People often talk about a transformative moment, one that shifts their life into before and after and shapes who they are, who they will become.
For some, they feel the weight of that moment before it even happens.
In December 2021, tattoo artist Leigh, who’s 39, was in the process of saying goodbye to her nana who was dying of cancer. As a tattoo artist herself, Leigh has witnessed how people’s emotions can shift as the ink of a new tattoo enters into their skin.
It’s like a sort of therapy, tattoos are especially powerful markers of these defining moments in our lives – especially the tragic ones that aren’t within our control.
“It’s almost like a relief to have something that can never be lost or taken away,” she explains.
So Leigh decided to acknowledge the feelings of grief that she knew she’d eventually be enveloped by when her nana was gone, by getting three nails tattooed onto her sternum.
“It’s symbolic of the true end. The final nail in the coffin. No more heart beats,” she explains. But within six months of her nana dying, her papa and then her dad died unexpectedly, too.
This tattoo that sits over her heart and started as a small and meaningful piece became so much more, something that Leigh herself even struggles to put into words.
“I guess it’s become an emotional anchor,” she says, “reminding me that pain is normal, that it’s a measure of love.”
Tattoos that help you like yourself
I am taking in the power of my own new tattoo as I put my make-up on. It’s not a memorial tattoo in the way that Leigh’s is, but I got it to mark the woman I’ve become, this surreal age I never thought I’d reach.
It’s July but it’s raining and huge droplets are rolling down the bathroom windows. Another thing that’s out of my control, I ponder as I apply my lipstick.
I’m getting ready to go out for lunch to celebrate my 40th birthday and as I look at my reflection, I try to imagine what my teenage self would think of the 40-year-old woman staring back at me from the mirror.
My black bodycon dress frames the tattoo that travels from my shoulder blades and across my chest, creeping its way onto my boobs. I’m not sure how I imagined 40 to look. But it’s not quite like this.
This intricate tattoo that adorns my chest is my birthday present to myself. I’ve been collecting tattoos for half of my life, but even a few years ago, I don’t think I’d have dared to get my chest tattooed with this huge design that’s impossible to switch off from, that I’ll see everyday as I get dressed.
Just before I got married seven years ago, my mum let out a sigh of relief. “I’m glad you’ve not tattooed your chest yet,” she whispered, perhaps only half meaning it. I mean, those bullshit standards of beauty and what bodies – especially those that belong to women – are supposed to look like are probably more ingrained into her than they are me.
But here I am, 40 years old and finally letting go of what I think I should look like and embracing who I am. I love that tattoos have that power to make you feel comfortable in your own skin. I can’t tell you how much I love my new tattoo. I love that it even changes how I feel when I put on a simple vest top. Finally feeling content.
Rosalie Hurr, who’s 32, describes growing up gripped by “the jaws of diet culture, where you’re constantly told that to be worthy you need to look a certain way.”
Although she’s not quite sure she realised it at the time, her second tattoo – now nestled among a collection so vast that Rosalie has lost count – is her most significant. She specifically chose her thigh as it was part of her body that previously she’d so desperately wanted to change.
“Reclaiming that space with a tattoo began a new found love for my legs,” says Rosalie. Getting that tattoo on her thigh a decade ago marked a beginning point. It was Rosalie’s first big colour tattoo and she remembers feeling euphoric afterwards.
“Taking control and ownership of my body started with this tattoo, and continues with every new tattoo I get,” she says. Now when she looks at that tattoo, she sees freedom.
A few years ago, Louisa Wagstaff would never even have considered wearing shorts, let alone getting a tattoo on her thigh, a part of her body that she despised.
But then, she started weight training, and it unlocked a new way of thinking about her body – instead of focusing on its aesthetic, her focus shifted to what it could do.
By October last year, she was competing in Strongwoman competitions and earlier this year, she got her first podium place. Louisa decided her achievements needed to be documented in ink – her way of showing love to a body she used to hate.
“Strongwoman training has unleashed a new level of confidence in me, now I even train wearing shorts,” she tells me.
Tattoos to heal from trauma
Tattoos can also be a sort of social commentary, a way to handle grief and trauma and hate.
Dexter Kay always said he’d never get his throat tattooed. But after he was attacked for not having an Adam’s apple, he chose to get the word, Resilient, tattooed right across it.
“We – the queer community – don’t choose to be resilient but society forces you to be,” he says.
This tattoo has a different aesthetic to Dexter’s others – his bodysuit, for example, is a celebration of the craft of tattooing, whereas this piece is emotive.
“It’s about the value of the words placed in skin and how people wear them,” Dexter continues, “when I look at it, I’m reminded how far I’ve come.”
NYC based-writer Ashley Reese’s first tattoo is a tattoo of her dead husband.
The 32-year-old decided to get the tattoo a few weeks after Rob died and it’s based on one of her favourite photos of him – “it’s just so him,” Ashley tells me.
“He’s wearing a sweater – his go-to – and he has an IPA in front of him.”
Ashley loves talking about Rob, so that the tattoo of him sparks that conversation has become a way to keep his memory alive.
“One of my favourite comments is from people who see my tattoo in random photos of me doing a fun activity,” she continues. “They say, ‘I love how it’s like he’s right there with you.’
It’s not the same, obviously, but it’s a nice thought, him joining me on my adventures forever.” She was even comforted by a glimpse of her tattoo last night as she was curled up on the sofa watching TV without him.
And therein lies the power of a memorial tattoo – of any tattoo that marks a formative moment in our lives. Be it the death of a loved one, the shifting of a mindset, the letting go or taking control of a traumatic event.
I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of collecting tattoos at these transformational points in my life – harnessing their power in order to alter my own reality.
Tattoos are something that you choose and in a world that often feels like it’s spiralling out of control, that feels like something to hold onto.
And that’s powerful.