I have two new things on my body, as of December, bringing the total to seven. I’ve been seeing the same artist since I was 19 – there’s something to be said for having one person you trust with your form. Like a longstanding relationship with a hairdresser: but kind of bloodier.
It feels juvenile in some ways to write about tattoos. Like, to be truly cool you have them and you don’t say you have them, right? You aren’t excited anymore about the prospect of physical change, of permanent decoration. As I type, my new pair are still healing, and are irritating my left arm.
I waited ten years between my first tattoos and the other five, and for the last couple of years have been treating them as an act of self-care and self advocacy. They are one of the only things I do truly and exclusively for myself. They benefit nobody but me. I get a long, inconvenient bus out of Dublin to Kildare and John and I are like old friends. I give him a general idea of what I would like, show him a few pictures, then trust him with the rest. He draws the pieces onto my body in blue pen, a very particular kind of Staedtler biro, before he illustrates them onto tracing paper and uses that as his guide. I’ve sat with him for up to four hours, the ebb and flow of adrenaline and pain becoming in its own way therapeutic. I always leave feeling like I could kick a hole in the side of the world with the power. I never post my tattoos online, though the vignette is there for me. The tattoo studio a different backdrop to my kitchen, or the library. And because I’m fully sitting there for two hours trying to move through the pain of having ink injected into my skin with a very surgical looking machine, I have my phone in my hand, the portal open, and there is huge temptation to show the shift as it happens.
This time I posted a few vignettes, talking about what this process means for me, but no images of my changed body: the colourful, but open wounds. I am bleeding but I am somehow still posting. I am, absolutely, as usual, overthinking it.
I know when my fixation with tattoos started, when I started directly associating them with the kind of femininity I wanted to perform, when I thought to myself ‘I will be a tattooed lady’. It was back in the mire of MySpace, the early social media landscape: the first time I could casually browse pictures of other people’s lives. The dawn-years of the selfie, before smartphones had woken up. Like in my column about influence and being influenced, I felt an aspiration grow in me looking at these women online. I’d never really seen girls with proper pink hair, I’d definitely never seen anyone with a tattoo of a sewing machine on their chest: this was a very particular era of being a woman online that is kind of out-moded now. These were the original e-girls – in my voyages across Tiktok I can see patterns just like the ones I found on MySpace, brightly coloured hair, tattoos – but nowadays the makeup is more elaborate. Blusher on the tip of your nose. I wonder how many teenage girls like me are for the first time seeing these bright, altered bodies and thinking, yes, I’ll do that. The internet was an endless magazine and there will always be a part of me that wants to look unnatural, covered in coloured ink and stories, because of that. I wonder should I have grown out of it by now – even writing it I feel immature and kind of exposed. Once I was a plus one at a large, quite formal party in the home of some people I’d only met a few times. My hair was, at the time, going through an unfortunate phase: I was moving from the bright copper orange of my early twenties towards the cold blonde that would facilitate more pastel toners, what I have now. But in the inbetween time from there to here, I had long orange hair and blonde highlights and it was extremely bad. It was not cute. So, in order to attend this party, I put a pink rinse in to try and… blend the whole thing together. I thought it looked nice, given the circumstances. I thought I had gotten away with something. Sure who’d be looking at me anyway, I was a practical stranger to these people, a guest who’d been brought in on a plus one. This calm state of invisibility was the case, until a cigarette with a friend of a friend started with her noticing my pink hair. ‘I used to be into all that myself.’ she said, ‘But I’m too old for that bullshit now, you know?’
I’m fairly sure this woman was maybe six months older than me, and her expression belied something like scorn. I am sure I stammered through the remark and just moved on but I am also sure that I changed colour from humiliation, too. Maybe she didn’t think twice about it, maybe I picked it up wrong, but either way, that marks one of the very few occasions in my adult life when another adult woman has made me want to disappear into the ground from shame. How can I tell her, I have been dreaming of looking like this one particular kind of woman with pink hair and tattoos my entire life? Maybe that’s not cool to you, but it means something to me? How I was so young and so aggressively invisible and plain and this was – almost- the look I had been aspiring to and it was, frankly, none of her business?
In posting pictures of my tattoos online, I would be making my body other people’s business. Opening the parts of myself that are truly just there for me to criticism, more criticism, in a world that is already poised to deliberately or not, tear women down. I change my hair colour every few weeks, depending on my humour – and maybe every so often I’ll post a selfie if I’m particularly impressed with the job I’ve done. I think I am trying to tell you this time that I know I am not cool. I also don’t want, really, to look like those pink haired girls anymore. Not all the time, anyway. I want to look like myself, and I’m not sure I want to show the internet so much of that anymore. Deciding what to show and what not to show is still the big question, and certainly yes I am overthinking it, but I would rather be overthinking it than not thinking about it at all. Maybe the thinking about it is the maturity. The figuring things out: what to conceal and what to reveal.