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Photographed by Jack Farrar @jack_farrar_


22 January 2023

Body Ink: Beyond skin deep 


I was 18 when I got my first ever tattoo.


I’d been at university for a couple of months, and the thrill of freshers had worn off. I was feeling homesick and quite depressed. With nothing to do on a grey day I found myself trotting off to the closest tattoo parlour I could find on google maps. I asked for a little crescent moon on my ankle which yes, I realise was not a hugely original idea. Fuelled by my adrenaline high I galloped back to halls at full speed and, despite it being November in Edinburgh (and so probably -400 degrees), I made sure to change into a skirt and a pair of those sports socks that slide down your feet. That evening I proceeded to glide around the canteen, descending into full Cinderella mode the moment anyone asked about my new ink. 


Body ink has traversed time, found on the skin of ancient Egyptians and medieval Britons, and plays an invaluable role in indigenous cultures such as the practice of Tā moko by the Māori people in New Zealand. In Western society, there has been a shift in the favoured aesthetic over the last few years. Whilst styles such as blackwork, geometric and realism dominated the mainstream of the 2010s (lest we forget Cheryl’s enormous rose backpiece), the ‘patchwork’ look is the new favourite. The patchwork look, which, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you will have seen on celebrities such as Harry Styles, is essentially the collection of smaller-sized tattoos dotted around one’s body. It is easy to see why this trend has become so popular, it leaves room for experimentation and is a more accessible approach to those looking for a bit of body ink but not quite willing to dedicate their entire right arm to one magnificent portrait of a wolf. Personally, I love how this aesthetic transforms the body into a canvas of doodles. 


When I moved to Montreal last January one of the first things I noticed was the abundance of patchwork tattoos among young people. Indeed the first time I attempted to flirt with someone was to ask if he had any local tattoo artist recommendations. This boy was covered in tatts, head to toe, and I’m sure he must’ve found me incredibly irritating with my ongoing interrogation of the history behind each of his ink drawings. On one of these occasions, after he pointed to a drawing of a naked woman - his ex-girlfriend - on his arm, I tentatively asked if he regretted any of his body ink. He countered ‘what’s the point? Sure there are some I don’t like now but each one represents a time in my life.’ Now I’m not saying that this boy completely revolutionised my life with his wisdom - on our first (and only) date he told me to download CoStar so that I could learn more about my ‘rising sign’ (safe to say I did not download the app and I still do not know what my rising sign is) - but I do think he challenged some of my pre-existing notions concerning body art. He viewed tattoos as a way of scrapbooking his memories. I had always viewed getting tattooed as this enormous, almost sacrificial act for the sake of art and beauty and meaning. Don’t get me wrong, body ink can be a big deal, but it also doesn’t have to be a big deal all the time. These days, rather than obsessing over symbolism, I tend to get a tattoo when I see something I think reflects a bit of me. Because I like decorating my body, because I like how my skin reveals parts of my personality and because, to be honest, I actually don’t give much of a fuck what I’ll look like in 40 years, I can barely think past next week. 


Whilst Montreal is home to a number of tattooed bodies, it is also home to a huge queer community. This is significant. If these two groups were put into a Venn diagram, the diagram would basically be one big circle. Nearly every young queer person I met in Montreal was ink adorned and up until then, the relationship between queer identity and body ink was not something I had ever thought about in much depth. But it makes sense. Heteronormative society dictates what is socially acceptable and unacceptable therefore, growing up queer, there is a feeling that we must adhere to the mainstream, that we must fit in. We suppress the expressive parts of ourselves in order to suppress a larger, intrinsic part of our identity. However, as we get older we learn that we can stray from the conventions of heteronormativity, so we cut our hair and dress flamboyantly and exhibit our flesh in all its glory, finding self-actualisation through subversion. As our identities become public, so too do our bodies. Therefore, tattoos can allow queer people to reclaim a sense of identity, in the most visible way possible. 


Tattoos can be massively identity-affirming, they can also act as a form of self-preservation for those who struggle to exist in their bodies. Body ink is often popular with people who suffer from depression, eating disorders, body dysmorphia and self-harm as it provides a way of regaining a sense of control over one’s body. The act of getting a tattoo can provide autonomy of the self that mental health conditions seek to defamiliarise and destroy. Like most young women, I have always struggled with body image, scolding myself when I couldn’t fit into Zara size ten jeans, holding my stomach in when I walked around school in a skirt that cut off my oxygen supply, and being secretly thrilled when a relative told me I’d lost weight my first Christmas home from uni. Whilst I still struggle with these thoughts, these days they are fleeting and intrusive rather than a continuous stream of consciousness. I can’t say tattoos in their entirety are the reason for my newfound appreciation for my body, however, I do think my body ink has helped to speed up the process. Despite taking a lot of time, energy and unlearning to feel more neutral about my body, my tattoos have helped me to actually really like my body. The same holds true for piercings. Having worn high-waisted everything throughout my tweens, my stomach insecurities dissipated the moment I got a belly button piercing. I felt sexy whether my stomach was flat or not. Six years on and I’m still showing off my bedazzled belly button.


From day one, our parents, teachers and role models tell us that our bodies are sacred, that we must look after them because we only get one. Consequently, getting tattooed is often viewed as destroying the sacredness and natural beauty of our bodies. But if we only have one body, shouldn’t we be doing everything in our power to make sure we feel good in it? Modifying your body so that you feel comfortable in your own skin is not a destruction of self, but a radical act of self-love. That tiny crescent moon tattooed on my ankle may have been an act of rebellion but it also may have been an act of self-reclamation. It may have been both, I don’t know. I do know that tattoos have helped me to form a healthier relationship with my own body.


In a world that can be a terrifying place to navigate, it is all too easy to lose your sense of self. If a bit of body ink helps you to navigate that treacherous world, so be it.

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