An Eye Is Upon You - 213: The Heavy Heart

Published: 25 June, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 213, June, 2012

I’ve been writing about tattoos on and off for a decade, starting as a student. I’ve written thousands of words, but there is one phrase I’ve studiously avoided using, the traditionally popular, ‘heavily tattooed’…

It’s been fairly difficult, I’ve had to work on suitable, but still familiar sounding alternatives, such as ‘large-scale tattoo coverage’ or ‘extensively tattooed’, but I haven’t yet stumbled upon the perfect alternative. The heavily tattooed maxim is so pervasive that it almost sounds like one word, a word used repeatedly by the mainstream and the niche, the blank and the tattooed – but I can’t help but hear the connotation of negativity, ‘heavily pregnant’ or ‘weighing heavily on your mind’, a baby, a worry, a responsibility, a physical or mental burden, heavy, cumbersome, a load to bear, so weighty one can hardly walk.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine a world in which I view having tattoos or being tattooed as a burden. My life as a tattooed person is not one of encumbrance, but appurtenance (Jeez I had to look that up in ye olde dictionary! Ed). I feel lucky that I’m tattooed, lucky that I get to navigate my own waters rather than kowtow to someone else, lucky I get to escape a world of nine-to-five and sometimes just plain lucky – like one Bank Holiday Monday in Amsterdam when the museum attendant rescued me from a seemingly endless queue with a complimentary ticket because “people with tattoos  this nice shouldn’t have to wait”. Being tattooed is not a difficulty, it’s a privilege.

How exactly does one define ‘heavily’ anyway? I’ve come across a variety of adjudications, things like: having a totally tattooed limb; spending 25-plus hours under the needle; 100-plus hours under the needle; or having more inky skin than pinky skin. I’ve even heard of definitions centering on the actual number of individual designs, ten tattoos, 20 tattoos. Of course, the number of individual designs means nothing at all – is someone with a complete, planned and executed-as-one tattoo body suit somehow less tattooed than a person with lots of tiddler-tattoos dotted about? Of course not.

One of my favourite answers to the “How many tattoos do you have?” question from ordinary chaps on the street is, “I’m working towards just one.” But what happens when you are nearing the reality of “just one” and are on the cusp of being ‘finished’? To the extensively tattooed, it is the blank skin that is most precious.

I’m yet to experience this for myself, I still have some large, if inconvenient and well-hidden spaces, such as the insides of thighs and bottom(!), but my lovely husband, tattooer, Daniel Morris of Rain City Tattoo has just one single significant gap left. This solitary ‘blankie bit’ has been the subject of much conversation, we’ve verbally cycled through a variety of plans for filling it. We’ve talked of themes, icons, artists, studios and potential travel plans, but none of them come to fruition. I’ve concluded that despite the purposeful tone to the repeated discussion, Dan is not yet ready to emotionally engage with a decision, much less physically engage. Generally, an almost completely tattooed body is not inhabited by a mind that fears commitment, so perhaps the final space represents something more profound, more life-changing than even the very first tattoo.

A well-respected European tattooer working in London spoke to me about the end of his own personal quest for complete coverage and how it altered the way he felt about tattooing others. He had observed that his interest had shifted to the preparation of the design, the draftsmanship and away from the tattooing process itself.

A tattoo artist with no tattoos at all is a controversial topic because we consider the shared experience to be vital in the tattoo process. We want the person that marks us to understand the pain, the consequence and the excitement of the moment, and have trouble believing that a tattoo-free-tattooer can sufficiently empathise. So what of the tattooer who’s no longer physically participating in the tattoo collecting experience? Perhaps reaching this point is akin to the end of a wonderful love affair. You will always think of it fondly and enjoy the memories of what you had, but you are no longer enthralled, captivated, consumed.

Dan just isn’t ready to move his tattoo collecting experience to the past tense, but continues to ponder all possibilities for that last gap because, like in love, anticipation is part of the fun.

So don’t rush to the finish line, but live in the moment, enjoy the tattoos you have, but also enjoy the ones you may have. Let the only ‘heaviness’ be our tattooed hearts when our skins can hold no more.


Text: Paula Hardy-Kangelos