As someone who has never felt entirely comfortable in his own skin, it’s perhaps unsurprising that I take little issue with being tattooed. I’ve often said that I feel more ‘myself’ with every addition — that each tattoo takes me one step closer to looking in the mirror and feeling at ease with my body.
There’s the unraveling roll of film on my right forearm; memorialising my once-passionate pursuit of a career in film. There’s the New York City skyline on my left arm, with the words “Holy, Holy Holy” scribbled beneath, a footnote to Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl and the city in which it was written.
There’s songstress Lana Del Rey (or Selena Gomez or Emma Watson — depending on who you ask) on my left shoulder; the spontaneous ode to an album that nursed me through a particularly rough patch of my early 20s. Then there’s a traditional-looking boxer holding a peach with glove-wrapped hands, “I bruise easily” scrawled in cursive alongside it — a not-so-subtle nod to queer iconography and my painful sensitivity.
While I experience intense anxiety and over-thinking in far less consequential areas of my life — a debilitating need to be liked by strangers, for instance — I rarely give a second thought to the designs I get permanently inked on my body. For me, a tattoo is something to get on a whim, like a haircut or lottery ticket.
Rather than fearing that I’ll come to regret them, I find their permanence comforting; a reminder that I have control over my body, actions and identity.
In Western culture, tattoos have long been a way for people to identify themselves. In 1970 TIME magazine described the so-called ‘tattoo renaissance’ as “the vogue” of counterculture — but for sailors and members of the military, tattoos had been something of a graphic language for decades; a way of recording important events and experiences, as well as a form of artistic expression.
Though certain tattoos remain culturally tied to ideas of toughness and rebellion — perhaps due to their early popularity amongst the bare-armed men of the working class — I’ve always viewed the process of being tattooed as meditative, self-caring and intimate; laying still for hours at a time, focusing on my breath, getting to know my tattoo artist as he or she works their way through my design.
I love noticing as the pain — piercing at first — mellows out into a dull, aching vibration. I love the physical closeness of the transaction and the vulnerability of allowing another person to leave their mark on my body. I love the slow-dawning realisation that regardless of where my life takes me, this silly little tattoo will always form a small part of who I am.
Each tattoo, however trivial or ill-considered, is reason for celebration.
You see, I’ve always had trouble imagining myself as an old man. As someone living with depression and anxiety, I occasionally struggle to imagine myself alive five years from now. Tattoos, if nothing else, are a way of reminding myself of all the life I’ve lived, or simply survived; my version of leaving tally markings on a prison wall or dog-earing a good book.
And if that means that one day my grandkids make fun of my saggy old-man chest, messy with the smudged greenish-blue lines of my present-day tattoos, I’ll have to chalk that up as a win.
Because I reckon that’s when I’ll be able to look in the mirror and smile — dentures and all. Finally comfortable in my own skin.