(Article originally appeared on Hypable.)
I got my first tattoo when I was 20 years old.
It was somewhat meaningless, as many pieces of body art can be when gotten on impulse. I hadn’t been drinking or anything, though my judgement was no less clouded by the hubris of youth than alcohol. I believed—as do most people in their 20s—that life was eternal and that the elasticity of my flesh would endure as long as the markings I placed upon it. And so, I permanently marked myself with a small tribal sun, no bigger than the size of a silver dollar, and which concealed my rather large smallpox inoculation mark.
My next tattoo was again done on a whim. I was a 22-year-old go-go boy/professional model, and at that point fully lost in the dream and power of youth. I had a scorpion inked on my lower back—and there’s less meaning with that image than with the previous tattoo since my astrological sign is Virgo.
But meaninglessness doesn’t matter when you’re young; cool is the currency of fools, which I was. At least, as the years went by, it wasn’t a tattoo that I regretted. Although, and like the first piece, it still lacked the emotional attachment that true art inspires. It was something fancy and fun, and that I like to show off when half-naked at clubs. Nothing more.
Meaning finds us, though, and usually in the presence of pain. My third tattoo wasn’t inked until years later after I had left most of my follies behind. It wasn’t a sudden onset of sagely wisdom, however, that prompted me to “grow up” and “move on.”
Rather, I was drugged and assaulted at a nightclub.
An experience like that changes you; it can’t be erased or partied away. I simply couldn’t be in that environment or around the people with whom I associated that experience.
I lost friends. My entire social circle collapsed and I was, for a time, entirely alone. When I finally dug myself out of that emotional hole—an odyssey that took years upon years—and when I had learned to love my body again and to not see it as something deserving of abuse and punishment, I knew it was time to visit the tattoo parlor once more.
This piece was carefully deliberated and planned: drafts drawn up, revisions made to the sketch. When my wings—representative of ascension and freedom from my sadness—were inked, I almost savored that eight hours of pain: a trial by fire, a phoenix’s rebirth. When they were done, I felt free, even if I was freed long before that moment.
Likewise, have my subsequent tattoos only been expressions tied to deepest meaning. Most recently, my arm and leg sleeves that feature the characters from my novels took over seven years of planning, and another year of finding the right artist to do the work (George at Chronic Ink in Toronto). Writing is my calling, my therapy and the reason why I get out of bed in the morning, and these characters are among my dearest friends.
My mother, on her deathbed of all places, was the one who inspired me to again pick up the pen (or keyboard now, I suppose): a hobby that I’d abandoned when pursuing the vanities of my 20s, but which I’d always found the time to do when I was young. It was her inspiration, and death, that compelled me to be a writer, to draw out these characters and conflicts from my head and express them on a page.
An artistry, not that different from the conjuring of dreams and fantasies onto the skin of others; a slightly different pen to parchment process. My characters, my world, and the encouragements of my mother to see me succeed endure on my flesh. If I ever lack in conviction, I can look at my arm or leg (or soon back, though that’s a bit trickier to see) to remind myself of the battles I’ve taken to be where I am.
I know that flesh will age, and liver spots will slowly encroach on the beauty that these artists have inscribed on me. Although, true beauty, and meaning, can weather but never ugly. I can look at these markings in 10 years, or 20, or 30 (hopefully), and I believe that they will be more powerful totems. Totems so grand that when I pass from this world to the next, I can see myself—whatever vaporous thing I’ve become—glowing with the light of these inscriptions.