In June I was on vacation in the Dominican Republic and found myself in a very uncomfortable conversation with a man while waiting to go parasailing. We were all making small talk when he said “Can I ask you something that’s not my business?” He asked how my sideburns were pierced. I was happy to explain and I don’t mind when people are curious because they are unusual. Then he said something that I hear way too often “but you’re a pretty girl, you don’t need to do these things. You were already beautiful, why did you mess with that?”
Men who say these things may think they’re paying me a compliment, but really it’s sexist. They assume I’m insecure, that their opinion of me matters, and that I should value their idea of beauty without considering I have my own. All I said was “I like to decorate” which is exactly true. Jewelry and tattoos are ways that I ornament my body and accentuate my unique beauty. (I doubt women with only their ears pierced hear this stuff, I think that’s generally accepted. So is dying your hair a “natural” looking color.)
I’ve always been fascinated with body art. When I was seven years old my mom and I sat near a woman on the bus with several tattoos and I whispered “Mom, do tattoos bleed?” She said “I don’t know, let’s ask.” The woman was friendly and explained that no, they don’t really bleed and showed me a few of them. It was no surprise in high school when I came home with my first tattoo.
The problem with getting tattooed when you’re that young is that chances are you don’t have a sophisticated idea about art. I got two tattoos as a teenager; the first was a simple butterfly outline that I had filled in later in college. The other was a hummingbird on my rib that was too small, flat and ornamented in a way that made it look like a seahorse. At the time it was just what I wanted, but as I got older and learned more about tattooing I knew how much better it could be and wanted a coverup.
With the trip to the Caribbean approaching I was ready for the change. I made an appointment at Industrial Tattoo in Berkeley where I’ve gone for piercings and tattoos for about a decade. Everyone there is a professional and an artist so I trust their work enough to have it on me permanently.
Thankfully, the teenage tattoo was not so permanent: the ink wasn’t dark black, it wasn’t filled in, and it was only three inches. I was expecting to spend a couple hours getting a male Anna’s hummingbird over it, but my artist, Joe, explained that the new image should be 150% to 200% larger and needed enough detail and movement to distract the eye from the original. Also, hummingbirds aren’t that big and have all that lovely color so we should go full size. He spent time sketching on my skin to make sure the design fit my body well and went with my curves. He came up with a lovely drawing of the hummingbird flying towards fuchsia flowers. Now it was time to get to work.
If you’ve heard the rumor, yes, abdominal tattoos are incredibly painful. When I thought this would be a short sitting it was fine, but Joe estimated 5-8 hours over two or three sessions. One hour in we had the stencil committed and decided to take a break and stretch. It was painful, but worse the placement of the flowers made it hard to breathe comfortably.
I spent another two hours in that sitting and we got the flowers colored in so as to better hide the coverup. I could still see it but I already loved the new imagery! I had about three weeks of healing, then enjoyed my vacation and soon after my return we sat down for round two.
The second sitting was another three hours but it was less challenging because I knew what I was in for and learned to pace my breathing (plus I had snacks and juice to keep my blood sugar up.) Joe took his time to add in extra subtle details that really brought dimension to the art work. The shadowy images of the fluttering wings and the lines of wind moving the flowers all make this piece look alive and not like a flat sticker of a hummingbird. As my skin healed the redness cleared up, the colors lightened and all his fine shading was even more delicate and lifelike.
I grew up as a heavy kid who didn’t look like anyone at my school, on tv, or otherwise known as “beautiful” and I struggled with being in my own skin, like many teenage girls. In my early twenties I focused on taking better care of my health which helped me feel confident and beautiful. I no longer fight with my hair, my shape, or my weight and I don’t feel burdened by the expectations or opinions of others. I think my happiness, health and self acceptance shine through now.
It’s easy to pick apart and criticize the choices women make about their appearances and individual interpretations of beauty. Entire TV shows and magazines are dedicated to doing it, and huge audiences support them. It takes more work to appreciate yourself and those around you. What does it matter if someone doesn’t adhere to your view? What value do you add to either of your lives when you tell a woman “but you were pretty before” or question her choices. I am an artist and I admire beautiful work in many different forms and I choose to add art to my own canvas.