"My parents are very old-fashioned when it comes to tattoos. Even though their generation does sometimes understand the younger generation's culture, they still feel like being tattooed makes life as difficult today as it was when they were younger. But it really isn't."
This is what Asha, one of the women featured in this piece, tells me when we start talking about her tattoos – and it's true. More people than ever have tattoos. One in five of the UK population have been inked, a figure that rises to one in three when it comes to young adults. And, sure, it might be harder for us to get jobs these days, but blame for that rests firmly on the recession, not on tattoos.
Over the past few years, cultural reasons behind people's decision to ink have become less prevalent and, with prejudices that would once have held you back from employment falling away, what's left is joy in making a permanent change to your body – whether your motivation is meaningful, impulsive, creative or simply that it looks cool.
To celebrate this new era of inked freedom, and inspired by this tweet, we decided to talk to seven different women about why they got tattooed. Because, while we may be in the golden age of tattooing, women's bodies are still under cultural surveillance. We are still encouraged to make permanent changes based on ideas of womanhood – to lose weight, remove ‘unwanted’ hair, correct blemishes – but permanent changes outside those parameters are somehow too permanent and therefore seen as unfeminine.
Getting tattooed is one of the only permanent changes women can make to their bodies where the choice is entirely theirs, and not based on assumed ideas of what it ‘means’ to be a woman. And that is something to celebrate.
All of my tattoos have been spontaneous, I've never planned a tattoo for more than a week. The first one I ever got was when I was 15 – I had a fake passport that my cousin made, and I got it done on my ribs. It was in memory of my dad, who had passed away a few years before. When you're 15 you don't really have control over anything and it felt like everything was going wrong in my life. I've got them steadily since.
Sometimes my relationship with my tattoos can be a bit difficult, because when my body image is bad I look at them and think 'Oh my god, what did I do?!' It's as if they've always been a part of my skin and part of me. So when my body image is good, I always feel really happy about them and I want them to be on show. It fluctuates.
My first 10 tattoos were all on my back or my ribs or just one on my ankle – places that are very easy to hide or places that you wouldn't really see. I was really self-conscious about getting them on my arms, because then I'd want the tattoos visible and I really don't like my arms. The first one I got on my arm was actually to cover some stretch marks and self-harm marks. I thought that would kill two birds with one stone: it will cover the scars, and people will look at the tattoo more than they'll look at the marks and scars. It's a slow progression and hopefully I'll get to a point where I actually like it, but it comes in waves.
I tried my hardest not to think about my body at all. It was just a flesh suit that I needed to get through life. But since getting tattoos I feel very proud of the fact that I've found art and images that I like so much that I'd put them permanently on myself. I've made a conscious choice to become like a canvas. I think about this a lot when I'm walking around, especially in summer if I'm wearing lighter clothing and you can see a few more of my tattoos. I think about that when I see other people with lots of tattoos as well – regardless of what they have. When I see other people's tattoos I subconsciously think 'Oh we're friends!'
I have 13 tattoos and there are two that people often comment on. One is the doughnut one. I got that in the winter of 2013 when I hit a stride in being fat that I couldn't really come back from. I wanted to get a frivolous tattoo that celebrated that I was totally content in my body. It's quite playful but states that I'm probably going to be fat forever and I’m so fine with that I'm going to own it by putting it on my body forever. My fatness is the finished product, just like this permanent tattoo.
My tattoos also act as a nice little layer of protection in situations where I might feel vulnerable. The time that you can see it the most is when I'm in swimwear, and that's the time when I would be the most self-conscious of people looking at me. Having that tattoo is a way of me saying 'I fucking know I’m fat, fuck off'. So it's actually useful! If someone's looking at me because I'm fat and wearing a bikini, it's a way of me reversing that gaze.
The other tattoo people comment on is the weird lady face on my arm. That gets a lot of positive attention because it’s so visible. One of the reasons I like it so much is because people look at it and ask what it means, but it doesn’t mean anything! It’s just a cool picture. That's how I operate with tattoos. It just has to look good and I don't care about a deeper meaning. I have a literal picture of a prawn on my arm. That doesn't mean anything, it's just that prawns look cool. And I really think that's fine, it’s a legitimate relationship to have with your body.
I always prefer to have my tattoos on show. It's not that I deliberately wear things to show them off but when I'm not showing them I'm like 'Oh that's sad!' because I think they’re part of my ensemble.
I spent years trying to hide my tattoos from my family and when they eventually found out I was surprised at how chill they were. Because when you break it down, what does having tattoos mean? Why would it matter? It used to be loaded with so much cultural significance about you as a person and now it's much more mainstream – what difference does it actually make? You haven't changed and suddenly become a terrible person since you got them, so why worry.
I don't really put meanings to tattoos, it's just become a part of who I am and the way that I express myself. I tend to get them at times where I feel like I'm going through something, and that marks the spot. In today's society, everyone wants to put a meaning on things and justify themselves, but who are you justifying yourself to? You, or other people? People rely on the idea of ‘meaning’ – maybe you're a little bit insecure about yourself and maybe you shouldn't get tattooed! But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t.
I love working or collaborating with artists who are happy to tattoo me and let them have freedom. That's one thing I really like about Aaron, who did my neck – he was never one to question me or doubt me. He was just like, 'That's sick let's do it'. I love working with people like that, they just let you be who you are. I think that's really powerful.
The way I see it is that I'm not going to live forever and I don't really take my body too seriously. Although people see it, it's not actually me – my soul, my thoughts, my actions are me and that is all internal, so I don’t take what I do externally seriously. And I don't see why other people need to. The only other people I feel should are my parents, because they brought me into the world. Apart from that, I don't really care.
I do get a lot of attention. Mostly it's good attention but people still give me this look like, 'I would never get my face tattooed'. When people say something like that, I feel like it's because they're a little bit insecure about being themselves and they're projecting themselves onto me. You don't have to copy me but I'm happy expressing myself like this, so this is what I'm going to do. There's more things going on in the world – you don't need to look at me as a distraction and I don't really need to hear your opinions of what you think of my tattoos. Let me be me, you do you, and don't distract yourself from what is actually going on around us.
I've been getting tattooed for 10 years. All my tattoos are straight from Renaissance paintings or etchings which is a heavy influence in all my work. Magic and the medieval era inspire all of my work and therefore all of my tattoos. Most of them are from Maxime Buchi, the CEO of Sang Bleu, who is probably one of the best tattoo artists in the world. Most of the rest are by Ant and Sophie Rose from Sang Bleu and a few are by Clare and Jo from Old Habits. I'm really proud of them.
When I think of the idea for a tattoo it's always naturally on my legs. It feels like it would be quite aggressive or masculine on my arms because I'm bigger. But as my first proper big tattoo was on my thigh, I naturally started building around it as an artist and a designer – I think composition on your body with your tattoos is equally as important as what you're having tattooed. My tattoos make a continuous story even across the two legs. There's the classic 16th-century witches sabbath etching that I love, and some of the creatures and demons are spinning and twirling around from one leg and then onto the other leg and around the back. It's kind of like one leg is hell and the other leg is more mythical creatures in the sea.
I genuinely feel more happy and more 'me' with every tattoo I get. I feel like I'm another step closer to being who I am; the final outlook becomes more and more complete. Only good things have come from me being tattooed. It definitely makes me feel happier about everything.
I've never felt to any major extent that someone is treating me as ‘less than' because of my tattoos. If anything, the more interaction I have purely because of my tattoos is positive. Apart from catcalling, but I don't know if that's because of my tattoos or whether they use my tattoos as an excuse to talk to me. Men will shout things like 'nice tattoos' even though I've walked past them in seconds so they couldn't have seen them! They're just saying it because middle-aged men seem to think you're going to talk to them on the street if they say that to you. But because the [tattoos] are not physically a part of my anatomy, I can just ignore them and walk past – it would be harder to ignore and much more personal if they were commenting on my boobs.
That said, it does also feel like they’re accusing me of being ‘attention-seeking’ for being tattooed, which I find really annoying. My tattoos are like their clothing or the glasses they chose to wear. It’s just a choice I made for me, not you.
The majority of my tattoos are on my arms – those are the ones that I got later in life. The more hidden ones are my earliest ones, when I was too afraid of my Arab family members finding out. But the older I got, and the more interested in actual tattoo art I became, the more proudly I put them on my arms. I was not ashamed of getting them, and I was no longer afraid of being reprimanded for them.
I've struggled with medications since I was 19. I’ve had medications poison me, I've had medications give me all sorts of terrible side-effects. The triptych on my arm – it’s not decorative; it’s sentimental, significant. My relationship with my mental health is a huge part of who I am and I’m very glad that I had got that tattoo done for that reason.
I love getting tattoos done. There is a very, very unique and enjoyable type of pain that you get while being tattooed and I love the process of it. And once it’s there, it’s just a part of you. I’ve got my dad's name who passed away about 11 years ago, and I love that tattoo, it’s a sentimental one. But I don’t love the one on my décolletage I got in Austin, Texas when I was really drunk any less – they all become these imprints of these different times of your life. Whether that significance was present in the design or not, it’s pointing to the time you got it, and that is important in itself.
When I first started getting tattoos on my arms, I definitely showed them off. I don't see my tattoos at all now, they might as well be moles I was born with. They instantly become a part of my body – even the ones I hate, I have no intention of removing them, or wishing they weren't ever there.
That being said, you do sometimes get reminded that you stand out like a sore thumb. There are situations where I have to hide them for my own sanity. I am from the Middle East and I sometimes go to parties held by people from back home. I hide them because I hate being asked ‘What does this mean?’ over and over again. And there isn’t an answer – I was just drunk and with my friends in a hotel room and we decided to get a tattoo done. Or we were on holiday and we drank shitloads of mescal. And the follow up, ‘Why would you do that to your body if it doesn’t mean anything?’ is exhausting. It’s like how I choose to tell people that I’m from the Middle East: I suss out the situation and often I actually don’t want the headache of trying to explain my culture to you. It’s the same thing with tattoo culture – I’m not going to sit there and educate you on my time.
I am slowly covering up my legs with tattoos. I do have them on both of my arms too, and on my back, but they’re mainly on my legs. I see them all as a whole. It’s helping me create my own identity and is an important part of self-expression as well – I think it's something that is truthful for each and every one of us.
The more I get them, the less scared I've been to keep going. It's made me feel more free. I got a heart and dagger the same week as a break-up once, it didn’t click it was probably my subconscious until after I had it done! I think it’s amazing that we have the opportunity to have whatever it is we admire tattooed onto our bodies – meaningful or not.
I got my first one when I was 15, which is outrageous actually. It's totally illegal so I don't really know how it happened. It’s a really small outline of a star – classic, typical tattoo from 10 years ago on my foot. I haven't covered it up yet. I feel like people shouldn't regret something because at the time that's what you wanted. It doesn’t have to ‘mean’ anything. I have good memories of them because I got them done at a certain time, and I have one that me and my boyfriend both have (he's a tattooist). But the others, I just like them!
I like the choice of having them on display and not. I have one on my chest that I see as a permanent necklace so in a way it’s part of my clothes. I never really felt like I have to change what I wear based on them. But because I live in Brighton it's kind of the new norm. I feel like most of the people I hang out with have tattoos, so I don't feel like the odd one out.
I have five pieces of bones on my body: a skull on the back of my leg and some bone fragments in other places. While pretty much all my other tattoos have meaning, the bones don’t. I thought they were beautiful, they’re a part of me and all of us, so why not put them on my skin. They sit in perfectly with my other tattoos, because they’re quite small and act as great space fillers.
My grandmother is a doctor and because of her, I was looking into medical illustration – I was even going to go to the US to study it. But it’s a dying trait now – everything is digital. Ever since then I’ve enjoyed drawing bones. Bones are considered gross but there's something beautiful about skeletons to me. It’s always been dismissed as gross or morbid. In my paintings, I’m not trying to glorify it but make something that’s seen as ugly, beautiful.
I first started getting tattoos to cover up scars. You can’t really say you’ve recovered from depression, but I went through a really dark time when I was self-harming, and my first two tattoos were to cover up scars that were pretty prominent and I couldn't get rid of by laser. My dad and I got a tattoo together in Latin: ‘Per aspera ad astra’ which means ‘Through hardships to the stars’. I wanted to show off my growth that he supported me through – I got past that point in my life where I was self-harming and became a stronger person.
It’s not just about the relationship with my tattoos and my body but also the relationship between me and my tattoo artist. My friend Aaron has done most of my tattoos since I met him four years ago. Tattoo sessions last for two to three hours, depending on the size, and every time it's like a therapy session. We’ll talk the whole time about our lives. I often don’t know what I want, only that I want another tattoo, so we collaborate. I trust him more with my body than I do other people. It’s a unique, intimate relationship, to trust someone enough to change your body permanently. A lot of previous artwork was based off intimacy, break-ups and snippets of life. I don't see Aaron that often but when I do, it’s like a snippet of my life too. That friendship becomes part of my body, and part of my life.