I got my first tattoo when I was 16 years old. Not in a tattoo shop. At a kitchen table by another teenager who used a sewing needle and a bottle of black Indian ink. Thank God I didn’t get an infection, but I did get a crappy tattoo that years later I would have covered up by a real tattoo artist.
There’s a whole lot more to that tattoo story about adolescence, troubled girlhood and rogue boyfriends. For now, I’ll just say that getting a tattoo at 16 is not advised. Especially at a kitchen table from some guy named Eddie.
Despite my rocky beginning with the art form of tattooing, I quickly become a skin art lover. There was something about decorating the body with unique images that intrigued me. Tattooed skin was beautiful skin. Breathing, living, illustrated canvases of imagery that I found beautiful. It would be several more years before I finally got a real tattoo in a real tattoo shop by a real tattoo artist, one that I didn’t feel embarrassed about, one that helped cover up the muck-up of kitchen table DIY tattoo art. (so not recommended!)
More than a decade would have to pass before I ventured towards getting another tattoo piece. I always wanted more, but social convention in the circles I ran with frowned upon tattoos of any kind, even pretty ones, especially on women. They were viewed as unseemly, uncomely, unlovely and…unladylike. But like a piece of sparkly jewelry a woman just has to have, I began to get tattoos jewelried on my body to enhance my body image. For my whole life to this very day, I have had a difficult relationship with by body. A very difficult relationship. I could write an entire book about the drama and trauma of being housed in this body and the things I have done to her and she has done to me.
Tattoos are illustrated stories and illustrating my body at all is a story in itself, for it is the story of how a curvy, pocked complexion female found a way to at least like her skin which in turn helped her like herself a wee bit more. Superficial? Maybe, but it’s my story and it’s what I gotta own.
Tattooing myself has definitely lent to the process of owning my body. This is my skin. I get to do with it what I want. These are the scars I choose, beautiful, colorful, swirling images of vibrant hues and delicate lines. I didn’t want those other scars on my body. They came unbidden. The scar on the wrist from a bad cut on the playground. The surgery scar from when I was four years old. The acne scars from my youth. The scar on my finger from a cutting accident. All scars have stories.
A tattoo is an affirmation: that this body is yours to have and to enjoy while you’re here. Nobody else can control what you do with it. ― Don Ed Hardy
I know my troubled relationship with my body is not unique. Just about everybody has something that they don’t like about their physical appearance or physical limitations. Blogger and author Rachel Held Evans recently described why she didn’t want to exercise in public due to her body’s labored response:
Anyway, before signing up for the Y, I had carefully arranged my exercise routine around maintaining strict privacy. I’d get on my creaky old treadmill… in the basement.…put on my earphones, and spend some quality alone-time with Florence & The Machine. When friends invited me to run with them, I declined. When Dan asked me to join him in his morning exercise routine, I refused. I didn’t want anyone else smelling my sweat, or critiquing my form, or keeping me accountable, or seeing me jiggle, or hearing me breathe like an overheated rhinoceros. Struggling is something I prefer to do alone; vulnerability is an individual sport. - Rachel Held Evans
I know about vulnerability. Emotional, spiritual.…but it is physical vulnerability that makes me the most anxious. And sometimes just doing something physical – like an exercise class!– can bring up a heaving, pulsing mass of body issues that lie in wait in the bones beneath my scarred up skin. There is a force of body shame that lies in wait to rise up like a Dementor from a Harry Potter novel to suck the life out of my identity. Such is the nature of the volatile relationship I carry on with this meat sack known as My Body.
Arting up my skin has been a kind of elixir for my soul. It is my declaration that I am more than flesh and bone and that I will own this body. It will not own me. Tattoos are my badges of identity.
Like my Beloved tattoo. A few years ago I decided I needed a gorgeous rose tattoo with a banner blazing the triumphant cheer, Beloved. I had been going through a lot of positive changes discovering that those who loved me superceded the self-hatred I am prone to. My husband loves me. My children love me. My parents love me. My friends love me. My Creator loves me. I struggle with loving me, but nonetheless I am a loved woman. I am Beloved. I found a great artist from a shop here in Portland to art it for me. It’s a great piece of imagery on my body, a means of marking my physical territory from the Dementor of body shame. Does this cure my soul? No. Having Beloved tattooed on my body does not end the lifetime battle with self-loathing. But it is a vivid, daily reminder that I am loved with a no-matter-what kind of love.
I have often been misjudged based on my appearance. Being a tattooed woman in Portland is usually not a big deal, since we are one of the top ten most tattooed cities in America, yet still I often get misread just because I wear my stories on my skin. Mindful of this, it is sometimes prudent that I cover up in certain situations. Like job interviews and family reunions where the older generation would prefer not to have tattooed female relatives in the group photo.
Many of my friends have tattoos. We celebrate one another’s Tattoo Days with luncheons and lots of photos. No covering up here! My daughter just got her first tattoo, something I blogged about not too long ago. I felt a surge of pride as the needle pricked her skin and she did not so much as grimace. It was like a ritual as she in her own way was declaring ownership over her 18– year old body.
Tattoos are stories, illustrations of something else going on beneath the surface. Beauty is skin deep, but tattooed skin is beauty found in a hidden spring deep inside a dark forest. — Pam Hogeweide
Somebody once asked me, “Pam, when are you gonna stop getting tattoos? Don’t you have enough?”
Well, I don’t know. I guess I’ll stop when the stories stop coming or when my body stops trying to storify my physical flaws as truths. I suppose that day might not come til the other side. But if there’s tattoo art in the hereafter, well I guess you’ll know where to find me.
** Here’s a link to the companion article to this blog post, Tattooed Christian Women and the Husbands Who Love Them
**Here’s a link to an old blog post about the story of my Cherry tattoo
Have any tattoos? Any tattoo stories? Body image confessions? Let me hear ‘em! Link to photos if you have any of your skin art you want to share. I’d love to see ‘em.