Strength in Ink

by Sara Terry

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It was 7:30 in the morning. I was standing at the coffee bar, barely conscious as the milk swirled constellations in my coffee. Before I could form a coherent thought, a man’s hand grabbed my right leg, lifting and turning it to look at my tattoos. His grip was very tight. “Really got some ink on you, huh? You look great. Where’d you get them?” He acted angry when I ripped my leg away and stalked off. My ears rang when he called for me to relax, saying “why’d you get them if you didn’t want attention?” My day remained filled with anger and stress, and my leg tingled as if crawling with ants where he had touched my skin.

Another man did nothing to conceal his wandering eyes in an elevator. My hands were full of groceries, and I regretted wearing shorts. “American traditional, huh?” He spoke of the style of tattooing as if I had no idea what it is, despite having it all over my legs. “Good stuff. Wouldn’t expect a tiny gal like you to have so many. How bad did it hurt?” His suggestive smirk was not lost on me. I stayed silent and felt his eyes boring into the back of my head as I exited the elevator and headed for my apartment. I slept with a knife by my bed and wore pants in the middle of summer for the next week.

Women with tattoos have stories, myself included. Some are filled with uncomfortable remarks, blatant stares, and unwarranted opinions. Others, still, are filled with genuine connections to people, an unwavering strength of character, and pride in the chosen art that graces our skin.

I asked some tattooed friends of mine to share some of their stories with me. Trust me when I say that they did not disappoint. What follows is a testament to the strength, grace, and beauty of some very amazing tattooed individuals, despite the challenges that they sometimes must face.

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Working in retail with tattoos can be a challenge, especially when the customers you are supposed to charm comment on or touch your tattoos. Layla* is not a stranger to these complications. Her hand tattoos often garner the most attention, but the most uncomfortable part for her has always been the unwarranted touching. She is also no stranger to backhanded compliments such as “I love your tattoos...I hate tattoos though!” Despite these experiences and the stereotype that tattoos and the workplace don’t mix, Layla demonstrates that you can be professional and have tattoos.

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Bailey’s tattoos are her way of remembering significant moments of her life, or to proudly display the work of an artist to whom she has close ties. She often falls victim to catcalling that begins with remarks on her tattoos when she walks home after a shift at the bar. The men will often follow her, growing more insistent as she attempts to ignore them. The majority of her strife, however, comes from older people asking her parents why they’ve “allowed” her to ruin her beautiful skin. Bailey often wonders when she, a grown woman, will be “allowed” to take charge of her own body and not have to suffer verbal harassment about her choices.

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For Maria, her most uncomfortable moments have been in the tattoo shop itself. A few unprofessional artists attempted multiple times to have a conversation about other women’s bodies with her. Maria found their assumptions that she would want to hear about their sexual exploits or their thoughts about women in general offensive and alienating. She has since found much better artists. Frustratingly, many people use Maria as a sounding board for a tattoo idea they have had for themselves or a friend. Just because Maria has chosen to get tattoos doesn’t mean she is the go-to advisor for others. The most judgmental person in Maria’s life, however, is her mom. In fact, she has had to specify that if her mother continues to shame Maria about her tattoos, they will not speak anymore.

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Even a nail salon can be a fraught place for those with tattoos. For Rachel, a tattoo that read “Nanny” (for her grandmother) became fodder for a man who sidled up and asked if her tattoo said “naughty” and if she was “a naughty girl.” She told me that the look on his face made it the most disgusting moment she had ever experienced. Rachel’s experiences dealing with scorn about her tattoos even extends into her professional life. As a nursing student, she was met with hostility when she approached her director about her pinky tattoo, which Rachel had gotten to signify her surviving an abusive relationship. Rachel wondered if her director would react the same way if she disclosed the meaning behind the tattoo.

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Chandler has grown accustomed to a more distant form of harassment. Since they identify as nonbinary and have an androgynous appearance, they experience lewd stares from afar. While men won’t often approach them directly, the sexual nature of the stares is often uncomfortable and overwhelming. The majority of the comments they receive, however, come from other women who insist that the tattoos make Chandler look unprofessional. Nevertheless, Chandler bucks the stereotype by holding a full-time job.

It’s not always bad though. Across the board, everyone I talked to stated that they really enjoyed the friendly and respectful interactions that their tattoos spur. Chandler has found a community of similarly tattooed friends. Layla enjoys the sweet compliments from other women telling her how beautiful her tattoos are. Maria has enjoyed meeting and befriending genuinely cool artists. Bailey revels in the respectful conversations her tattoos start. And Rachel loves meeting people who understand her cryptic tattoo that references the television show Twin Peaks. In a similar fashion, I am always excited when people notice my Star Trek tattoo.

Every single person I interviewed made it very clear that their tattoos are sources of strength and memorializations of distinct moments in their lives. Rachel uses her tattoos as a way to love her body when it’s hard to do some days. Maria adores the way her tattoos embody the work of her amazing new artist friends. Layla gains confidence from her tattoos, especially in a workforce that doesn’t hire many tattooed individuals. Chandler uses tattoos as a way to freely express themselves. Bailey uses her tattoos as a scrapbook for her life and as mementos of friendships she holds dear. I use my tattoos as armor against anyone who decides I am weak, and to remember the loved ones I have lost.

Tattoos can be a testament to strength of will, a refusal to conform to the standards complete strangers have about our bodies, and above all, representative of the pursuit of making a body one’s own. Like painting the walls of your house, tattoos seem to say that you are here to stay. So even though they seem to invite the odd behavior and unwarranted opinions of strangers, the pros outweigh the cons.

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Each of my friends has a different valid and beautiful story for their tattoos. They didn’t worry about what they’d look like when we got older or how they would get a job. Through all the frustrations they shared, one theme shone through: pride. Genuine pride in the art that graces their bodies and the unending conviction that there will be more tattoos to come.

Finally, I asked them if they were to wake up with no tattoos tomorrow, would they do it all again:

Layla: “Hell yes I would!”

Bailey: “Oh absolutely.”

Maria: “I’m not going to stop until every square inch is covered.”

Rachel: “I would absolutely do it again.”

Chandler: “Yes.”

I couldn’t agree more.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the those interviewed.


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