People Tell The Stories Behind Their First Tattoos

by Freyia Lilian Porteous

I've had a fascination with the art of tattooing for a while now, but only faced the needle myself last year. I'm trained as an embroiderer, so I have a pretty intimate relationship with the notion of drawing with a needle. During my studies, I started to draw parallels between the two worlds, and although embroidery is somewhat less painful than tattooing (though I have had my fair few needle related scrapes when having a sesh' on the hoop!) there is something both violent and healing about the process of repeatedly marking your canvas with a sharp implement to create something beautiful in the end. I think that is what I find so lovely about the idea of tattoos, and piercings too: They are a sort of baptism of fire. Marking your skin with a needle is uncomfortable, but from your pain comes something beautiful and permanent — an exquisite scar. I have two tattoos now, albeit tiny ones, and I would like to collect more. My first tattoo is a tiny outline of a star on the back of my neck. I often forget it is there, until I wear my hair in a topknot and someone comments on it. I like that it is in a hidden spot, somewhere intimate. My old friend Alli and I got tattoos together, spontaneously, on what I now think of as my Weekend Of Pain (in the space of two days, I acquired four new piercings and a tattoo. Intense). Alli's body was already somewhat a work of art, but I was a tattoo virgin. I had just gone through a very painful breakup with a guy I was very serious about. And in the space of a month, I lost ties with pretty much the entirety of my university friend group due to the aforementioned breakup, so it was a very transitionary period. For some grounding, I took a little holiday to Newcastle to spend time with some of my best and oldest friends. I had wanted a tiny tattoo for a few years, but it was something my ex wasn't keen on. It seemed the perfect healing process — a visual milestone. I'm a firm believer in transforming pain into something positive through art, and so it seemed like the right time to commit to something permanently my own. The scrape of the Geordie tattooist's needle as it cut the corners of the star into my skin was almost therapeutic.

Since joining the tattoo club, I have been even more curious (or nosey) about other people's personal artworks. I love to hear the stories behind each marking — the meaning behind the imagery, the anecdote about where and when it happened, and the "why" it happened. Was it a spontaneous affair or carefully planned? Did it mark a momentous life moment, or was it simply a cute adornment? Has it become something to regret or hide, or has it become a sacred, personal symbol? Is it secret, or something to show off? And so I began to ask those around me about their intimate illustrations:

The Confetti Particle

"I had my first (and only... at the moment!) tattoo done in 2011. My best friends and I decided to go on a holiday to Barcelona and stay a week there at one of our friend’s house. This holiday was mainly orchestrated because soon we were going to live apart (one of my friends was already in Barcelona, another one was going to study there, too, another was going to live in Argentina), and we thought that it was the perfect moment to have a friendship tattoo done, before we went in different directions. We decided to get a confetti particle, each one of us in our favorite color and in a different place. Mine is purple and it’s on the back of my neck. My friend Laura’s is green and it’s on her forearm (it looks like she has a spot of paint), Zaira’s is blue and it’s on her ankle, Ana’s is another shade of blue behind her knee, Diana’s is pink and behind her ear and Flor’s confetti is red and on her arm. We had it done in Barcelona by a friend who had just learned how to tattoo, so it wasn’t very professional but it was a fun afternoon, staying at home, laughing, listening to music (we felt so much at home that week just because we were together). The inspiration is friendship — happiness — and it reminds me of the lovely time I have spent with my best friends."

The Middle Name

"I got my first tattoo when I lived in Budapest four years ago (Erasmus). The year I spent there was one of the best ones in my life. Since I was a teenager, I was thinking about getting a calligraphy tattoo. I wanted a word that identified with me. For a long time, I wanted my pseudonym (nervously). Then, I thought about my middle name: Siloé, which is very unusual. I dislike my first name Pauline, because it is so common in France, where I am from. I felt like I wasn't unique, so Siloé was meaningful to me.

I decided to get tattooed very quickly. Someone told me about a cheap (but clean) tattoo place in Budapest and I spent the afternoon with a classmate trying to find the perfect calligraphy — she actually designed the one I chose! After class, I went to the tattoo studio, the guy was available. (I then fainted in the McDonalds nearby because I wasn't really prepared and I hadn't eaten enough — haha!)

My tattoo is on my left ribs. I forget about it most of the time, but I still love it when I see it. It's a reminder about the fact that I am indeed unique, and is a memento of the awesome year I spent in Budapest."

The Faded Fairy

"This tattoo is 19 years old; it's a falling fairy, in a blue dress. It's in honor of my invisible friend when I was a child, who was a little fairy called Bluebell. You have to understand that we didn't have 'artists' doing tattoos around where I lived in those days! Until you asked, I didn't even remember I had it! I'm getting it covered ASAP, but she holds a special place in my heart. Even though she actually looks more like a spider or a scab now!"

The Roman Numerals

"I have Roman numerals on my left foot of my mom's birthday. Encouraged by a boyfriend who already had tattoos, and coming out of my third year at university, I felt an urge to mark the occasion by doing something more drastic than just shaving one side of my head or adding more piercings (things that I'd also recently done). I must have felt the need to rebel or shock on some level.

The tattoo artist was a tattooed, butch kinda lady, which I liked. She used a fair amount of strength to pin my foot down whilst she scratched away. The pain was intense, but it was over quickly and I loved how discreet the finished product was. It's cute.

My mom is very important to me, as I'm sure moms are to most. Having raised us mainly as a single mother, I saw my tattoo as a mark of respect — a nod to what she had achieved and sacrificed for my sister and me.

I think as I've gotten older, the need for me to assign meaning to all of my tattoos has lessened. I think that some people fixate on a tattoo as a permanent feature, but I've never thought of my body in such a permanent way. I have had more tattoos since, but I think about these more as pieces of artwork or simply fun — less about what they signify."

The Swallow

"I got my tattoo done in my last year of university. I had always wanted one, but wasn't sure what to get and when to do it.

On a whim in the last week of school, my housemate and I decided to do it. We both got a tattoo. I chose to get a swallow as I have a slight obsession with swallow designs — necklaces, scarves, dresses... I hadn't previously thought much of this until my fiancee returned home from Vietnam with a swallow tattoo that he got, with me in mind. So the tattoo was a mix between something I loved and a reminder of him."

The Incredibly Beautiful Bird Skull Lady

"I got my first tattoo when I turned 23. I didn't even really think long and hard about it, but I fell in love with the image as soon as I saw it. No, I didn't go to my artist with an idea of my own (though I did that with my later tattoos), but nobody else has my beautiful bird skull lady, and she means so much to me despite not being born of my own imagination.

She's the work of a fine female artist who I came across in Leeds, U.K. Wandering around the Corn Exchange one day, I came across her little craft stall, with her prints in frames and on bags and cushions. Staring there out at me was a black and grey portrait of a very old-worldy looking woman, with a crown of three bird skulls, and a huge ruff of feathers. She was ghostly, haunting, and beautiful.

I once read an old Chinese story about a philosopher who was one day found cross legged on the ground, singing and laughing to himself, drumming on a human skull. It was his wife's skull, he said, when asked, and of course, the guy who came across this weird scene was appalled! How could he be so happy about the death of his wife? He replied that before she was born, she had no body — no form or substance. Then, by a collection of changes, she took form. In death, she merely lost her form and reverted back to the beginning. The whole process is like the cycle of the seasons, he said.

I always loved this story, and its acceptance of change, and its questioning of form, and life, and so much of what it is to be human. Also, having just been broken up with, I was feeling very dark, and ready for change. Or at least a way to mark the change that I hadn't wanted in some way."

The Triangle And Eye

"I got my first tattoo about six years ago. I wanted something small, that would be hidden and secret; something just for me. I thought carefully of where I'd have it done; it had to be a place on my body where I wouldn't get stretch marks, that wouldn't be exposed to the sun too often, that I could hide or show depending on my mood.

I chose a triangle with an eye for a few reasons. First of all, I'm obsessed with triangular shapes. I researched the meaning of the all-seeing eye and realized that it was far more interesting than the name suggests. It has so many interpretations and basically, you can give it all the meanings you want. The one I kept is the symbol of knowledge, coming from the Egyptian semiotic. I also like having an eye on my back — it's a bit of a silly lucky charm.

I like that it looks like a corporate logo as well. At the time, it was definitely not on trend and I struggled to convince the tattoo guy to do it. I wanted the simplest design possible for it and asked a friend of mine — who's a talented designer and also has an obsession for triangles — to help me draw it.

I regretted this tattoo a few times and thought of having it removed — as some Muslim people in the Parisian suburbs where I'm from thought it was the symbol of the Sheitan (the Devil), and that it was an anti-Muslim symbol. Every time this happened, it hurt a lot, as I'm not that type of person at all (if anything, quite the opposite), yet I get damaging comments and insults for it. Sadly and ironically enough, this comes from ignorance. Once, my driving instructor saw it and refused to carry on with the lesson — said he didn't even want to be in my presence. He got super mad, shouting and all. He thought I was a massive racist and the devil's biggest supporter.

Since this incident, I avoid displaying it around my hometown (and to be honest, around France in general), which sometimes requires logistics in the summer! Living in London, however, I learned to love my tattoo again as I got so many positive comments on it. Also, guys love it. Haha!"Images: Fotolia; Courtesy Author & Interviewees