Morbid Part 4: Tattoo

LAURA DIAZ DE ARCE

My mother laughed the entire time my first tattoo was being inked. It was a good humored laugh at her “crazy” daughter’s expense. I was 19, getting a tattoo of a little crescent moon on my upper hip. It cost something like $60 and I knew it was what I wanted, to put it on my body, to keep it there as a symbol of my depression.

I have three rules when it comes to tattoos:

  1. I must like the idea of the tattoo and the area I want to place it for an entire year before I can get it.
  2. No portraits or overly figurative art. In general, nothing with overly fine details that could fade.
  3. No long quotations and avoid words if possible.

It seems odd to have rules for a practice that people consider “rebellious” or “counter-culture,” but I was warned with the same aphorisms a lot of people repeat without interrogating. Phrases like “You’ll regret them when you’re older!” “What about wrinkles? “What will happen when you gain and lose weight?” still cause a mild insecurity around my tattoos. By creating these rules, I hoped to prevent to worst of these worries.

I developed these as a teen and my rules are still in place, but a lot of my old, conservative concerns seem to be less than necessary.

It’s been over a decade since my first tattoo and I have never regretted it.

Since then, my body has changed, gaining and losing, stretching, and the tattoos still look lovely to me. As for the older and full of wrinkles part, it doesn’t phase me. When I see photos of older people in tattoos, I am not disgusted as much as I am awed by the way ink becomes even more stained into the skin of older flesh. Older, thinner skin has a papery quality to it, the ink of a tattoo gaining a watercolor effect. It’s lovely in a way. Let it come, wrinkles and all.

A lot of the fear around tattooing is often expressed around its permanence. It’s the thing people stress over in every other conversation, the fear that someone will mark themselves with something flippant, only to regret it as time passes. The tattoo remains a moment of the past, our bodies do not.

Our bodies grow, change, scar, become wrinkled, broken, faded, burnt and bent. Along the surface, our marks may warp along with it and the way we age. I think the fear of it is less that the tattoo will change with our aging, but more with confronting the idea that our body will change with age, and that we will be something that culturally we see as grotesque or disgusting. That we should see our bodies grow into something we detest and that a tattoo may ultimately be the marker of that decline.

There were worries that admittedly seemed justified. Getting a partner’s name, no matter how much I might love them, always felt like it would a shallow gesture. Or even getting recreations for things from fandoms always seemed off, and a little too impermanent.

Words, even though I am a writer, as a tattoo, brings an extraordinary amount of discomfort.

For me, it comes down to a sense of ownership. I love words, but I do not want someone else’s on my body. I love art, but I don’t want someone’s defined or well-known artwork to be displayed on me. Rather, I want the tattoos I have to speak something of me, to be outward expressions of my internal values, or that they add an aesthetic appeal to my body. So far, this has resulted in three small shapes or symbols, and will likely lead to more patterns, symbols or designs.

It’s hard for me to bring up the grotesque nature of tattooing, because I find tattooing to be one of my favorite body arts and practices. So much of Western-centered body art and modification is about creating a false veneer of naturality. Plastic surgery and most hair dyeing and makeup is about creating a false self that is in denial of its costume. We get those procedures to pretend they are natural, to pass as naturally beauty.

With few exceptions, that can’t be done with tattooing. You are adding pigment, reshaping the skin. The results, if done well, are obvious. There is no natural occurrence of a picture of a butterfly on your back or your mother’s name on your wrist. To have a tattoo is to admit that the body is a construction, an object of continued transformation and artifice. I love that about it. I love that it strips away this idea that the body is perfect and natural on its own, or that it must maintain a veneer of naturalness. I love that it deconstructs what we think of bodies and beauty, at least in an American context.

It’s still kind of gross though. There are body fluids involved. To tattoo, you must take a needle, pierce the skin and put pigment beneath it. Contemporary techniques use a needle gun with a removable set of needles that can be sterilized in an autoclave. There are two main types of needles, if I remember correctly: the line needle and the shading needle. Line needles are used for fine line work or outlines. A shading needle is like a roped bunch of reeds, used for thicker blocks of paint.

Getting a tattoo hurts.

Anyone who says otherwise is either lying for the sake of their own ego or being disingenuous. It can hurt more or less depending on placement, on personal pain tolerance and the tattoo itself. It it can vary from mild annoying pain to cringing “I-can’t-breathe” style pain. Ultimately, for a tattoo, you are being pierced over and over in rapid formation. If you’re lucky, you can go numb.

For me, the line needle was always the worst part. Something about the focused point of it made the pain more acute. The shading needle seemed less like piercing and more like a set of scratches, but I have quickly gone numb beneath it.

Being tattooed can be a singularly annoying experience, but I have a confession. Two of my tattoos are on top of my pelvis, a very sensitive place with a lot of nerves. That placement is largely considered one of the more painful areas. A lot is painful, but the vibration of a tattoo gun above a number of nerves can create a sensation of pleasure. That was not something I expected.

This can bring a new sort of discomfort. Any act that includes a person close to you, touching your body, has a degree of intimacy. If you’re like me, a person who does not like to be touched, the experience is a nightmare. There is blood leaking from the pierced skin. The tattoo artist will offhandedly wipe the blood with a paper towel. There is touch as they pull and press your skin into a flat surface to work on. Often, there are long moments of awkward silence or stilted conversation.

Even that pales a bit in comparison to the healing of a tattoo. No one told me about how it would leave the area a pigmented bruise that lasted for over a week. Or how the pigment would settle on top like a bubbled, technicolor scab. Tattooing isn’t complete without maintenance. You’ll itch and need to watch for pus as a sign of infection, even though the surface ink can have a sort of oozing quality to it. Until it’s healed, it needs to be washed with antibacterial soap and kept moist with A & D. A tattoo becomes a fixated point of the body for days after being put on.

We can’t have a talk about tattoos without talking about the elephant in the room — the weird stigma that lingers over it. Nor can we ignore the very way a lot of the social disdain is ultimately rooted in racism.

Tattooing is an art form that was rooted in a lot of cultures practices.

Even the word for it stems from Polynesia, where the practice is gorgeous and varied. Indigenous groups, like the Ainu, have been targeted for their tattooing.

There are a lot of cultures with a history of tattooing, but in an American context, those cultures get degraded, and their body art with it, or it gets exoticized to such a degree. I’ll confess to a bit a jealousy though and guilt. In college I took a class on body art, and I remember the units on Polynesian tattooing, those dealing with the Māori and Samoan most. I remember the videos we watched of people who were trying to reclaim their indigenous identities by getting the traditional tattoos, such as the pe’a and the moko. The moko was the more fascinating for me, these lovely chin and lip tattoos that women get.

The jealousy was a human flaw, that I would have loved to have come from a tattoo culture. Even now, when I see a woman with a moko I find it very beautiful, but I worry if this is a sort of exotification. Either way, these are not tattoos for me to get, or really anyone outside of those cultures for that matter.

Part of the appeal of tattooing is that it is a bit counter-culture to White American Hegemony. I mean, that doesn’t mean that white guys should go out and get a pe’a (please don’t). There’s a little discomfort then, at least for me, that I get to take part in an art with impunity. My tattoos are largely hidden, and it’s no longer uncommon to see someone in positions of power with visible ink. That I get to take part in something people have suffered for is something I still grapple with.

Still, it does mean that we get to share in a community. One where we the tattooed have had a similar experience to pain, but also an experience of marking ourselves, uncovering ourselves and making image to internal desires.

There are tattoos I still want to get and they follow my rules. A set of peacock feathers at my back, a star on my other hip. I would like to get my existing tattoos touched up. I’ve been vacillating on having my nipples tattooed into pink flowers for the past decade. In the end, I hope my whole back is covered with ink, and that I have made my body to express my desires. Wrinkles and all.

Laura Diaz de Arce is a South Florida writer still learning to make peace with her own body. She writes for Book Riot regularly. In 2018 she was published in Tragedy Queens by CLASHBooks. She also published a collection of short stories, Monstrosity. Send her llama gifs on twitter @QuetaAuthor. 

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