I used to have a bumper sticker—fortunately, never affixed to my car’s bumper—that read, “tattoos: not just for sailors and whores anymore.” The sex worker-shaming aspect of the word “whores” aside, I liked it (at the time) because it challenged the stigma of tattoos that I grew up with: tattoos received by choice were a mark of the degenerate or, at best, the woefully misguided. The only person I grew up around who had a tattoo was my grandfather who, true to the stereotype represented on that bumper sticker, got his ink while he was in the Navy and who always regretted it. Meanwhile, I love all of my tattoos and look forward to more—like the black sheep I was born to be!
Today is National Tattoo Day and the only way I could be more stoked about it is if I’d had the forethought to schedule a session with one of my favorite local artists—spoiler alert: I didn’t have the requisite forethought. The holiday is actually pretty close to brand spanking new, originating in 2016, which makes the fact of the originator(s)’s being unknown kind of remarkable. It appears, though, that the beginnings of the holiday coincides with polling data indicating that the majority of Americans view tattoos as an art form. According to Americans for the Arts, in 2016, 73% of sampled Americans view, at least, some tattoos as art. Though the average percentage of people who agree with that sentiment climbed among younger generations, the average among those born before 1946 was still 49 percent! Take that, silly stigmas!
All told, I have eight tattoos and approximately 800 designs for future tattoos. Okay, that last number is a bit of an exaggeration but not by much. All of my tattoos have incredible personal significance to me but all of them in different ways: some are reminders of the places that have been my home, some are related to my passions, one helps me to love a part of my body I’ve thought of as unlovable, and some are mementos of having survived my own shitty mental health and some circumstances that felt unsurvivable. Each of them, regardless of how they may be viewed by others, are signifiers that tell parts of the story of who I am, where I’ve been, and what I’ve survived and, in those moments when my mental health is shaky, they can help ground me.
One of the most important things that tattoos give me is a sense of agency and a permanent reminder of that agency. Grief and loss, at least for me, remind me—in less than pleasant ways—of how little control I have. There are just some elements of life that are immutable and will happen one way or another. It’s easy for the feelings of loss of control to turn into feeling like I have no say at all in what happens to me. It’s important to me to find ways to remind myself that I have agency over my body and how I choose to adorn it.
My whole point of view basically boils down to: Hair grows back. A bold makeup look that doesn’t really work can be washed off. A tattoo gives you a story and a physical reminder of your power in the midst of confusion and loss. As long as you’re not hurting anyone, you do you, boo. Chop off or dye your hair. Wear that outfit. Find agency where you can – and then build on that. You took the first step in reclaiming your sense of actively living in your body, your mind, your life. You can take another step.
My tattoos remind me that I can take another step. They remind me that, however shaky I may feel, I have a foundation from which to build and rebuild. I have me. I have my body. And I have power.
Happy National Tattoo Day! And remember: tattoo artists are artists. Their time and their skill are valuable so, please, treat them that way!