An Eye Is Upon You - 224: Private Parts; Stretch Marks & Other Wobbly Stories

Published: 29 April, 2013 - Featured in Skin Deep 224, April, 2013

It strikes me that it is possible to divide most tattoo collectors into one of two camps, those that begin their coverage with their most detested body part and those that that delay tattooing their unfavourable bits until the very last.

I’m firmly in the second group but many of the people I meet seem to be the former and one of the questions I am most often asked by those new to tattooing is how best to disguise unloved bits. They don’t show me their scars and stretch marks and I don’t ask to see them, I just reassure that something can almost definitely be done and no, the tattooer won’t be shocked or horrified, after all, we all have less than pleasant bits.

The vessels that we inhabit are infinitely varied and entirely complex, although there isn’t much of this variety in evidence in the PhotoShopped and airbrushed images that we are presented with daily.  The perfect and glossy look is now so ubiquitous that we self-select and edit our Facebook photos in order to more closely resemble those familiar, yet entirely unreal images - who doesn’t love the flattering, nostalgia glow of an Instagram filter?

I’m guilty of this myself - the photo that accompanies this column is over three years old and most definitely in need of updating, but I’m avoiding the camera. I’m not a natural model anyway and if you are a regular reader you might already know that between then and now I’ve had a baby. What you might not know is that during that pregnancy I managed to gain a fairly impressive four stone - I’ve now lost three of them and I’m working on the last one. I’ve gained and lost a similar amount in the past too - my relationship with my body has been complicated, ever changing and emotional. I have bits I hate, bits I love and bits I’ve learned to live with - my tattoo collecting has been a significant part of that narrative.

15 years ago, when I first became interested in tattoos I read as much as I possibly could about the subject - back then any ‘serious’ writing was largely ethnographical, historical or psychological, none of which seemed to hold much relevance for me. Still, I scoured the indexes of every book for references to women’s tattoo experiences and I’d go straight to those pages, hoping to find words that spoke to me. I was frustrated by what I found, stories of trauma, of abuse, of survivors finding salvation through the ‘reclamation’ of their bodies. The women featured were fascinating, admirable and inspiring, but they didn’t afford any insight into my own love of tattoos. I had not endured comparable hardships and the empowerment I (blindly) sought wasn’t a reaction to outside forces. It was something quieter, something internal, something aesthetic, familial and bodily.

The body is the one thing we all possess - some of us are privileged to have one that functions better than others, or one that looks more attractive, but we all essentially have the same thing. To tattoo that body is to celebrate its corporeality, to find joy in our fleshiness. Unlike wearing clothes, which protect and conceal, tattoos highlight our vulnerability. We are vulnerable when we submit to the wound and experience the pain, of course, but we also make ourselves vulnerable before the tattoo process even begins by exposing our flesh to our chosen artist and offering it’s flaws for scrutiny. Who else do we entrust with such intimacies? Doctors, dentists, lovers?  The tattooer has a magic that the doctor lacks, for after the wound heals we become a walking work of art and something, tangible, something beautiful has emerged from the pain.

I can understand why those that have survived real suffering, pain that they did not commission nor control, have found catharsis in the tattoo process, for them, to be tattooed is to revisit difficultly with the knowledge that this time the ending will be positive.

Now older, I can find familiarity with those stories of reclamation, for a similar process occurs when we tattoo the parts of our bodies that cause us distress. It’s not reclamation exactly, but it is experiencing control and finding peace, it’s a way of finding pride in who you are, where you’ve been and what you have.

Scars, acne, thread veins, stretch marks, eczema, unidentified rashes, moles, uneven pigmentation - tattooists have seen it all. We must expose our fat bits, our imperfections, and our traces of the experiences that we’d rather forget in order to transform them, no matter how difficult that might be, It’ll be worth the leap.

Decorate it; celebrate it- even if, like me, you’ve left the worst until last (and I promise, you’ll see a new photo soon).


Text: Paula Hardy-Kangelos