So much more than skin & bone

tattoo |
I wasn’t going to write about my new tattoo, but as it’s the most interesting thing that’s happened so far this year — other than the miracle sunset — here I am, writing about it. But it’s not really about the tattoo (though if you’re thinking of getting one, I’ll include some tips at the end). No, it’s about the fact that we are so much more than skin and bone.

Let me explain.

In 1995 I got a blue lily tattooed on my arm. It was my second tattoo, and my most visible, and I was thrilled with it. I remember everything about that day, as you tend to do when something life/body altering happens. Fast forward to now. I have lived with the blue lily for nearly 20 years and it’s become a bit faded and past its sell-by date. Over the years I’d toyed with the idea of getting it removed or covered up, but hadn’t done anything about it until this Christmas, when I discovered a tattooist whose work I loved was guesting at a studio in London for two weeks. I made the call, booked the appointments and that was that. It took seven and half hours — plus plenty of good conversation, laughs and a few teeth-gritting moments — to complete my new tattoo. The blue lily has been transformed ready for the next 20 years.

All my tattoos are meaningful to me, and I didn’t get any of them done on a whim. I know tattoos are not for everyone, but how great it is that we get to choose how we adorn our own bodies? Personally I like a bit of permanent adornment. Once an art student always an art student, I guess. While I’ll never go to the extremes some tattoo fanatics go to, for me they are decoration and meaning etched into my skin — spells worn proudly on my epidermis.

So with all that said, it was quite a surprise to wake up the day after feeling wobbly and emotional. I was about to get my period, so I knew exactly what was fuelling the drama, but it wasn’t until I’d unwrapped my arm, washed off the inky gunk, put on my face and dried my hair that I could look in the mirror and check I was still me. And I was, obviously. But after nearly 20 years of looking one way, I now looked different, and it’s taken a few days to adjust to the (intended and paid for) change.

As I cycled through the what-have-I-dones and panic that first morning, I lay down on my bed, closed my eyes and took a deep breath. And it was then that I remembered that I am not my body. That I am  — that we all are — so much bigger than the molecules that’ve clustered together to create these body shapes. We’re here on earth for a while, and then we’re not. Our bodies will turn to dust and be gone. And it was the simple remembrance of the impermanence of being alive that put everything back into perspective for me.

I do believe in life after death. Enough weird things have happened in the last nine years for me to know, without a doubt, that there is something afterwards. And this feels like the year I might have to talk about that a bit more… we’ll see. For now, I’m left with freshly marked skin on a body that’s lasted forty years so far, and if it survives another forty I’ll arrive at that grand old age with swirls, feathers and flowers on my arm. And as I sink into the acceptance of the changes — and they go so much deeper than a frivolous tattoo — I’m oddly grateful for this connection to the future.

You see that granny over there rocking the cool outfit and decorated skin? That’ll be me one day.


So if all of that hasn’t put you off getting inked, here are my tips for happy tattoo-getting:

1. If your new ink will take longer than an hour, take lots of food and drink with you and be sure to eat a meal before you leave the house. Think healthy carb-y protein goodness, nuts and chocolate. Plus water and your favourite energy drink (I swear by Lucozade). Your body will need the energy and sustenance.

2. Deep breaths through the most painful bits — and there are always a few — really helps, as does smiling (seriously!)

3. Always tip your tattooist.

4. He or she will advise you on how to let your new ink heal so listen carefully – they know what works best for their style. Products that work well for me are Bepanthen for the early days (thanks to my ink sister for that tip), Dr Bronner’s soap for washing, and L’Occitane’s Shea butter lotion for the itchy-peeling stage. When everything’s healed use Vitamin E oil to nourish your skin and allieviate some of the shine.

5. And a last one for the ladies: try to time your appointment with the second-ish week of your cycle. Getting tattooed the day before your period starts is not much fun, trust me ;)

17 responses
  1. Becs :: Think Big Live Simply

    It’s freaking gorgeous, and I love the idea of marking yourself as a connection to the future, not the past – and thank you for the tips :)

  2. Kristy Daum

    A beautifully written post that I will be pinning and referencing when the need arises. I really enjoyed your comment “Once an Art Student always an Art Student”…that rings true to me as well, although I have to say that I think my 20 year old self would have died, knowing that my now 34 year old self has a handful of tattoos ;-) Boy, how things change; and yet remain the same.

  3. Kathryn Dyche Dechairo

    Wow, great ink. I had my first tattoo done at 40 (a year ago now). It was a feather on the back of my neck and I love it. I’m hoping to have a larger piece done but I’m still trying to find a tattooist in the area whose work I like. It is a weird feeling how you are forever changed after having something like that done and I can definitely understand the emotion that comes with it. Way to go.

  4. Ouissi

    It’s lovely! I’ve made a pact with myself to get a tattoo before my 40th next year…I’ve always wanted one but nervousness and other people’s opinions (mainly my mother’s and that of my exes to be honest) have made me put it off for almost 15 years…

  5. gerri

    My first tattoo was done during my period. Huge mistake…my ankle swelled double it’s size and the tattoo process hurt worse then labor!!
    You are beautifully decorated love… inside and out. xxO

  6. CJ

    It’s wonderful! I have an old bird on a branch that could do with re-vamping. I wonder…

  7. Carol Cassara

    I’ve wanted a small, meaningful tattoo for a long time and might just have to get one soon.Thanks for this!

  8. sperlygirl

    a beautiful post…the older i become the more i grow to realize the importance of adorning ourselves (on, in, around) with that which nourishes our heart. you speak beautifully to this here. xx

  9. Lisa R Charles

    I’m going to do it. For months I’ve been saying and waiting and saying and waiting for the right time, moment, I guess. And it never comes.
    What would you suggest I do to find the “right” tattoist for me. I’m new to my area and it’s been nearly 20 years since I got my first one.

  10. Megg

    <3 gorgeous. all of you.

  11. Parisa

    You are an adorned soul Susannah. I cannot tell you how your writings put my experiences into perspective. Thank you..

  12. Jessica

    It looks beautiful, Susannah! I remember taking a photo of my wrist before going to the tattoo artist. I knew that, no matter what, my skin would never look the same there ever again. I’m so thrilled that I have my tattoo, but I’m so pleased I took that grainy photo in the bathroom to remember what that bit of flesh had been before I was brave enough to go about altering it in my own way.

  13. susannah

    I’d head to Pinterest and start searching for tattoos and tattooists. Look for the work and style that calls to you, knowing that you may have to travel to get the work done. I went to Brooklyn to get the swallow on my arm and I’m so glad I did. You might find you like the work done by local tattooists in your area, so definitely scope them out… but do think about travelling if there’s somebody’s style you love…. I’m thinking about going to Berlin for my next one… :)

  14. JeSs

    I love that, “we are more than skin and bone.” I have always wanted a tatoo to commemorate my open heart surgery.


    Such a beautiful post. And might I add that I LOVE how you have an Aging Awesomely Board?

  16. Kathryn

    I’ve never felt tattoos are for me, but I love them on other people. Meaning sketched on skin, it’s pretty cool.
    I just felt I had to comment because this post was so beautiful.

  17. shannon

    beautiful. i love this post – it swirls with goodness and pure honesty.

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