An ode to the strangers in my life who have approached me with unexpected questions about my skin, it’s finally time: I’m talking about my tattoos.
Last issue, I started the conversation on body modifications historically as a way people tell stories about themselves, their lives, and their identities; how body modification can be an inherent link to queerness, gender, and body affirmation; and specifically, my relationship to body modification in that regard.
I recently came out as nonbinary to my family, friends, work (and, I guess, everyone reading this now; hello!) following a near-year of pandemic isolation and intimate self-reflection, and I’m unsure if or when I would have understood my gender in the way I do today had I not stopped drinking in July 2018.
Like many folks in recovery, I realized I was stunted around the age I started drinking in excess, moving out on my own at 19. Over the 30-ish months I’ve been sober, my authentic self was able to flourish, and one way I can easily measure the change is looking at the evolution of my tattoos.
Not to say the work I embraced pre-sobriety was inherently manly or male, but the earth-toned, art-nouveau, animal-themed sleeve on my right arm surely embraces the more masculine parts of myself.
My hand is donning a red-and-orange, bug-eyed goldish sitting atop a jet-black background. When I looked to tattoo my other hand the year after (and coincidentally, on the one-year anniversary of my sobriety), I kept saying, “My right hand feels so masculine. I just want to balance it out.”
My most visible, femme-leaning ink at the time was a dainty, linework flower on my left, middle finger. I introduced a sparkling, pastel, heart-shaped jewel with an eyelashed, purple eye in the center on my left hand surrounded by glitter, and wearing something prominently that was so femme was just one way I can recall my tattoo preferences and gender expression shifting around the same time.
Ironically, later that year, under the fish on my right hand, I impulsively plopped four heart outlines on each knuckle. I came up with the idea the day before the appointment; I don’t think I was even planning to tattoo my knuckles necessarily. I was just in San Francisco to visit a friend and wanted a tattoo. If I were to get the, “What do those mean?” question for those, the answer would simply be, “I thought it would look cute.”
(Honestly, I could say the same for the bulk of my recent tattoos.)
During my first full, booze-free year, I also started slowly replacing my fairly drab closet that I could mostly describe as, “My mom had Kohl’s Cash” and “leftover from 2010.” I went down two shirt sizes following other lifestyle changes (which also helped me feel more healthy and comfortable in my body) and currently have a collection of pinks, pastels, and patterns that feel much more in line with myself today.
I’ve since moved from Denver to Los Angeles, and the tattoos I’ve gotten here exclusively embrace my femininity. I have a number of appointments in San Diego this spring specifically to fill out my chest piece (currently a piece of vacant, sacred geometry I got when I was 19) with floral work. I’m enjoying the act of improving upon my previous work over covering it, making what I had in mind then more in line with who I know myself to be today.
It’s a relief to be open about and more comfortable with my gender, as someone who feels more at ease with their femininity than they ever did trying to embody masculinity, or squeeze into the ill-fitting suit of ‘man’ all their life. And, obviously, there is a lot more that went into my coming out and embracing life as a nonbinary person than my tattoos.
However, trans people have this amazing power of evolution and continuously shifting into their best, authentic selves, and having blossomed so heavily recovering from active alcoholism over the past couple years, I love seeing my tattoos shift with my gender and sense of self, especially because this change was taking place before I could even quantify what was truly happening.
As someone who is often cis-assumed, tattooing is a way for me to embrace all parts of my gender and expression in a personal and highly visible way. I am heavily tattooed compared to most of the population, and I share a sentiment with many tattooed people that, while I usually book multiple appointments a year, I’m saving space for the memories and pieces I want to newly adorn my body at later stages in my life.
One of the magical parts of tattooing is looking back at your body and being able to see your journey in life on your own terms, and with the gender euphoria and new freedom I’ve experienced since coming out and being open about myself, I’m eager to see how the story pans out.