The Debrief, July 2016.
Meet the people who turn the tattoo needle on themselves
When Piper Chapman, anti-heroine of ‘Orange is the New Black’, tattooed herself at the end of last season, she’d learned it the hard way: if you want it done right, do it yourself. “Cliché my ass,” she muttered, grinning through the pain of etching onto herself the infinity symbol she’d previously been mocked for wanting.
There are lots of reasons why someone might choose to turn the tattoo needle on themselves, but regardless of their motivations, it’s always a very personal experience. If you’re the one pushing the ink, you can’t look away and wait for it to be over. You have to sit there, repeating the action maybe for several hours – you are in full control of creating the mark that will stay on your skin for life.
Katherine Coffey, 36, first tattooed herself when she was 22, while at university in London. The two banners on her feet read ‘Heroes’ and ‘Villains’, a play on the old-school standard of having opposite phrases on your knuckles. “Plus I’m a big Beach Boys fan!” Katherine, a graphic designer, still loves her foot tattoos: “I find them just as valid as so-called ‘real’ tattoos. I’m someone who spends a lot of money on tattoos, and travels a long way to get them done by specific artists – I take it seriously. But at the same time, I don’t actually take it that seriously!”
Katherine, who describes herself as “fairly covered” in ink, says going to a tattoo parlour is more about getting someone else’s art on your skin. Doing it yourself, however, is how you get exactly what you want. “With many of the professional tattoos I’ve got, I’ve often thought I’d have done it a little differently. I’m a fussy customer!” She laughs. “So [doing it yourself] is also about being in control of your own body, and having the final say in what you look like. … The experience of marking yourself is definitely more empowering than going to someone else and asking them to do it for you.”
Before embarking on her DIY tattoo project, Katherine sought advice from someone who’d done it already. But it was still a bit of trial and error: “I got some fine sewing needles and wrapped them tightly with thread, and used graphic pen ink. That worked really well. … I went over the tattoos maybe three times.” The tattoos look pretty good for home-made ones, but Katherine says she never intended them to look perfect. “I’ve always thought, I don’t care if anyone ever sees this tattoo, I’m not doing it for anyone else’s benefit. It’s a personal thing, and I want this on me.”
For Thea Dery, 20, the process of inking her own skin became something of a meditation. “It was satisfying to do it, like how people knit or draw as a relaxing experience. Once you get past the pain it’s a repetitive, satisfying process.” Thea, who’s currently living in Chile as part of her Spanish university studies, was 18 when she put an eye on her finger – it’s currently her only tattoo. She’s interested in getting more formal work done in the future, but that would need careful consideration.
Thea made sure she knew how to tattoo herself safely: she used calligraphy ink, sterilised needles, antiseptic wipes, and gloves. But the actual design of her DIY ink was impulsive: “It was a spur of the moment decision to do it. My friends had gone away that weekend and I was alone, watching a movie. I figured that since I had the materials I should try it out, just a little one on my finger.”
Thea says it did hurt, at least in the beginning: “But it quickly became numb, as you have to keep poking at the same spot. … I poked for almost two hours straight, just to get this tiny thing.” The tattoo is rough, says Thea, and she wouldn’t consider it well done. “But it still makes me happy to look at it. The process of pushing the ink into my skin was an important experience about making a permanent decision about my body.”
19% of Britons and 24% of Americans have tattoos, according to a 2015 YouGov survey – permanent ink is no longer all that controversial. But historically, this is a very recent development. In her book, ‘Bodies of Subversion’, researcher Margot Mifflin explains how tattoos have swung back and forth from favour:
“No form of skin modification is as layered with meaning as tattooing, especially for women. Tattooed women of the 19th- and early 20th centuries flouted Victorian ideals of feminine purity and decorum,” writes Mifflin in the 2013 edition of her book. “Tattoos appeal to contemporary women both as emblems of empowerment in an era of feminist gains, and as badges of self-determination at a time when controversies about abortion rights, date rape, and sexual harassment have made them think hard about who controls their bodies – and why.”
The current tattoo revival stems back to the 1970s, when Janis Joplin became one of the first women to openly display ink. Mifflin describes this as the start of overturning the unsavoury image of tattoos, which was previously considered the purview of aggressive men and sexually available women. These stigmas are now thankfully outdated, as today’s tattoos are associated more with self-expression, as well as an act for claiming your body as your own to do with as you please. The latter is especially true when it comes to the rough stick-n-poke tattoos people give themselves in their bedrooms.
For Cassandra Sherlock, 24, one of the key points to doing her own ink is that skin doesn’t have to be that precious – she’s even let other people practice on her. “I’ve rejected this idea that it has to be a big deal about what your tattoos mean. Just because it’s permanent doesn’t mean it can’t be something goofy or fun, or something you saw and thought, ‘That looks cool, I want it.’”
Cassandra, a video editor and animator who lives in Indiana, has six home-made tattoos out of about 19 total. “I started off doing these small geometric shapes. The first one was an X. I have these small circles, little moons, some dots … I have two cats that I’m proud that I did myself. The two beets are more intricate. Those are the only ones with colour.” Asked why she chose to do it herself, Cassandra laughs: “I was broke!” And also: “I was a little bored, and I wanted more tattoos.”
Some of Cassandra’s DIY tattoos are stick-n-poke, but she’s also used a tattoo gun she bought on the internet. She doesn’t necessarily think it’s any more risky to do tattoos at home: “I’ve seen people go to shops and get nasty infections.” Cassandra recommends buying professional tattoo needles and ink from a reputable shop – it’s not that expensive. Her homemade tattoos are important to her, says Cassandra – precisely because she did them herself: “My [self-tattooing phase] wasn’t necessarily a great time in my life, but I was proud of these things i made. They’re always going to be a reminder of that.”
For Mike Marcus, 43, the stick-n-poke tattoos on his wrist have also become reminders of a unique moment. “They’re the molecular structures of tryptamine and phenethylamine,” says Mike. He did them four years ago, using sterile tattoo needles and Indian ink: “I’d finished a big relationship, and some business entanglements. I was in between chapters in my life.”
When people ask what the molecules represent, Mike’s answer depends on the situation: “One thing you can say is that those molecules are like the operating system of consciousness.” In more relaxed company, Mike will fill the rest of the story: “I used to be into psychedelics.” As Mike now runs a microbrewery in Manchester, he doesn’t have time for that anymore. “But I like the tattoos. They’re individual. [What they represent] isn’t really a part of my life now, but they’re a landmark.”
By this logic, tattoos become a map of your life, says Mike: “They make an indelible mark, so you can’t just move on from that part of your life and pretend you didn’t experience it.” If he were to get any more ink, Mike says he’d definitely be the one to do it: “Tattoos are a really personal thing. … Apart from exceptional circumstances like the Holocaust, anyone who’s got a tattoo has imposed it upon themselves. If you’re going to do that, you might as well do it yourself.”