An Eye Is Upon You - 212: Transition

Published: 28 May, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 212, May, 2012

Shortly before my grandma turned 85, I asked her about her younger days. So much had changed in her long, 20th century life that I expected to hear tales of how things used to be, but it wasn’t the differences that she wanted to talk about.

Instead, she told me what had remained the same and whispered that she “was still 18 in her head” – fresh, tenacious, full of anticipation and wonder. She said that she hadn’t altered at all; it was the world that had changed around her.

Tattoos are for those of us that still feel 18 on the inside regardless of what time does to our outer shells. To be tattooed is to celebrate who you are in the present as it displays the current inner self on the external walls – the body is transforming but only in order to confirm that inside the mind remains the same. Tattoos are only for the resolute.

In a lifetime, a single person can appear to be many different people. It’s a tired old cliché, but life is said to be a journey, travelling from birth through teenager to adult. Shakespeare wrote of this transition as seven stages, starting with infant and ending with a second childhood, ‘sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything’, a circular journey, appearing to end back where it started. Of course, tattooed people are never ‘sans everything’. We carry our art to the end of our personal journeys, no matter where they may lead.

When I was quite small I suddenly declared with absolute certainty that I was now a vegetarian. My parents, classic Sunday roast and bacon sandwich people, thought this hilarious; “leave her to it!” they sniggered, “She’ll soon change her mind. Just wait until Sunday/Shepherd’s pie night/ Christmas.” Three decades on and I still follow the dietary rules I decided upon as an infant. So perhaps it’s understandable that I have no qualms regarding my decision to become tattooed, afterall, there is little that we know as well as ourselves, and altering the outer to match the inner is simply an act of revelation, not of change.

As a child, the tattoos I knew were wrapped with bubblegum or faded on the forearms of old men that smelt of Vicks and hair oil. Back then I was a daughter, a village hall ballerina, a fairy that fell off the garden wall – my primary school report declared me able, but in need of a ‘calmer approach to life’, it wasn’t long before it was goodbye to girl guides and hello to goths. We start off as the fruit from the tree of our parents; we dress up in their clothes and listen to (and scratch) their records, imagining a future where we are just like them. Soon though, we seek to find our very own selves, and so we set ourselves up in opposition to our folks – we wear stupid shoes and sport ridiculous hairstyles that dare our elders to criticise, but all we are really trying to say is, “I am not you.”

Our parents explain away our behaviour, call it a ‘phase’, and wait for the clumsy rebellion to fade into more acceptable separations, perhaps university, marriage or children of our own. However, in some, the passion does not pale. We do not change or mellow, but continue to define ourselves through oppositions and alignments, forever remaining 18 in our heads.

Recently, Tom Gabel – extensively tattooed person and singer of punk band Against Me! – hit the mainstream news after coming out as transgendered in a magazine interview. Gabel now plans on beginning the long labour of physically transitioning from male to female. This transformative journey echoes the one that Gabel has already travelled in becoming tattooed, indeed, they both lead to the same destination; an external self that is an authentic presentation of the true, inner self, her mind, remains the same. It’s not a journey of transformation, but rather, one of confirmation.

Often, when I meet someone for the first time, they make a great deal of how they love my tattoos, but then reel off myriad reasons as why they’d never have a tattoo themselves. The famous saying, “The only difference between tattooed people and non- tattooed people is that tattooed people don’t care if you don’t have a tattoo” is almost true. But it’s not that I don’t care, it’s more that I already know why they don’t have tattoos, it’s simply because they don’t already have a tattooed person’s inside.

So Mrs. Raleigh, primary school teacher circa 1984, I’d like to take this opportunity to let you know that I never did cultivate that calmer attitude to life. Instead, I’ve inscribed my predilection for passion on my skin. Thanks anyway!


Text: Paula Hardy-Kangelos