When I was twelve, as a birthday present, my parents had the less-than-stellar idea to let me paint my bedroom however I wanted. Because I was twelve, I picked a different color for every wall, and because my room was a square with the corner cut off, I got to pick FIVE colors. There was the green wall, where I would later begin thumb-tacking CD’s and posters. There was blue wall, with its wide windows and view of rolling golden hillsides. There was the weird, sort of pre-coral-becoming-a-fashionable-color coral wall, with my door and a Jack Sparrow poster. And the sunshine-yellow wall, against which I shoved my “I don’t need a bedframe for my mattress, guys” bed, directly on the floor. Finally – most importantly – there was the purple wall, where my trusty Vaio PC was stationed, my matching plastic purple desk chair, matching purple keyboard and matching purple desk accessories.
This remained my set up for years, and it was seated in that purple chair next to that purple wall that I discovered Outer Limits Tattoo in Long Beach and decided I wanted Kari Barba to do my first tattoo. I was about fifteen at the time.
I’m well aware that lots of young teen girls go through a tattoo-wanting phase, and I’m not here to tell you that mine was more interesting or REAL than all those other girls’ (except it is, and was, obviously). What I will say is that for what should have been one of my cooler phases as a teen, I still managed to find a way to make it as nerdy as possible. Did I want a super sweet butterfly or rose? Did I want a cross or a quote? Nah, yo. I wanted my family crest. Which, for the record, isn’t really even a thing, because for those of you that don’t know, my last name is King. Unsurprisingly for the generic non-royalty we are, we don’t have one.
(Bad family crest tattoos, I eventually found, are a cliché all their own. Not nearly as cute as butterflies, they typically were more in the realm of bro-y white dudes in their twenties. It’s probably for the best that I outgrew that desire before I turned eighteen and gained the legal ability to do anything about it.)
Where my interest in that particular design faded, my love for all things tattoo flourished. I did sidetrack into Piercingville first for a few years in my late teens and early twenties, but come my college graduation, I decided I was ready for my first tattoo.
I unironically traded in my dude-bro cliché for an appropriately late 2000‘s white girl:
a feather a quill pen. When it was my only tattoo it got a lot more comments than it does these days, my favorite being “Oh, I love your tattoo! Where did you get it, Urban Outfitters?” from a good friend. Despite that friend being completely on point, my quill pen is still one of my favorites. It officially introduced me to what is now one of my favorite hobbies.
I love tattoos. I love them for a lot of reasons, some that wouldn’t surprise my fifteen year old self, some that would blow her mind a little. And since I can’t share them with her, I’ll share them with you instead.
Not Every Tattoo Has to “MEAN” Something
When I was younger I was deeply convinced that all tattoos needed meaning. I swore I would never understand people that got silly tattoos. A joke, PERMANENTLY on your body? What about the aesthetic? At the time a religious fan of Miami Ink, and then LA Ink, I’m not surprised that I subscribed to this particular theory.
Even outside of reality television it’s a popular one. Why would you bother permanently marking your body with something not memorial? It’s like the physical, permanent version of doing it for the Vine. I thought there was something wrong with the mindset of “I just wanted it” or “it’s funny”. Or, best case, maybe I just didn’t understand it yet.
And I was right: over the years, I discovered with relish that it really is that simple. Sometimes you just want something, and sometimes something is just funny. Because people can do what they want, they get funny tattoos.
If anything, silly tattoos are really the kind to celebrate the most. We need more fun and more laughter in life. I don’t yet have any tattoos that I would qualify as a silly tattoo, but the closest I have is Yorick, seated permanently on the top of my wrist. He was essentially a tattoo borne of a whim, and every time I see him, his stupid gummy no-toothed grin makes me happy, as do the words above him (“Alas, poor Yorick!”). THAT’s why not every tattoo has to mean something. Sometimes they just make you happy, and I am all about that.
One of my favorite tattooing anecdotes was from a conversation during the second session on my Norwich Cathedral shoulder piece. My artist, Mez, was talking about how she long ago ran out of prime space to get good tattoos, and due to how old she’d been when she stepped onto the tattoo scene – in the earlier days, before it was mainstream – she had her fair share of plain old shitty tattoos. But whenever she meets other people that are equally heavily tattooed, and from the same age group, they’ll see each other, note the older, shittier of their pieces, and give each other the head nod of shared experience. They’ve seen some shit, and yeah, some stuff you laser off. But others you keep around so you can laugh about it.
Tattooing is a Viable Creative Trade
Creativity is the BEST. It’s the best in every form. With the rise of mainstream tattooing and social media platforms like Instagram, suddenly there are thousands more creative people that get to do what they love for a living. They’re artisans with avid followings that at times even have the opportunity to travel abroad and do what they love. Much the way I love that musicians and the lyrics they write are our bards, the best example of widely-read and lucrative poetry out there, I love that tattoo artists are every day purveyors of art for the public. They’re making the world more beautiful and fun without having to sell out in the sense of designing products for shitty companies or, more likely, just having to have a nine-to-five because like many artists, they can‘t live off of the trade they love.
Do not get me wrong – tattoo artists work hard. Especially in places like America, where health care only comes with the luxury of that nine-to-five, they have to work really, really hard to make it work. I follow several and know that almost every one of them has had their own journey, with the one common trait being it was not easy and required a lot of sacrifice. But the great thing about tattooing is that, unlike making it in music, tattooing is even better because it’s a much more accessible field to support yourself in. Not every tattoo artist is going to be Florence Welch, but they’ll be better off than being stuck playing dive bars forever. If you’ve got the will to work for it, you can make it happen.
Tattooing is a far from perfect field – another thing I’ve learned from all of the artists I follow, the majority of whom are female. It’s definitely not equally accessible to everyone, with women and POC facing more challenges than most. But like any good and growing field, lots of artists are trying to change that, and slow but steady, it’s happening out there. The fact that the conversation is even happening is a step in the right direction.
They’re Always There! (And Nobody Can Take Them Away)
Second to writing, fashion is my favorite form of self-expression. How I dress and how I aesthetically present myself has been major for me since my first day of fifth grade when I wrote an essay about the outfit I’d chosen (it was a sleeveless pink-and-white hibiscus patterned dress, with matching fuchsia shoes. I wore my hair in two braids and looked AMAZING).
Tattoos are, in short, the ultimate form of that. While you do run the risk of dating yourself, accidentally subscribing to trends that don’t last past 2011, I have the same theory about tattoos that I do about fashion and design: if you always exclusively choose things that you absolutely love, you can’t lose. In the end, whether you’re talking your outfit, your overall closet, your living room, or your body, it will all work out.
If I put no other effort into how I look on any given day, my tattoos still speak for me and tell you something about the kind of person I am. Sure, that’s more information than some people may ever have the inclination to share with any stranger they walk by. But it’s my choice to share it and that I can through tattoos is one of my favorite aspects. Besides, I sit firmly in the millennial camp, where we spend our money and put our faith in experiences over things. Tattoos are a handy way to have a little, permanent bit of both.
There’s a definite level of privilege when it comes to having the luxury of making that choice, in terms of how I present myself, in the first place. I’m very grateful for the ability to choose to get the tattoos I have, to be able to share them with people, and to have both of those qualities (hopefully) for the rest of my life.
Fifteen year old me would probably have a lot to say to the version of her that’s twice her age and writing this. She’d be really curious as to where all her hair’s gone (pixies and buzz cuts for life), why most of the remaining hair is grey (what’s up Italian Policastri genes), and why she’s wearing gold jewelry instead of silver jewelry because all gold jewelry is TACKY, KATHY. But her tattoos? I think that once she got past the fact that there’s no family crest to be seen, she’d be pretty impressed. I’ve got the thirty-year-old Kathy version in the form of the Empress Matilda and Peggy Olson.
I never did get a piece by Kari Barba. There’s definitely still plenty of time, but these days, I’m not quite so close to Long Beach, and my list of artists whose work I admire and want has grown extensively. What I loved first about Kari Barba when I saw her remains the same. She looked badass, she had a badass job, and she was a woman in a culture I was desperate to join. Fifteen years later, I’m well on my way. Because tattoos are AWESOME.