I sometimes say that as a tattooed person, I am never truly naked. I bear ink on my skin that goes with me wherever and whenever I go; when I was in surgery recently, the people in the operating room commented on my chest piece, noting that it was quite a dramatic and interesting statement. When everything is stripped away from me, all my jewelry is removed and my hair isn’t styled and my clothes are gone, my tattoos are still there.
They’ve come at a cost. Not just the literal cost of paying a tattoo artist for time and services, but the cost of lying or sitting in a sometimes uncomfortable position for hours while the artist works on me. Sometimes we work in companionable silence and I fall asleep, and sometimes we chat, and sometimes people wonder into the studio and start talking to my artist, and I loosely follow the conversation and chip in if I feel inspired to do so. I’m often naked or close to it, wrapped loosely for thermal comfort more than modesty.
There is an intense physical intimacy that comes with tattooing, when you’re working on large projects. You are putting your flesh into someone’s hands and you are being very trusting with this person, who repays your trust, you hope, with caution and respect. This person is gripping and manipulating and inflicting pain in the process of creating art. You are asked to stand and sit and the stencil is adjusted. You are naked and unself-conscious because you are both focused on what you are creating; your tattoo artist may trail a hand across the curve of your hip but there’s nothing sensual or sexual about it, it’s a professional gesture, intended to familiarise the artist with your body so the artist can create work that is truly customised to who you are, in form and being.
Many divides lie between tattooed people and people who don’t have tattoos, and this is one of them; the lack of understanding about the physical intimacy that comes with tattooing. There are often lewd suggestions that it’s sexual in nature, particularly in the case of male artists and female clients, an implication that the intimacy of tattooing is a sensual one and that one or both parties get off on it. And this can definitely be the case in some cases, but not all, and that intimacy is more professional than sensual because both of you are so focused on the project that the body turns into a canvas. A complex, living canvas that is distinct from other canvases the artist has worked with, requiring focus and attention to make sure your body is well cared for and appropriately handled.
People sometimes ask if I feel awkward or uncomfortable during tattooing sessions because I’m uncovered, and the answer is always no, which is the truth, even if I’m lying in a public area in a studio with most of my upper body exposed. I grew up in a community where casual nudity is common and accepted, was raised in a household where we were naked more often than not and I was taught that bodies are just bodies; in and of themselves, they are neutral, and you can make of them what you well. When I’m being tattooed, my body is being made into art, and that’s what the focus is. To tattoo, the body needs to be exposed, and I need to be in close physical contact with someone for hours.
As my artist leans over me, I feel the pull of hands on my skin, warm and firm and assured. I feel the buzz of the needle and I can hear the artist breathing during pauses. The artist grows to know my skin extremely intimately, sometimes even more so than I do; working on a place like my back that I never actually get to see without the aid of a mirror, the artist is sometimes the first one to notice skin changes[1. It was in fact a tattoo artist who noticed that a mole had changed shape and might need to be looked at.], a dimple, some other feature that wasn’t there before and might be a sign of a problem. This is intimacy, and it can be intense, but it is not what people without tattoos think of when they hear ‘intimacy.’
It is perhaps not what they imagine when they think of tattooing. I’m not quite sure what they expect, but it’s probably not this, the calm stillness that settles over me during a tattoo and the intense focus of the artist. Sure, your heart starts pounding at the start of a tattoo and sometimes your mouth feels dry and you start sweating a bit; these are all natural stress reactions to tattooing, though, not reactions to the physical closeness of the tattooer. Or to the emotional closeness, because you do develop a bond of sorts with your artist over the course of one or many tattoos. You have worked together on a project that you will carry for life on your body, and your artist knows your body in a way that few people will.
But it’s not a sexual way.
The impression that the intimacy that accompanies tattooing must perforce be sexual is one I fight back on both because it’s incorrect and insulting to both clients and artists, and because it plays into larger attitudes about tattooing. There’s a common attitude that having tattoos means someone is sexually promiscuous, and in the case of women, ‘easy’ or ‘slutty.’ That a tattoo is somehow a marker of sexuality. I know covering Quakers who ensure that no one but their husbands and close members of their family see their hair who have tattoos…and I know porn performers who are covered in tattoos. Having a tattoo doesn’t tell you much about someone’s sexuality or body or even level of comfort with intimacy—it’s just a tattoo, and you don’t know what happened during the session or sessions involved in its creation. Whatever you think happened probably didn’t.