Iron & Ink

Tiger with Morning Glory done by Cara Cable of Black Cat Tattoo in Pittsburgh, PA.

I started getting tattooed on my 18th birthday. I found an artist I liked in June, made the appointment in August, and went the second weekend in October--early in my senior year of high school. It’s a sparrow on my back in a new school style with garishly bright colors on my right shoulder blade. It holds an obscure banner in its beak that is an allusion to a bible verse that is an allusion to religion being universal that I don’t really believe in anymore--but now I just tell people it was the time my brother was born.

This--or the Sanskrit on my wrist from my yoga phase--will be my first blast over. But I don’t regret them. Nor am I in a hurry to cover them with something else. I just don’t want them to get in the way of bigger things.

I was always drawn to tattooing because it was:

1. Aesthetically pleasing to me

2. Something my parents didn’t like

3. A way to modify my body in a way I choose.

(My priorities were in this order at the time.)

I always resented being one of the oldest in my grade, so bonus points for being one of the first kids to have a legal tattoo done in the style that was flashing over TLC shows and body mod forums at the time.

Shortly after my 26th birthday, 45 was elected president. I was in Las Vegas at a healthcare marketing conference trapped in the winding expo halls of the Cosmopolitan hotel. The morning after I shuffled to the expo hall for the last day of the conference trying to figure out how to avoid the topic with my very conservative, very southern megachurch baptist, very white colleagues and superiors and getting to the airport ticketing desk faster than my boss so that we didn’t sit together on the flight back to Chattanooga, Tennessee. I paid $150 out of my own pocket to get upgraded to economy plus just to avoid him. I wore cardigans I didn’t like to hide the tattoos I chose very specifically. This is how I would cope with conflict.

Something about the $150 bucks turned something on or off or swapped some kind of wire. While I floated around Chattanooga for two years I drank a lot. I was swollen, tired, stiff, and my heart was doing this thing where it would flutter because my blood pressure would get so high from being wound up so tight. I would drink at my friend’s bar to unwind and then start the next day with the dull throb behind my eyes tracking the cursor on the screen that seems to be subtly strobing in the background. Maybe that’s just my hangover.

Life did this thing where it pushes you to the next place and saves you by accident. I moved back to Chicago and I was Renewed. I was going to stop drinking. I was going to lose 30 lbs. I was going to be The Person I Was when she got her first sparrow tattoo. I joined a gym. I went to classes. The classes got boring and I didn’t care about how much I weighed anymore. I wanted to be strong. So I bought a program and I lifted weights. It was fun. I met some powerlifters. I signed up for a meet. I trained for the meet. It was that simple, but it wasn’t something I planned. There was no revelation that diet culture is bad, I should stop trying to lose weight for the sake of a number on the scale, and I am Reclaiming myself. It was more gradual and unnoticeable. It happened in a time of being lost and not really caring. Looking back and knowing that I am the kind of person that makes Plans--some of the best moments and opportunities seemed completely random at the time.

This isn’t a story about how lifting weights cured me of my anxiety and depression. Therapy and a lot of hard work in many other areas of my life did that. (Also there is no “cure”. It is something we all struggle with from time to time and that is OK.) But, like getting tattooed, picking up a barbell was an act that was:

1. Aesthetically pleasing to me

2. Something that would perplex my mother

3. A way to modify my body in a way I choose.

My muscles and my tattoos are the top two things folks ask me about. I see my dad for the first time in 4 months and he comments on my broader shoulders. My nail tech asks me why my hands are so calloused and suggests I wear gloves. It is summer and I am walking doing the boulevard and some guy that wants to flirt (?) asks me what my tattoos mean.

People are perplexed by feminine presenting people displaying body autonomy for themselves only. It used to make my cheeks red, ears hot, and blood boil as I push out a muttered, “None of your fucking business.” Now I smile and I say, “I prefer my body not be the topic of conversation.”, and go on with my day. These acts of body autonomy (of which there are many) taught me to do things for myself, which in turn helped me become more self assured and confident. The things I map out in my head are now match up with the reality I create for myself. Before I learned body autonomy, I held most of my desires inside.