Finding A Tattoo Artist After Trauma

A few months ago, one of my friends posted on Facebook that he was looking for a new tattoo shop that was woman-friendly and queer-friendly after a bad experience with his last artist. I asked him privately who the artist was who he’d had a bad experience with and he gave me the guy’s name and the tattoo shop he worked at. “He’s quiet and nice in person, but when I friended him on Facebook I found out he’s anti-choice, anti-gay, racist, misogynist, and pro-gun. After he defended the Hobby Lobby decision I decided I can’t ignore his politics anymore.”

I told him I could relate: I had gone to one artist who had done fantastic work, but when I friended him on Facebook I found out that he had dressed in redface to be the Blackhawks mascot for Halloween and was just throwing out people’s criticisms wholesale and telling them to unfriend him instead. More recently, I’d gotten beautiful work done at a different shop that had done similarly great work for my friends, but when I went back to look into getting knuckle tattoos, the artist had thrown out my few guidelines — I didn’t want the tattoo to be black, and I wanted it to be pretty without being too feminine. He insisted that it had to be black and block lettering or it’d take away from the “impact” of the tattoos. I had asked for what I’d asked for because I already have black block letters on the insides of my fingers and I needed to differentiate, and because these are my hands. I want to love this tattoo for the rest of my life. He clearly didn’t care, so I canceled the appointment.

My friend is queer, and I’m queer, and we’ve both been victims of violence in the past. I can’t totally speak for him, but I know that beyond the fact that I just don’t want to knowingly give my money to someone whose politics or attitude I find really disgusting — politics that actively work against someone like me — I also don’t want to donate my skin to their work. I don’t want my body to be a canvas for them. I don’t want my body to be an endorsement of someone who, on some level, hates my body, or anyone else’s. I’ve had my body co-opted by people like that before, to my continuing anguish.

But then too, it’s not just disagreement, and it’s not just not wanting my body to be their billboard: It’s also the fact that I already have problems, sometimes, with the mere fact of people touching me. Last week, for example, I had a particularly bad night of insomnia (with bonus massive panic attacks) that left me feeling paranoid and jumpy. I didn’t let my boyfriend touch me almost all day. I hung out with my friend who had been adjusting my feet pre-marathon, but I had to explain the situation and refuse his offer to take a look at my sore ankles. Leaving the apartment was hard enough, because I was irrationally afraid that someone was going to attack me. That’s an amped-up, high-intensity version of a feeling that exists as a low-level hum in my head all the time.

So imagine feeling low-level paranoia and mistrust about the way people are going to treat your body all the time, and then attempting to reconcile a misogynist, homophobe, transphobe, and/or racist driving a needle into your skin at rapid speed for three hours. Tattoos are something I do for myself, to care for myself. A good 75 percent of the process of getting a tattoo is the fact that it’s your body, your money, and your ideas. The last 25 percent is another person whose ideas you have to like and who you have to trust to do a good job. If I’m doing it for self-care, I want that person to care about and be sympathetic to my body, not just to care about the work they’re doing.

When I had the bout of insomnia last week, I resolved myself to get a massage. My body has been aching; but more importantly, I need to remind myself, sometimes, that people can touch you in a way that is caring and healing. I booked a woman who works out of a yoga studio near my apartment for that same night. I asked her to avoid my legs (for now, at least, that would upset me unduly), and she did, and a few times during the massage I had to actively tell myself that she was touching me because she was caring for me, and I was caring for myself. It’s not so radically different with tattoos. I want an artist I can trust to treat it — the tattoo, my skin, me, my experience, my body — with the respect it all deserves.

Thankfully, my friend got some referrals and passed them on to me. I’m getting a new tattoo today to celebrate finishing the marathon. I hope that, soon, I’ll find an artist I can stick with and build a relationship with. Every time I let someone touch me — a doctor, a chiropractor, a masseuse, an artist — and it successfully helps me to care for myself, I take a step toward recovery.

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