilt and shame I carried with me simply disappeared. The tattoos had stamped it out; scribbling both literally and metaphorically over old scars, and making new ones, this time ones that it was exciting to watch heal. Each day of carefully applied cocoa butter to the new tattoo was a day further and further away from the skin I had associated with shame. I had forced myself to recognise my potential, my body a canvas to scrawl across, devise and design. I was writing over the pain by writing on my own body, and helping myself to heal by watching very different wounds, of my own infliction, heal.
When I lifted myself off the tattoo artist’s chair after two long hours the first time I had a piece done, it was astonishing to look in the mirror and see an assembly of black marks crawling up my arm. It was as if I had taken possession of my arm by making something of the skin of it, transforming it via a design entirely of my choosing. Looking down at myself in the days and weeks afterwards, catching flashes of my arm in windows and mirrors, I was reminded of the choice that was made, the price that was paid, and the process that was endured for it to exist in that way. Years later and half my arms covered, my body is joyfully, playfully and confidently announcing itself to the world. The skin I am in is no longer a site of shame and painful memory, but one which proudly proclaims its autonomy.