Skin Stories: Hillary Leftwich

One of the best things about being an author is that sometimes you get to go to cool places and meet amazing people. I met Hillary Leftwich in Denver when the awesome David S. Atkinson invited me to read an at event he was running. It was dark and I was talking to a lot of people, so I didn’t get to spend as much time as I wanted with each person at the reading. However, meeting Hillary was great, and we kept up with each other through social media. One day, she posted a photo and I realized she was a perfect fit for the column. The photos and text she sent were more than I could ever ask for. I think Skin Stories can be a very personal space that allows folks to share deep meanings, and that’s exactly what you’re about to read. Enjoy. 

After escaping an abusive relationship I struggled to locate what was left of me. For years I had been subjected to both emotional and physical abuse from my son’s father. My voice disappeared along with my opinions and beliefs. I was whittled down to nothing. The only thing I knew for sure was I had to start rebuilding a life for myself and my son. So I did. Scrap by scrap. When I started to feel the confidence creeping back again, I wanted to do something for myself.

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Photo copyright: Katie Andelman and Inked Magazine

Twelve years ago, there weren’t a lot of women I saw on TV or where I lived who had full sleeves. Not until shows like Miami Ink and Kat Von D became popular. It wasn’t as prevalent as it is today, at least not in social mainstream. So when I discussed what I wanted done with my tattoo artist, I remember his girlfriend at the time walking into the shop and staring down at me, a smirk on her face. She had two full sleeves and her legs and back were covered as well. She told me, “You better get used to getting stared at. There aren’t a lot of women who sport full sleeves. You have to own that shit.” I’ll never forget her words. It was like a challenge. I took twelve hours straight of back work while an older biker man sat and watched me, never saying a word. When the session was done, he told me he’s never seen a man take that amount of pain as graceful as I did. Not sure if that was supposed to be a compliment, but it was his version of a compliment. A year later and logging countless hours of work, I had two full sleeves and a full back piece.

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Photo copyright: Katie Andelman and Inked Magazine

I spent my childhood bouncing back and forth between my dad and my mom after their divorce. Since age seven I was also influenced by my stepmom, who is half Japanese, and her family. Much of my childhood was spent eating and exploring Japanese food, how to make traditional dishes, learning about the culture, and hearing the language. I fell in love with the artwork and its history. So when I met with Scott Toy (formerly of Holey Rollers, Colorado Springs, Colorado), an artist who specializes in aspects of traditional Japanese Art, I knew he would do the work justice. We decided upon art he drew based off a genre of Japanese art known as Ukiyo-e, which is a lot of the artwork you see of sumo wrestlers, samurais, dragons, geishas, and erotic art portraying the more pleasurable aspects to life.

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In 2008, I entered Denver’s Hottest Inked Contest, not thinking I would place, but more for the experience. It was Denver’s first ever contest that didn’t involve pageant queens or swimsuit models. It was for people covered in ink. The contest was judged by Lyle Tuttle, the father of modern tattooing, and Friday Jones, a celebrity tattoo artist. It turned out to be a much bigger deal than I realized. I won second place and landed a spread in a calendar and Inked Magazine. I started receiving modeling offers and started a modeling page where I did pinup and lingerie shoots. A whole different world had opened up, not so much on a professional level, but a whole different world all the same. I was too much for most, too much ink and too dark. Still, I found the people who loved this particular niche and supported me.

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I think back on the time when I felt very small, unheard, and unseen. I think about how some people reacted to me getting so much work done at once, how it transformed me into someone they didn’t recognize. But that’s not really it, is it? I don’t view body art, piercing, or modification as hiding who you are. I don’t view it as a transformation either. And maybe I needed to do it for myself, not to cover up the past or my mistakes, but to start something new, something just for me. And now that I’m older, I just don’t give a fuck anymore. So maybe that’s the whole point.

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About Gabino Iglesias

Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of Zero Saints and a few other things no one will ever read. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias

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