Black Women With Tattoos is an on-going project examining how women relate to their tatts, and how the public in general views women’s bodies, specifically the comments which result whenever be-tatted gyal dem are out and about, flexin’ on this life thing.
More importantly, it’s a celebration of women who have agency; who speak and make sure that they’re heard — be it through social activism, art-ing or, in this case, art-directing their exterior representation through needle/skin relations. Here are 6 of them, from across the African continent’s southernmost tip, talking about their first experience of getting a tattoo.
The idea for my first tattoo came from wanting to do something different. At the time, I was very Christian-aligned; very spiritual. I appreciate that everybody wore crucifixes around their necks, but I wanted to do something different; I wanted a constant reminder that I would never take off. So I got a tattoo of the cross on my wrist, and I think since then I’ve really just enjoyed decorating my body with these memories and scriptures and words of wisdom. I just see my body being a canvas for myself; it’s my primary mode of expression. Tattoos are me expressing myself in a very permanent way.
I was always fascinated by the idea of getting tattooed. I probably wanted one when I was 15, and that wasn’t the best idea or time to get a tattoo. My mom was okay with it; she told me that I needed to wait until I was old enough to pay for my own. And I’m glad she told me to do that because the ideas I had when I was 15 are not the ideas I wanted at 19.
I got my first tattoo when I was 18 as a gift from my mom. I don’t think she realised that she started something much bigger. I’ve always been in love with tattoos since high school; I’d tell my friends that I want tattoos. I think in their heads they thought ‘oh, small little tattoos.’ But I visualised myself being covered in ink, you know?! I crave the pain. There’s always a metaphor. There’s always a lot of pain and torture before the beauty comes out of it. I think [they are] a metaphor for life.
I started reading a lot of poetry. The more I got into, the more I realised that there are particular lines that get me through a lot, and I never ever want to lose them. So I started writing those lines in notebooks. But then as they would fill, or as we would have to move house, I’d lose those boxes. I needed a more permanent way to remember, so I began tattooing the lines on my body. At first, my agreement with myself was that it would only be poetry lines, but that changed a few years ago.
My first tattoo’s the one on my wrist, that’s my mother’s name [Devine]. That was my first tattoo when I was about 19. I’m 26 now. I didn’t get another tattoo for quite a long time after that. All my tattoos are quite spontaneuous. I never make appointments for tattoos; I just walk in and just decide to get something. The day that I walked into that tattoo shop to get this done, was the day that I made a deal with myself to take more control of my own life. These tattoos mark that time.
When I got my first tattoo, a lot of people thought [that] I’d regret it. I guess also because it was a shooting star, which was somewhat a common thing to tattoo onto your body. They thought it was a trend thing. But every single tattoo I have has a story. It was the beginning of a new way to express myself.