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Image / Self / Real-life Stories

The reality of learning to love a tattoo that wasn’t *quite* what you wanted


By Geraldine Carton
30th Apr 2021
The reality of learning to love a tattoo that wasn’t *quite* what you wanted

Getting a tattoo isn’t for everyone, but a drawing on a person’s skin is no longer a source of judgement, regret or shame. At least not for this writer.

“But what about when you’re old and wrinkly? Do you really want a tattoo there to highlight all those wrinkles?”

This is an anti-tattoo argument that I’ve heard time and time again over the years. In fact, it’s an argument that I think I myself may even have used in my very impressionable primary school days, back when I was led to believe that tattoos were trashy and cheap. My teacher said that tattoos reduced women’s chances at getting good jobs, that they bring the inked individual nothing but regret and eternal doom.

And yet here I am. With a big, cheap (it was quite expensive, actually), trashy tattoo, writing for Ireland’s most highly regarded women’s publications company. What say you now, Ms O’Brien?

Getting inked

I remember getting my first tattoo: it was in New Zealand during a six-month travelling stint (and yes, I can appreciate the cliché). As the tattoo artist prepared his drawing, arranged his tiny pots of ink, sterilised the needle and rubbed my arm with a baby wipe, I recall the adrenaline that was pulsing through my entire body with the force of whitewater rapids at peak strength. From there the world went fuzzy and all was quiet apart from the buzzing needle making its slow, sharp way along my arm.

I remember coming out of that tattoo studio in a haze; not quite believing that I had followed through with something I wanted to do for so long. I was delirious with excitement until I looked down and another feeling started to sweep over me; panic. I had wanted something elegant and discreet, and yet a thick black line forming a clunky shape looked back at me. The tattoo was flawed and the realisation filled me with so much terror and regret that I had to sit down. The jig was up, I wasn’t perfect and every t-shirt, tank top and sleeveless garment from here on out would reveal that as a fact.

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The aftermath

I imagined that this tattoo would act as a representation of my inherent creativity, my imagination, and my rejection of the status quo (me, idealistic? Never), but what it has come to represent is my own fallibility. There’s no point in pretending that I am free of imperfections because the thick black line that forms a dubious shape on the shaft of my arm does that for me. The ink has drawn away the veil of pretence, and lifted along with it is the self-imposed pressure that guided so much of my earlier years.

Thankfully, I was able to get that original image altered days later and now it feels like a caterpillar that has turned into a butterfly; filled with the colour and personality I had hoped it would embody from the start. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still not exactly what I had in mind, but I’ve learned to treasure it dearly; appreciating it for the version of me that it represents – the young travelling girl filled with joie de vivre, willing to defy expectations all in the name of self-expression.

Geraldine Carton's dancing girl tattoo
Geraldine Carton’s “dancing girl” tattoo

Wrinkles and regrets

Getting a tattoo isn’t for everyone. They’re so polarising; mothers weep over the thought of them and teenagers crave for the day when they can roll up a garment to show one off. But with the bad comes the good; there’s a silver lining to every scenario, even when the scenario involves a big black line that was intended to look like a dancing girl but gets mistaken for a lobster on a frequent basis.

At least, that’s what I tell myself, anyway.

And to answer that original question, “what about when you’re old and wrinkly?”, I’d like to think that if I reached an age in which my wrinkles have the ability to distort the shape of my tattoo, I’ll be enlightened enough to recognise the incredible unimportance of such a fact. We’re here on this world for sure a short amount of time, why should a drawing on one’s skin (so long as it’s not a swastika, or the likes) be the source of any judgement, regret or shame?

Whatever you think about body ink, know that there’s a lot more than meets the eye. And if my little spiel doesn’t quite convince you, then I’m sure the stories of these successful women will twist your arm…

Dominique McMullan, Editorial Director at IMAGE Publications

‘Two of my three tattoos were very thought out and meant a lot to me at the time. I cringe when I see them now, but I will never regret them. They remind me of the person I was at a very specific period in my life; of what was important to me and how I felt about the world around me. They are nostalgic reminders of another time. One of them is a bit wonky, two of the lines have blurred into one and you can’t really read the ‘Love’ anymore (don’t trust strange tattoo artists). But I laugh whenever I see it. And I tell people that’s it’s imperfect, just like love. Which actually, now I type it, I think I’ve begun to believe.’

Niamh O’Donoghue

I didn’t always have a positive relationship with my body. I was thirteen when my spine twisted from 20 degrees (normal curvature) to more than 80 degrees overnight. I had an extreme type of growth spurt that caused me to develop severe Scoliosis that would consequently require years of surgical correction.

I hated my scars and the shape of my body so I turned to tattoos as a way to distract myself from them. My first tattoo is a large quill on my shoulder blade that says the word ‘courage’ under it. It’s cliched, but whenever I come against a challenge, it reminds me to think about what I’ve gone through to get where I am today. As the years passed, the more scars I got, the more art I adorned my body with. Now though, I don’t use them to hide my imperfections, but see them as something to help celebrate my beautiful body.”