As I was reading on the summer lawn, a shadow passed across the pages of my book. I squinted skywards.
“Is that real?”
My boyfriend’s mother looked at my tattoo and quietly walked away. I felt as though I had let her down.
I had my first tattoo when I was seventeen. It was a simple overlapping hibiscus flower design that would only be visible when I was at the beach. The world beckoned and I thought by imprinting this on my skin, I would make my plans of leaving Suffolk a reality.
The parlour was up some steep stairs and I was on crutches at the time. I remember being intimidated by the walls. They were covered in skulls and oriental dragons sprawled across entire backs or upper arms. The guy who ushered me in had stretched earlobes filled with monochrome ska chequered discs. He hadn’t stopped there. He had one cut under his bottom lip and when he drank, orange juice dribbled down his chin. When he took it out, you could see his lower teeth grinning through the gap.
As the needle hummed, I remember staring at an innately carved wooden screen that had Buddha’s serene face etched into the grains. I was too timid to tell the tattoo artist that I wanted a contrasting colour in the centre rather than the blend he gave me. As the pulsing needle scraped over my hip bone, I squeezed my friend’s hand with my sweaty paw. I looked down and saw that he had done a fade towards the outer edges of the petals rather than towards the centre, so it looked as though it hadn’t been coloured it properly. Despite these small misgivings, I liked it. That would be my only one for a decade.
When I moved to Singapore, I decided to try out an all-female parlour in Chinatown. The women in there played the same ska punk that I listened to as a teen and had wit as sharp as their needles. I chose my artist as she had put out some great line work on Instagram, and I liked that she could incorporate fine dot work too. More importantly, she gave me ownership and we collaborated before deciding the final design. This may seem like an obvious step since it would be inked onto my body forever, but I had already encountered another artist who refused to entertain any of my ideas after our initial consultation. I was to turn up to her studio and agree to her vision on the day. I didn’t show.
My tattooist was an apprentice who was an architect part-time, but you could tell her true passion was in this studio where she could be more creative and have designs constructed in hours rather than years. As I sat in the leather chair, I wondered which was more permanent nowadays – a tattoo or a building. I read Roald Dahl’s short story Skin as she worked, a macabre thing to read as you receive a tattoo.
The stag’s head reminds me of London. I had lived there for four years with mixed memories. I despised the drudge of the daily commute through Clapham Junction Station, the impossible cost of eating, the constant threat of another bike being stolen. Yet there were moments of loveliness too. Dinner parties with my sister and friends, the eclectic raves, the street markets where you could sample enough to get a free lunch. Through it all I had Richmond Park. I would cycle the loop for hours, stopping to admire the stags that sheltered under the autumnal trees, or the hypnotic does flickering their white ears and tails. I felt at home there.
My third tattoo is not so dainty. Having grown up by the sea, I feel a strong affinity for the water and all things nautical. This only grew when I learnt to scuba dive and could then start to understand what I was missing from the surface. If I had the money, I would become a dive master or underwater photographer. Yet the ocean nearly claimed me years before. Backpacking in Australia at 18, I naively picked up a shell by the ocean which housed a blue ringed octopus. Perhaps this design is to remind me to live, or to advocate my respect of the sea. Or maybe it is there to remind me that my body is my own, and I finally have the confidence to own it.