"Interesting tattoos! What do they mean?" The sun’s out in London and so are my arms, and people have questions.
I have 13 scratchy black line tattoos, gathered slowly over many years, and they all carry personal significance to me. My usual comeback to that question is to ask how long they have. "They're basically a map of my life, so we’d be here all night!" Because I assure you, person who I’ve just met, it would be far more information than you’re looking for.
There are certainly people out there with more tattoos than me – ink that’s bolder and more colourful – and they get "tat-called" far more than I do when they walk down the street. But while an elaborate skull or sailor are things to remark upon, a tattooed rose is most probably just a rose. The circle on my right wrist, however, is an enigma – what does it mean?
Once in a blue moon, commenting on a tattoo can be a bonding moment, say, if you recognise that "weird ladder" on my inner arm as the Sutro Tower – the insider’s choice of San Francisco landmarks. But the triangle on my other arm has less obvious meanings. Meanings I don't want to go into with just anybody. It’s simply not appropriate small talk material.
But the questions keep coming. And then – not every time, but when it happens it’s often a man – a hand reaches out to touch my tattoos. I shouldn’t be shocked anymore but I always am. To have the nerve! To reach out, across a table or an armrest, to just poke at someone. Is it flirting? Or is it just lack of awareness about the fact that other people have inner lives? I wonder about these things when a stranger’s uninvited fingertip traces my inner wrist, along the circle that I got tattooed onto my skin years ago as a symbol of my personal autonomy.
"In a culture where surfaces matter, skin, the largest organ, is the scrim on which we project our greatest fantasies and deepest fears about our bodies," Margot Mifflin writes in her book, Bodies of Subversion. Mifflin explains how ink went from being associated with aggressive men and sexually available women to an expression of self-determination: "No form of skin modification is as layered with meaning as tattooing, especially for women," she writes. "Tattooed women of the 19th- and early 20th centuries flouted Victorian ideals of feminine purity and decorum."
In other words, tattoos are no longer a rarity. In fact, one in five Britons have been inked, according to a 2015 YouGov survey. But while these Victorian stigmas are now on their way out, they’re not quite gone. A French study from 2013 found that men were more likely to chat up women adorned with a fake tattoo, and also, estimate their chances of having sex with her to be greater. This is ironic when considering the reason many women often get tattoos: as a symbol of taking ownership of their bodies.
I was 19 years old when I got my first tattoo – a handprint just below my right knee that’s aged reasonably well. But even if it had been rubbish, it would still have been meaningful, because it was one of the first times in my life that I made my own decision about my own body. It was a big deal at the time – this was permanent, and it was myself and no one else who had made that call.
The tattoo that I get asked about most often is a feather just above my left elbow – a terrible piece of ink really, something I drew myself and had the tattoo artist copy directly, pen snags and all. I love it. It reminds me of some bad times – the wilderness years, if you will – but I’m glad they are over. The last time I told that story I was in bed, naked with someone who I was happy to spend hours sharing anecdotes with, meandering back and forth over the random details.
But when I was asked about my feather by a random dude on the bus a few years back, it went a little differently.
"Nice fern," he said. "Are you Kiwi?"
"No, it’s a feather," I responded.
"You know, it looks like a fern."
"Yes I know."
"So what's it for then?"
"It’s personal," I said defensively; the bus was full and moving slowly through traffic. The man was undeterred. "But I want to hear about it!" Feeling too irritated to be worried about any negative repercussions, I snapped back: "But I don’t want to talk about it!"
The tattoo that I get the most compliments on is a paper bird. It’s big enough to be clearly visible as I walk down the street, resulting in the odd "Nice origami!" shout. I don’t mind that so much, actually, as it’s one of the better things to say to someone whose tattoos you like. Just go with a simple: "That’s really cool/pretty/unusual!" And if that person wants to tell you about it, they will.
Sure, to draw an image on your skin is a public statement, and maybe it’s a contradiction in terms to demand privacy about it. For an introvert who won’t even wear a logo T-shirt, it’s a paradox. I’ll get a tattoo as a symbol of self-determination, but then that symbol – and sometimes even my whole body – is viewed as public property. But ultimately, I love my tattoos – even the ones I say I don’t – and as life keeps happening, I’ll keep adding to the map on my body.