In preparation for my second tattoo, I Googled ‘how to deal with pain when getting a tattoo‘. Long story short, you basically need to accept the pain and breathe. Having a needle buzzing vigorously at your skin is going to hurt no matter what. I knew I’d have to pull on my big girl knickers. I was confident though. You see, since losing my 26 year old wife to suicide two years ago, I’ve had ample practice at accepting pain and breathing through it. I’m an expert in pain management. The difference is that getting a tattoo was my choice. My 2015 gift to myself was a beautiful, empowering tattoo.
My art skills are simply useless – words and music are my things – so I let someone else interpret my story using my skin as a canvas. That person is the delightful watercolour tattoo specialist, Kym Munster, and although I still keep catching myself in the mirror and think ‘Oh my God I went and fucking did it‘, I am thrilled at her interpretation of my brief:
The themes I’d like it to convey are beauty, courage, power, life, love. The tattoo should include the following things:
‘Measure your life in love’ as the text (it’s a song from Rent, a musical in which lots of people die young. The message is that the significance of life, and the mark we make on this world is the intensity of how much we have loved and have been loved, not how long we live. My wife died when she was 26 and I was 27)
Music/piano – I am very musical and have found music to be pivotal in my healing
Trees – symbolising how I am alive, my growth and my deep sturdy roots
Splodges of colour, mainly from colours of the rainbow (the significance is that I’m gay), and black for outlines
A very small, subtle fox (foxes are wise, resourceful and can work their way around obstacles)
Definite ‘no’s’ are skulls, anything morbid, big hearts, butterflies, flowers that dominate. They don’t match my personality.
As I accepted the stinging buzzing in the studio on a chilly Scottish morning, my focus wasn’t on the pain but rather on the conversation with Kym. The whole tattooing experience was fascinating, and far more fascinating than the time in Venice Beach when I was 19 and got my name tramp stamped on my lower back with a treble clef. I’ve always wondered about the obsession with skulls and skeletons but I now recognise that it’s not necessarily a taste for the morbid that drives people to ink up with these images. Grief is many people’s catalyst for getting a tattoo.
Kym is a really compassionate Scot, and she didn’t shy away from the topic of grief. Her emotional intelligence was a welcome surprise after four days of prosecco guzzling and cheese binging at Christmas. Sounds simple enough but I’ve encountered so many people who are terrified of me, of the subject of suicide, as if I’m contagious or a cursed black widow. I was relieved at the honesty and fluidity of the conversation. There were no meaningless platitudes like, ‘she’s in a better place’ or ‘it was meant to be’. It was just an honest chat about how many of us experience loss in our lives and have to keep moving forward.
We talked about physical and emotional pain thresholds. We talked of others we knew who had been forever changed by losing someone to suicide too. We talked about our experiences with mental illness. She told me about tattooing mothers whose babies have died – a pain that I just don’t know if I’d be able to bear. She described a client in his 80s who came to the studio to commission a tattoo of his late wife. It was his first tattoo and he’d been accompanied by his new partner and a tin of biscuits. This I found simply heart-warming, if a tad weird. I’m pretty sure my new love wouldn’t be appreciative of a picture of my smiling wife positioned on my inner thigh for her to see every time we get it on. For the record, my tattoo is on my ribs and I wouldn’t call it a memorial tattoo. It’s about a journey, rather than a memory. However, I wouldn’t have taken the plunge without experiencing the life-changing agony of losing my wife.
Be it loss of life, loss of a relationship, loss of a dream, loss of freedom or a loss of trust, a lot of people choose to mark it on our skin. Perhaps it’s a way of taking control. It’s not a means of seeking sympathy. It’s a way of saying ‘I am not ashamed of my grief. Shit happened. I will not apologise for having been to hell and come back breathing.‘
My tattoo is a celebration of life, of the strength within me that I never knew I had, and recognises the importance of being authentic. It’s a celebration that my wife’s life mattered, my life matters, my next partner’s life matters. Whatever happens along the way, I have the resources to weather the seasons of change. Measure your life in love.
PS – if you’re wondering where the fox is, it’s in the font, Foxscript. Can’t get more subtle than that!
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