I thought I would be terrified. Admittedly, when the needle started buzzing I did feel a wave of fear creep through me. I expected pain and it was merely an incessant scratching. My friend sat in a chair beside me, and every so often I would shoot her a panicked look, whilst I imagined the tattoo artist marking me with all kinds of horrific concoctions instead of the design I’d chosen.
The argument used by people who are against tattoos is “it’s permanent, you’ll have to live with it for the rest of your life.” They say it like it’s a bad thing.
My relationship with my body has never been particularly friendly. I look after myself — I eat healthily, I exercise, I have self-discipline. It took me two decades, but I learnt to love myself instead of tolerate myself. Even so, my body has never felt like something that belonged to me. My body often feels like a vehicle that other people tell me how to drive. It’s all “don’t eat this” “don’t wear that” “don’t do this” as though the only purpose of life is to keep myself pure and unsullied by the mess of human existence. I’m a perfectionist at the best of times, but when it comes to my body, discipline comes less from a place of self-love, and more from a place of fear.
As we walked to the tattoo studio, my friend asked if I was nervous. I said no. I was only nervous when the tattoo artist told me to take my shirt off. Not because she was about to prod me with a needle for the next hour, but because I was wearing high-waisted jeans that made my back look fat, and I was feeling insecure.
I wasn’t scared of the permanence. I’ve had a purple phoenix on my back for two days, and I’m still not scared. In a world of uncertainty, there’s comfort in knowing my skin is a canvas for artwork that will see me through the rest of my lifetime. It’s not just the tattoo itself that is permanent, but the memories and experiences that accompany it.
Why a purple phoenix? Purple is my favourite colour. I have a purple phone case, purple lipstick, purple dressing gown, purple bed sheets, purple pyjamas. Earlier I wrote a letter in purple ink on purple paper. If there’s one colour I want on me permanently, it’s purple. Phoenix is the name of one of the main characters in the novel I wrote. She is the character most like myself, a character I’ve been writing for the past 7 years of my life. The phoenix is a symbol of everything I’ve worked for, everything I’ve achieved. More than that, a phoenix is a bird that rises from its ashes, it is a symbol of hope and regeneration. I could do a more in-depth analysis of why this is the perfect image to inject into my skin, but I don’t think tattoos have to have meaning, they can be random, or beautiful, or completely nonsensical. For all we know, life is meaningless, why does everything we do have to have meaning?
A phrase that’s often thrown around is “your body is a temple.” This particular temple once downed half a bottle of vodka in 15 minutes just to get a reaction, this is no place of worship. I find it an icky concept, because it reeks of purity culture. It’s the same ideology that tells women not to have sex before marriage because it will make them impure, it’s yet another way of making people feel ashamed of their bodies, and trying to search for some unrealistic standard of goodness that simply doesn’t exist. Our bodies are not temples to be worshipped at religiously. They are human, filled with blood and guts and all kinds of substances you wouldn’t want to get all over your shoes. Our bodies aren’t fine china to be kept in a cabinet for special occasions, they’re meant to be lived in.
I have a scar on the middle finger of my left hand. I opened a tin of pineapple when I was a teenager, and the lid cut through my skin, right down to the bone. My right hand still bears the ghost of a henna tattoo my friend gave me last week. My left hand is smudged with purple ink, from writing a letter earlier. I have a birthmark below my navel, there are freckles on my arms and neck and face and back. My body is covered in marks, some permanent, some not.Most of these are things I didn’t get to choose.
When you’re telling me my body is a temple, you’re not telling me to love and respect myself, you’re telling me to stay exactly the way I am, to not exercise my own autonomy. I have loved my body more within the past two days than I have in the past 21 years, because for the first time in my life, I feel like I am in control. I chose to let my body be art, and it was my decision. There is no backseat driver telling me what not to do. If there is, I’ve learnt to tune out their voice, because this is my body, and it is not a temple.
I got my tattoo after six weeks of living and working in Estonia, a period during which I underwent a huge amount of growth. When I’m 70 years old (if climate change lets me live that long) and I see that purple phoenix on my back, I’m not going to look at it and regret a choice I made at 21. I’ll see the life I lived, the friends I have made here, the milestones like finishing my novel. It’s so patronising to assume that I’ll regret doing something beautiful to myself just because it will last me a lifetime. Every time I see this tattoo it will remind me of my freedom, remind me that at this moment in time, I call the shots in my life. Tattoos are a form of self-empowerment.
I didn’t let someone prod ink into my skin for an hour just to shock my mother, or make a statement, or do something impulsive because I’m in a foreign country and scared my life will feel boring when I get home. I did it because I felt like it, it’s not that deep. And at the same time there is so much depth to that. I never do things just because I feel like them. I have devoted my life to not doing the things I feel like. Back home, I can go weeks or months without eating bread and pasta, the two great loves of my life. For an impulsive person, I am well practiced in the art of restraint.
I don’t want to restrain myself. I often forget I’m a free spirit. Part of me is so weighed down by obligation and other people’s expectations, that I forget I can be happy and fun and light-hearted. I’m leaving my job in Tallinn earlier than planned, and going to Riga for a week. It seems that running away to a foreign country didn’t quite cure me of the urge to run away to a foreign country. I made the decision yesterday, and I leave next week. I’m at a point in my life where my reason for doing things has gone from “because I should” to “because I can.”
My freedom isn’t something I take lightly. It is no longer something I am actively fighting for, but a tool I am learning how to wield. I want to exercise my freedom, take pleasure in it. I’m still learning how. What I do know is that freedom doesn’t come from forcing rigid standards upon yourself.
It is not liberating to think of my body as a temple. I am not a beautiful building where people go to find their god. I’m not a building at all, I am made of flesh and blood and a few drops of purple ink. Moreso, I don’t want worship, I want respect. My body is not a temple, it is not even a canvas for artwork, as much as I like to think of it as one. My body is two things, and two things only: a body, and mine.