Tattoos are liberating.
I got my first at 18, my skin forever embedded with La ilaha illallah (“There is no God but God”), a declaration said by Muslims, a spiritual oath to Allah. Since then, tattoos have been many a thing to me: a form of self expression, a tangible creative outlet, a pastiche of memories forever etched in blue ink, indelibly onto my body.
Tattoos “skate the line between being incredibly casual and high stakes,” says my friend, Jenna Wortham, a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine and co-creator of Bloop (like Goop, but by black women, made with fellow genius Aminatou Sow). Adding in, after some thought, “I like that a tattoo can be very impulsive, but also imbued with so much meaning. That duality is very appealing to me.”
Jenna and I had initially planned to talk about self care, but our conversation quickly shifted to tattoos after I mentioned that my own had been a gateway to liking myself. Given that we both had a few that were fairly visible and bold—Jenna has close to 10, and I have around 30—we wanted to unpack why we get them. Both women of colour, we explored ideas of race, as tattoos have now permeated so much of white culture. Jenna suggested that tattoos for us are about being “read” i.e., how we wish to be perceived, which seemed a beautiful and apt explanation of signalling one’s identity (e.g., being queer) through the art of self expression.
Our shared love made me want to delve deeper into how this art form is expressed and expresses us, to uncover the mystique around its ubiquity, charm and taboo.
“I really like tattoo culture, and I really like surf culture,” Jenna tells me. This coupling is on point, as they’re both predicated on a chill esthetic, a sweet laissez-faire attitude. The impulse to etch something onto your skin without fear of its long-lasting result is perfectly personified by a stoner on a beach screaming, “Sick, dude!” So, I emphatically agree.
“It’s exhilarating thinking about something that you’ll have forever, but that might not mean that much to you in the long run,” Jenna says. “That’s a really great way to look at life in general.”
Tattoos acquired through stick and poke, untrained hands or mechanical projects (a friend’s ex partner created a tattoo gun of his own) were almost a rite of passage for my friends and me in Williamsburg and Montréal, the cities where I’ve spent most of the last decade. During summers, hopping between both cities, I remember diligently witnessing my peers await words like a capitalized “slut,” “bitch” or a cursive “boo”—accompanied by a cartoon version of Casper. Even then, I had a feeling these words might not mean much to them in the long run.
In those summers, too, I soon learned that tattoos were an easy way to validate your body, your existence. A reminder to yourself that you’re still here.
About a quarter of my tattoos are fairly large—like a sakura blossom branch, faded candy-pink and peachy in colour, stretched full across the back of my right bicep. A tattoo artist friend was offering free tattoos for practice. It was my first summer in New York, and I was 19. Subletting a windowless room in a dingy loft in Bushwick, I fiercely believed in my own inherent independence. It sounds cheesy, but I chose the piece to commemorate the days when I was sent to Japanese school (I was a nerd, keen on Japan and the culture) from the ages of seven to 11. An honouring of a fragmented memory of my youth. That smelly New York summer was the first time I was away from my family for an extended period of my life, and I felt nostalgic for my past, seeking all its strange tenets and mysteries.
It felt important to eternalize such a random reality, and almost all 30 of my bodily companions, including the sakura, are designs that I chose impulsively. Mine are mainly small, and symbolic. Lots of arrows that cross-culturally mean “the right direction.” A Muslim star and moon constellation, grand Franciscan-style prayer hands and a portrait of a veiled mother recently line the whole back of my left bicep. Miraculously, I regret none of them.
Both Jenna and I gravitated towards tattoos as a means of camaraderie. Even the way we talked about their very tangible nature felt like we were sharing a pact, a way to connect metaphysically. It was only then that I realized how much I savoured talking to other women about tattoos. Recently, Jenna wrote about the trend of best friend tattoos: “There’s nothing that reinforces a bad choice like doing it in the company of another.” She got her first tattoo—a stick-and-poked love heart on her ankle—pierced by her then-best friend Stephanie when they were in middle school.
We discussed the strange ritual of permanently disfiguring oneself, and how for several years based on the shaming I’d get from family, I hated my desire for them. As a Muslim, I knew tattoos were considered a form of disfigurement not permitted in Islam. Still, I felt pulled by them, and didn’t understand why.
I’ve always felt like an outcast, too strange and otherworldly, never like other people—let alone like girls. I’ve never felt very feminine, but more a tomboy. I didn’t want to look pretty, instead I just wanted to look like myself. I started realizing that tattoos were a way for me to accept my very tangible body, so I began to see it as almost spiritual. That it gave meaning to my existence; it made me want to be here, alive. And that felt like a sign from God. There was something holy in liking myself, and my body, and embracing all that I had been given.
Tattooing became a way to claim my body, or a space for my body, especially during moments when my body didn’t feel like mine anymore. I got my first tattoo around the time I got pregnant; I needed to remind myself of who I was: a Muslim, at a time when I felt so far from God, my faith, and mostly myself. Marking my skin felt like a conscious act of control. It was as if I could relearn who I was through the ink. When the needle began to stain my skin with a marking, it was like nirvana, I felt high.
“I think it just comes back to how you want to be read,” Jenna says. “It’s all about reading.” We end our conversation discussing the most gratifying experience of a tattoo, as a marker of your own personhood, with the power to dictate how you want to be seen—and to declare it with a crisp physical enunciation.
As a way to sublimate anxiety, I continue to ink my skin with resilience. These badges control what is mine, reflect my emotions, my tenderness, as a direct result of me, like I am my own God. Friends that wear the hijab have claimed the veil as a shield; my very own sister has described it as a second layer of skin. For me, that’s the intuitive teleology of a tattoo.