Dear Tattoos: I love you. You get stared at constantly, and not always in an admiring sort of way. People interrogate me about what your sheer existence means, and never seem satisfied enough with the answer. Most of the time, I don't even give them a real answer. Because the story of where you all came from is between us. We share an incredibly sacred space that humans don't even realize they're intruding upon when they inquire. But no matter what people say, ask, or feel about you, your significance will never go unnoticed by me.
You see, I started building this community of ink on my skin — where you all live — when I was 18. That was the year the world felt most turbulent, when my sister's attempt at taking her own life hadn't yet faded into a distant memory (a memory that still bites me every once in a while). I was never interested in getting tattoos until that moment. But I had to take action in the only way that I could, committing myself to a wish that I had for my sister through you. A wish that she finds balance amongst the bipolar extremes. So I etched that wish into my skin in the form of a yin yang tattoo.
I regretted my decision immediately because the design was executed so imperfectly. I cried over not being able to even wish for balance for my sister, and for not helping her enough with my words and love before she did anything drastic. For going away to school and leaving her in a home that I felt had failed her.
But I was wrong. My wish for her was imperfect because she had the strength to find the balance herself. My sister's struggles with mental illness were not my fault, and trying to wrack my mind for things I could've done differently was all in vain. To you, my first tattoo, thank you for reminding me of this every day. You get a bad rap for being so asymmetrical, and you've faced numerous questions about whether or not you were a stick and poke (or if I etched you into my arm myself), followed by ridiculing laughs when I reveal your "professional" origin and that I paid good money for you. I keep saying I'm going to get you covered up because of your imperfections, but I put it off because you remind me of my first big lesson in life: You can't control everything, and you're not supposed to anyway.
Our tattoo family grew again when I left home to go away to college for my sophomore year. Dealing with a lot of unchecked depression, growing anxiety, and confusing sexual identity combined with my first taste of freedom caused me to experience very destructive cycles of behavior.
When I wasn't stuck in bed smoking weed all day to escape my responsibilities, I was out partying. At least twice a week, I would get drunk with people I hardly knew and have sex with men I had never met before. I buried my feelings under substances and bombarded my senses with sexual encounters as soon as I noticed my lack of attraction toward men. I made more enemies than friends along the way, with the exception of my best friend, Kenny.
Due in part to his friendship, I became aware that my behavior was hurting me, but that I had the power to change it. I didn't want to run away from my problems anymore. I just wanted to be kind and patient with myself.
Kenny and I went to the tattoo parlor together and I got you, my anchor. People tell me you were a cheesy choice, since almost everyone with a tattoo has some rendition of you in their collection. And besides, an anchor is the most predictable symbol of rootedness there is. But I desperately needed a simple and constant reminder for staying grounded when in a turbulent headspace and atmosphere that were often managing to sway me far from stability. You marked the moment in my life when I became committed to loving myself through the ups and downs of my mental health. Today, you remind me to only keep humans like Kenny in my life who help keep me grounded and happy, too.
Being at my school, becoming a part of the community, and meeting likeminded friends then made me realize the importance of feminism. Feminism was certainly not an idea that I was familiar with before university, but it's something I soon realized would become a passion. "Grrrrl" tattoo, I got you the semester I took a class on radical feminism and Riot Grrrl, which documented a shift in my thinking. It's a shift that is now essential to who I am and the things I care most about.
Like the movement itself, Grrrl tattoo (one sometimes accused of excluding queer people and people of color) you are imperfect. So, "Grrrl," you remind me not only of a life-changing shift in my thinking, but also of the need for learning and improving upon myself so that I can be as intersectional a feminist as I can be. You have not been drawn in a way many tend to consider beautiful, but you're a way of keeping an aspect of my politics close by.
I got you two, my Skeleton Lady and Beetles, last year after I came out to my friends and family as queer. That was the year I began to truly fall in love with myself and feel more body positive, confident, and stable than ever before. Before you guys, I never had any color in my tattoos. But you both remind me that I deserve to have color, deserve to have visibility, and deserve to be heard in my life.
I have always deserved these things, but getting you guys marked the moment I began believing as much. Skeleton Lady, I meant to give you a name. But your descriptor has always been fitting. When I got you, I was the Skeleton Lady. In being honest and transparent about my identity, I was able to experience the giddiness and celebration that comes with being out for the first time. I could feel free to dance happily with my newfound vulnerability and lipstick (like the one you're holding).
Ya'll are important to me, even if people have expressed distaste toward your "aesthetic." They say you remind them of a Tim Burton-esque style — one that is apparently not too cool anymore and hasn't been since the Winona Ryder days. Pay them no mind, loves.
I came across you by complete chance, Mr. W(h)ine. Eleven months ago, I got you tattooed on my ankle very impulsively by a talented friend after I drank too much white wine. Skylar was there, too. We hadn't started dating yet, but were getting to know one another. They had never gotten a tattoo, but insisted on getting one with me.
Getting a male symbol inked on one ankle and a female symbol on the other, Skylar was setting an intention for their life and expressing their own identity. Me, I was just going with the flow. I never go with the flow, w(h)ine. But in that moment, I had stopped trying to control everything. I knew you weren't ever going to mean much to me — a sentiment echoed by all those who've chastised me for getting drunkenly inked — but I was happy nonetheless.
A few hours later, Skylar kissed me on my couch, and we've been kissing on my couch ever since. Actually, we're full fledged partners, and I've never been in a healthier relationship. Whenever I look at you, I'm reminded that I don't always have to be actively manipulating and pursuing things to work out in my favor, and that sometimes the greatest happiness you will ever feel just happens upon you by accident.
The newest addition to our family, of course, is you Houses! You joined us during one of the hardest and most painful lessons of my life (which makes sense since you did hurt the most). You mean the most to me, but ironically I can't see you. Home isn't a place you can always see or touch, though. I now know that it is, above all, something you can feel.
Due to traumatic memories and damaged relationships, I was no longer able to go home to my parents' house without having anxiety attacks or falling back into a trauma body. I stopped feeling safe in my apartment on campus, since unstable housemates created such conflicts that I was forced to sometimes leave my own home for days at a time.
I got my first taste of a stable home when my partner invited me to live with them for the summer — an offer I can never thank them and their parents for enough. But knowing that I would have to return to campus in three months stressed me out. Through therapy, which I started for the first time in years, and a consistent self care routine, I began realizing that home was inside of me, and that I had the power to feel stable and safe all by myself.
My body was my home, even though my health sometimes betrayed me. Houses: Whenever I remember you're there, I feel a thriving neighborhood of love and strength within me — something that was formerly imperceptible. Even though some have scoffed at the fact that the specific buildings in your design do not commemorate anywhere in particular, you matter. Sure, friends and strangers alike have been disappointed by your "home" theme, since your design was somewhat random, and not actually linked with my childhood home. Before you were on my body, you were a textile design that my artist displayed on her Instagram. You spoke to me so much, though, and I knew I had to adopt you. You know as much as I do, Houses, that home isn't one place, and that childhood isn't necessarily a time I want to remember. But thank you for reminding me that this right here — my body, my mind, where you all are on my skin — this is home. And no one can take that away from me.
To all of you: Thank you for reminding me of my strength every day. Thank you for serving as a map to all of the lessons in my life thus far — turning traumatic events into valuable works of art. Thank you for being physical embodiments of positive affirmations. Thank you for reminding me that I have the ability to change my mind as easily as I can change my body.
You all allow me to wear my heart on my sleeve — my feelings and life lessons on my skin. And these days, vulnerability is what makes me feel most beautiful. Most powerful. Thank you for solidifying my lessons and setting me free from my mistakes and the demons of my mind. You're all great, even though your identities are constantly questioned and even if everyone in the family doesn't necessarily approve of what you stand for.
But know this: Your secrets are safe with me and I will proudly carry you on my flesh and in my heart for the rest of my life.
All my love,
Images: Skylar Belt; Meg Zulch; Gabriel Guyton