How Tattooing Helped Me Love Myself

I was tattooed for the first time when I was 17 years old.

It was April 20th, 2016, and I was two months away from graduating high school. Needless to say, my final year of high school was a highly transitional year for me. I made it a priority to cut out toxic relationships, excel in school to get into my university of choice and work as much as I possibly could to be able to pay for tuition the following year. I was doing everything I possibly could to become the person I wanted to be entering the new chapter of my life: happy, confident and passionate about the things I would be pursuing. By April, I had accepted an offer of admission to Queen’s, I had a concrete plan of what I wanted to study, and I was counting down the days until my high school graduation when I would leave my hometown behind. I was excited to start this new phase of my life where I could make decisions for myself, one decision in particular being to start getting tattooed.

I had loved tattoos since I was about 14 or 15; I admired the artwork on several of my co-workers and spent hours upon hours on Instagram and Pinterest looking at sleeves, rib pieces and chest pieces. I knew I wanted to mark my body with pieces of art, and I was excited to get a head start. So, one evening after finishing up a shift at the café I worked at, I found myself in the basement of my first tattoo artist--a girl I’d met through mutual friends who was willing to tattoo me, despite me still being 17. I lay on her couch, in a haze of bong smoke, and had a small wildflower tattooed onto my ribs, curling around my right breast.

I will be first to admit that this was absolutely not the best circumstance for me to be getting my first tattoo. I had done absolutely no research on my tattoo artist (having just gone to the first person I had met who agreed to tattoo me), the basement in which I was tattooed didn’t exactly meet the standards of cleanliness your typical tattoo shop is required to meet, and the artist was not exceptionally experienced or skilled in her craft quite yet, so the final product didn’t include some of the details and fine lines I had originally wanted. Nonetheless, I was happy with the final tattoo and stoked to have some ink on my skin. Not only did I have a piece of art permanently on my skin, but I also had an interesting story to tell of how I got it.

The next time I added to my tattoo collection, I was 20 years old. It was another highly transitional time for me; during the last few months of 2018 and the first few of 2019 I had experienced the most anxiety I ever had in my life thus far and had spent a lot of time and energy trying to better myself. I ended up flying to Europe to be alone and backpacked from Poland to the UK for three weeks in late May 2019. I had just touched down in Amsterdam on a Thursday afternoon when I stumbled upon a tattoo shop that did walk-ins, just a few blocks east of Amsterdam Central. After walking around for just an hour, I already felt like Amsterdam was a special place: the way the light reflected off the canals, the charming crookedness of all the buildings and the slight smell of marijuana that lingered in the streets. I ended up walking in and scheduling an appointment for the next night to get a bird perching on a branch of flowers tattooed on my inner right arm. The bird was in honour of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch: a book that begins and culminates in Amsterdam, that I had read the previous summer while struggling with my anxiety. After spending about half an hour in a tattoo chair, I left with what is now my favourite tattoo, perfectly commemorating my solo trip.

I was tattooed twice more this past summer, as well as once again this fall. All three of my most recent pieces were done by a tattoo artist named Ian who is based out of my hometown. In July, during a quick appointment on my way to work, Ian tattooed a sketch done by Austrian artist Egon Schile, who I’d really come to admire while I was in Europe. In August, on my last day living in Prince Edward County (my hometown), I added a tribute to the place I grew up. About two hours before I left to move back to Kingston and start my fourth year of university,

I lay down to have my third tattoo done: some Queen Anne’s lace and honey suckles, along with a line of snow fencing from the beach I so often would bike to. About a month ago, in the throes of a slight hangover, I lay back down in that same chair to have my cat, Eleanor, immortalized on the same arm.

Quite often when I look in the mirror, I reflect on how my relationship with myself has changed since I got tattooed for the first time back in 2016. My tattoo journey started with me getting tattooed as a hopeful future university student, excited about what the future would hold for me, and has culminated thus far with me having tributes to things I hold close to my heart. My body, throughout my 21 years of life thus far, has changed in multiple ways, from acquiring freckles and wrinkles to scars and stretch-marks. Each little imprint that has been left on my skin is an indication of lived experience, whether that be falling down, growing into my body or staying in the sun for too long. Just like these freckles and stretch-marks, the ink on my skin contributes to this story of my lived experience, which I am so proud to be able to display on my body.


Photos 2 & 3: Cassidy McMackon

Photo 4: Rosoe Dillman