I Am Having a Really Nice Time Picking My Skin Off
When I was nineteen, two bartenders from the restaurant I worked at came over to my apartment with tattoos guns they had recently purchased. There were other coworkers there too; a hostess got some flowers on her wrist, a server got a skull with a dagger on his chest. And then eventually I let the scraggly haired, towering bartender carve into my arm. He drew on me with a needle and wiped blood away over and over for quite some time, until I had some waves, a ship, and a treasure chest on my skin. My arm looked like someone’s sketch book: wiggly lines and haphazard shading, things you might notice if you were looking up close. But from a relative distance I had become a girl with tattoos, a girl with a sleeve.
All of us that night had been drinking and doing cocaine. I was taking a break from college because I didn’t feel like I had picked the right major, and I was dating a waiter from the same restaurant who wasn’t very nice to me. So I was used to making decisions that weren’t very great, but this one was certainly more permanent. I figured eventually the bartender would get better at tattooing, that he would finish my arm and things would look nice at some point in my life. Future me would be fine. But after a few months I got fired from that restaurant, and so did everyone who came over that night. I went back to college with a new major, I stopped doing cocaine, and I broke up with the waiter who wasn’t very nice to me.
Instead of finishing or fixing my arm, I kept getting other tattoos. I got them on my legs, my back, my stomach, my fingers. I remember being younger and wanting to decorate my skin. Wanting to color myself up, change my body. Control the way people saw me and thought about me. People like to tell you that you should think long and hard about what you put on your body, if you’re going to get a tattoo. Because they last forever, this is what people say. And also, because I am a woman, there are a few things I am supposed to want. I am supposed to want to be beautiful, I am supposed to want to get married, and I am supposed to want to become someone’s mother.
I realized quite young that I was not drawn to a traditional standard of beauty, nor did I find it achievable for myself. Everything my mother, or magazines, or other girls told me were the right things to do just made me crave the opposite. I wanted short hair, I wanted to make my own clothes, paint and color myself different. The more people told me that I wasn’t pretty, or ladylike, or that boys wouldn’t want to date me because of what I was wearing or doing or saying, the more appealing the actions became. I started getting tattoos the second I turned eighteen.
I am thirty now, and I am finally fixing all the scratches on my arm, the ones I got in my apartment living room eleven years ago. I had let my unfinished, unloved arm live sometimes hidden and sometimes seen throughout my entire twenties, equally unbothered and embarrassed by its harshness and messiness. I think it made people feel like they knew something about me, the way tattoos sometimes can do.
People think that I must be particularly artistic, or perhaps mean or cold, or mentally unhealthy. They think I like a certain type of music, or fuck a certain type of guy. It became increasingly more enticing to me to control the way that I looked while simultaneously disrupting people’s perceptions of me.
The fixing of my arm is going to cost me a lot of money. I’m going to have to come in for multiple sessions, my skin will sting and my limbs will fall asleep, the art will scab and itch and flake as it heals. But eventually it will be done, and I will have a complete arm, an arm that looks intentional, a tattooed part of my body that I thought about, I considered.
I turned thirty during a pandemic so I wasn’t really allotted the space to stress about my age in the traditional manner, nor was I allowed to celebrate the milestone. I kept thinking about what it meant to be thirty, about who I was and if I’d wanted the same things I did when I was nineteen sitting in at a table getting drawn on with a stomach full of liquor and drugs. I thought a lot about all the things I did to prove people wrong. The person I’ve become out of spite.
I didn’t fix my arm sooner because I didn’t want to admit to the mistakes that I had made, I didn’t want someone to look at me like I was a project, to try to imagine in their mind what I was like over a decade ago. I also didn’t want to think about my life in this way, to explain it or defend it or laugh it away. For a long time, I had let my arm be what it was, in some ways forgetting about it, and allowing it to simply be a part of my physical shape. Whether I liked it or not was irrelevant, it was there.
I have never been good about letting myself have nice things. Even after the mean boyfriend and I broke up, I spent years dating men who were even more cruel to me in various ways. I married someone whose name is tattooed on my fourth finger, but we don’t speak anymore. I moved to new apartments every year, always buying things second-hand or on sale, leaving my life in boxes, too afraid to put holes in the walls. I’d slip personalities on and off to protect myself, to keep from getting attached or getting hurt. The irony of making painful, permanent decisions to my skin while actively avoiding pain and permanence in my life is not lost on me.
For a time I became all the things that people assumed me to be: I was cold and unhealthy, I was dark and sad inside. All the while I tried to navigate around men who wanted to have sex with me onlyas a way to check a certain type of box, because for some reason people think girls with tattoos all over their body will be better at sex. And maybe some are. I realized that I had spent almost half of my life trying to prove something that I didn’t even care about. There was no method to my actions. More than a third of my body is covered in words and lines and images that don’t mean anything to me. It would be easy to say that I wanted to disrupt standards of beauty and femininity and redefine those words for myself. It’s easy to tie the way that I look to the art I create - that I need to express myself constantly or I will shrivel up and blow away. I could even say that I like the noise and the smell and the complexity of being touched and vulnerable in a completely nonsexual way.
If I am to explore the world beyond the boundaries of my own skin I am paralyzed by fear. I don’t think that I am a good partner, a suitable potential wife. I don’t want to have babies, and I can’t pretend to even consider the desire. I can’t imagine ever buying a home and filling it up with love or belongings or pictures in frames, because I don’t know what it feels like to want to stay still. I let the relationships in my life bloom like spring flowers and I watch them fall away without much care or consideration over time. I want to consume the souls of everyone I meet and let their colors decorate my body.
When you are getting tattooed, there is a certain point where your skin becomes raw from the scratching of the needle, and you can’t really acknowledge pain or discomfort as a sensation anymore. You are aware of the vibration of the needle and the rattling of your bones and the heaviness of your breath but you become an inanimate object, you are letting yourself be changed. You will rub various creams over your lizard skin, watching flakes of all colors break off from you. And you will feel satisfied because this shedding skin is another chance to become whoever you thought you could be, whoever you believe yourself to be. People will assume things about you that may be true or not so much, but you’ll realize, despite what they think and say, that you can fix your mistakes, you can grow. You can be beautiful in your own way, too.
I will die with a body covered in color. I will be rich with experiences and pain and fear, joy and safety and uncertainty. And while I am here I will admire them in whatever ways feel suitable to me. Because everything on my skin and inside my skin is mine. That will have to suffice.