What do you think of when you see a tattoo? Is it a sign of rebellion? A symbol of inclusion? A memory? A tribute to a loved one? An expression of creativity or an eff you to the world?
Many people seek a change or metamorphosis in their life. Social media presents countless uplifting memes about simply allowing yourself to grow and be authentic. These memes make me mad, because it wasn’t like that for me.
My metamorphosis was ten years of living hell*.
I lost my beliefs, my values, my friends, my health, and my confidence. Many of my interactions with new people went pear-shaped as I never knew who I was, or who I was, kept changing. I would not conform to a group. My identity was shattered, so how could people find any common ground with me? I churned through fragile friendship after friendship.
As I was coming out of my decade of hell, I flew to the Island Kingdom of Tonga to swim with humpback whales. It was my first overseas trip and it became a formative experience for me. I found a measure of peace and self-acceptance, that I never thought possible. After I gazed into the eye of a humpback whale, everything in my life was put into perspective. This encounter helped me in the early stages of the new me, to not pine for the approval of people who would never approve of me. It was such a monumental moment that I decided to get a tattoo of a humpback whale. A constant reminder of this healing memory, to see every day of my life. I began a five-year search for the perfect humpback whale image to permanently imprint on my body. If it wasn’t right, I knew I’d look at it with a sense of grief and disappointment. It had to perfectly represent the memory and emotion and result of the experience. Unsurprisingly, no such image I found ever fulfilled my perfect expectations.
I began a five-year search for the perfect humpback whale image to permanently imprint on my body.
In those preceding five years, my metamorphosis continued, beyond what I could have ever imagined. Layer-upon-layer of myself was shed and replaced with a slightly more open, calm and confident version of me. Still, I’ve had almost no friends and no purpose beyond loving and caring for my husband and children. I had lived most of my life in an emotional and spiritual box. I was in obeisance, inside my box. A box that was securely locked. It took years for me to realize it wasn’t locked from the outside, I was holding it shut from the inside. And it took more years to allow myself to open it and to slowly crawl outside; the view was different, but also familiar. In front of me were many boxes, and I found most people would welcome you into their box, but they wanted you to stay there. After being confined for so long in my box, I felt a sense of terror at entering a new box, but I’ve slowly learnt to admire all the beautiful boxes around me. However, I always leave both ends open, so I can still appreciate where I came from, and feel free to move forward, into the next, open box.
During my years of hell, I always loved to give, but for that period of my life, other than kindness and freshly baked cakes, I felt I was nobody of value, had nothing to give, nothing to offer, but I so very badly wanted to add to the richness of the human experience and to the quality of life on the planet we live on. I couldn’t offer hope. I couldn’t offer intelligence. I couldn’t offer stable friendship. People were even annoyed with my over-the-top kindness and started handing back the cakes I was baking them. Everything I offered was rejected and there seemed to be nothing, nothing at all I could give. This created an immense sense of emptiness and depression that has haunted me for longer than I would care to share. But as time passed, I started to become interested in the issue of plastic, plastic production, and plastic pollution. If you are a follower of my social media pages, here and here, no further explanation is required. The tide has slowly changed, and with the environmental work I have been doing, I am now receiving positive messages from people around the world. Complete strangers telling me I inspire them. I couldn’t be more pleased with what, inadvertently, I have managed to give to many people. Inspiration. To me there is nothing better than to inspire. Because to inspire, is to give people hope in themselves. That is the biggest gift I can give anyone. Better than any cake I could bake. To be inspired is to believe in yourself and your own potential.
I found myself in Samoa, five years after having my soul healed by a humpback whale. I am watching a traditional Samoan tattoo or tatau ceremony. I’m invited with other tourists into the fale, a hut with no walls. We’re asked to take our hats off; no photos of people’s faces are permitted and we’re gestured to sit on the thatched floor. I am one of many intrigued visitors, observing in silence the sacredness of the tattoos being etched out before us. A handsome, tattooed Samoan man explains the tattoos are a symbol of dedication of oneself to the Samoan culture.
The men are emblazoned with thick dense patterns covering large areas, whole limbs. Striking designs across their stomachs, shoulders, and backs. We’re told the application of these tattoos is extremely painful. The pain is so unbearable that the recipients want to scream and run away, ending the process not long after starting. But once you start, you are committed. As soon as that first dot is imprinted on you, word spreads and everyone in the village knows you are getting your tattoo. Friends and family all pray for you and feel honour and respect toward you. If you stop, word immediately spreads and great shame is upon you and your family. Better not to start, rather than start then stop.
Beneath the roof of the fale, there are two main tattooists, both related to each other. Tattooing is in their family and it seems this is an honourable and respected occupation, but it’s beyond an occupation, it’s a noble and skilled inheritance. One of the artists is young and large, the other is older with a smaller frame. Tattoos originated in Polynesia. The Polynesian culture has a deep, rich history and tattooing is an important part. Samoan tattoos are well renowned and these men travel the world, as their skill and knowledge is eagerly sought from all corners of the globe.
You can scream, cry, wail, curse. But the only thing you can’t do is move, or the tattoo will be ruined.
I am positioned near the younger man, I try to spy his hands at work, through all the heads and arms that are almost blocking my vision. He looks like he is gently tapping a small utensil onto the skin, it doesn’t look that painful. Gentle little, tap, tap, taps are what I see. His assistants are six silent mature Samoan men who sit around the tattooist and the person laying down in the centre, receiving the tattoo. Most of the men grip the patient firmly while the others look on in silence. I hear again from our host, about the excruciating pain, and that you’re allowed to express your pain. You can scream, cry, wail, curse. But the only thing you can’t do is move, or the tattoo will be ruined. The women are more fortunate as their tattoos are much more delicate and take a fraction of the time of the men’s. The men’s can take three to four days, but the women’s, only a few hours. After you have finished your session and return home, these male assistants turn up every three to four hours and massage your tattoo to make sure no pustules form. I’m told it feels like your skin has been ripped off and then big burly men rub it, the pain is so bad that our host says he was screaming so loudly, the whole village heard him and were praying to give him strength. It’s meant to be a highly spiritual experience where each person is tested up to and possibly beyond their limits.
I fantasise about getting a tattoo here. I listen eagerly as our handsome host explains that you have a little conversation with the tattooist and based on how they perceive you and who you are, they design one, on the spot, on your body, just for you.
But I want a whale, these tattoos are patterns, not life drawings. Could I ask them to draw a whale, but what if it turns out weird? I’d so regret it. But I really like these tattoos. I am somehow drawn to the arm bands, they’re so pretty… but they’re not whales. In the silence of this sacred ceremony, I gently debate, with internal excitement and doubt, my two usual conflicting emotions. They live in my kidneys.
Our host says if we want a tattoo, do it the day before we leave Samoa, as it should not be exposed to the sun or the water. A local Samoan lady asks a question, the host seems agitated and answers in Samoan, but eventually translates. The lady raised the issue of whether it is insulting to their culture to allow a tourist to get a traditional tattoo. Our host provides an analogy: different religions gain converts, who then travel the world, sharing their respect for their adopted beliefs and culture. He feels the same applies to the traditional Samoan tattoo. He feels it is a gift, something wonderful, for a non-Samoan to choose to have a Samoan tattoo and then share the Samoan culture proudly with the world.
Our departure is drawing close and my desire for a traditional Samoan tattoo is a fire that will not be quenched.
Over the next two weeks, my family and I travel around Samoa. It is the first time my husband and I have taken our children overseas. We have adventures, fun, laughter, tears, and fears but mostly an incredible time. The culture, beauty, food and Samoan people feel like a holiday romance and we’ve all fallen in love.
Our departure is drawing close and my desire for a traditional Samoan tattoo is a fire that will not be quenched. I canvas more opinions and ask some local Samoan people how they feel about a tourist (me) obtaining a traditional tattoo. Their responses are very positive, one person is excited and recommends a tattooist, another thinks it is a wonderful idea and says I would receive great respect for it.
Like I always do, I search outside of myself for answers and validation, never having the confidence to trust in my own decisions. My husband has never been keen on me getting a tattoo, but he is always supportive of me being true to myself. I subconsciously want him to make the decision for me, so that if it goes bad, I can blame someone else. And I also keep getting caught up in the fact that I have always wanted a whale. I am in turmoil. It is such a big decision, I am so scared to make it. Once it’s on, it won’t come off. What if I regret it, or worse, hate it? The process is not like it is in Australia, where you sit under fluorescent lights, on a leather couch and flick through designs. There are no books or pictures for me to point at and say, I’ll have that one please.
Like I always do, I search outside of myself for answers and validation, never having the confidence to trust in my own decisions.
Two days before I leave Samoa, I have a meeting with a local lady and talk about ideas for reducing plastic pollution in Samoa. I feel, on top of my personal reasons, that having a tattoo would prove my sincerity in helping Samoa in this regard, and prove I’m not just a nosy tourist telling the locals what to do. Can a tattoo help reduce plastic pollution? If so, it would certainly be worth it. But no one in my extended family back home has a tattoo and they certainly wouldn’t approve. They would interpret it as a sign that I have given myself fully over to the ‘world’ and they’d take it as a personal insult against my conservative Christian upbringing. Ironically, most people in Samoa are Christians. The missionaries had great success converting the local people as some of their beliefs were quite similar and they are naturally a devoted people. But when the missionaries told them they had to stop tattooing to become Christians, the Samoan people put their collective foot down. They said they would continue to have tattoos. Tattoos represents who they are. Tattoos are weaved into the fabric of their history, culture and identity. They have no choice but to carry on the practice. They are a nation of tattooed Christians.
I’m still unsure, but my time is running out, I head home in two days. I leave my husband and children at our accommodation and walk up to the cultural village to speak with the tattooist. He is the young, large man from my visit almost two weeks prior. He’s lingering at the edge of the fale with his support team. I put on my shy eyes and approach him and very quietly say, “I am thinking of getting a tattoo. I would want it to symbolise that I have been though a lot in my life. I have gone through pain, but I have come out the other side and I am happy and proud of who I am, I now accept myself. I want a tattoo to symbolise my love of the ocean and that I want to help protect it.” He nods, I am not sure if he has absorbed what I said or if he thinks I am just another poor little western girl who thinks she’s had it hard, when she’s really a privileged white, rich kid. He says he has time now. I freak out and tell him I need to talk to my husband and I don’t have sufficient money on me. I pace back down the steamy Samoan footpath. Should I? It is going to be excruciatingly painful and what if I don’t like it? I don’t have to do this to myself. Then I think about stepping on the plane without the tattoo, and I know that will be one of the biggest regrets of my life. As each heel hits the footpath, my steps become more planted and I become more certain. My indecisiveness and fear subsides. Well, it’s more that my courage is devouring my insecurities and fear. Courage is not the absence of fear, it’s the mastery of it.
It dawns upon me, that my need for a tattoo, is not about a whale, or one defining moment in my life, this is about everything I have been through and the incredible achievement of accepting who I am and allowing me to own my own authenticity. Yes, I am going to get an arm band to tell myself and the world, I own me. I’m totally cool with that.
Courage is not the absence of fear, it’s the mastery of it.
I inform my husband and children that I am going to get a tattoo. They instinctively know why and are all very excited. I’m surprised and thrilled by their support. I head back to the cultural village. Walking back along that same steamy footpath, I mentally prepare an Instagram post to share with the world my monumental decision. But I stop myself. This is one of the most personal things in my life. It’s meant to be spiritual, to post on social media will turn it into a tacky fanfare. No one knows my life story. I may just look like a tourist making a spontaneous decision to get a tattoo whilst on holiday. If I post about my decision, it’s out of context. I exit out of Instagram and turn my phone off.
The large Samoan tattooist is ready and I remind him that I want it to represent the ocean, and I hope he absorbed everything else I told him earlier. His team prepare for me, covering pillows in plastic wrap and donning rubber gloves. I almost pray that they have sterilised the tools. I know they have modern sterilising equipment but I am a little concerned they have not had time to clean the instruments thoroughly since the last tattoo session that recently concluded. I cross my fingers that they use some fresh sterile implements for me. I lay on my side and strong, dark-skinned men grip me firmly as I rest my head on a plastic covered pillow. I am sure this is the right decision, now it’s a question of, how much will this hurt? Will I be able to bear the pain? I have gone from spending five years looking for the perfect whale image, to now handing myself over, to be forever marked, by a stranger with an unrevealed design. I have no idea what the tattoo will look like and if I will even like it. This is not a tattoo session, it’s an act of faith.
The men who surround me, sit in silence while their radio plays overhead. OK, when will it start? Tap, tap, tap, oh, that’s not so bad… tap, tap, ouch, tap, OUCH. Two men are pulling my skin very tight while holding my arm firmly still. I manage to find a free hand in the tangle of limbs in my vision, I grip it, he gently grips back, not in a creepy way, rather in an I’m here and won’t let go way. A tattoo rhythm starts, my tattooist makes about five taps in a row. To be honest, the first three taps barely hurt, but as he finishes each series, the last ones are heavier and more painful with each tap. Just as I think it’s OK, it begins to really hurt. He does the outside of my bicep first and it’s hard to take. I worry what it will feel like when he attends to the sensitive fair skin underneath. The music continues to play, no one says a word. I lay in silence, trying not to flinch. I grip the plastic pillow with my free hand and try to fake heroism. I want someone to commend me on my bravery, but no one does. This is about me and my own path. I chose this, I must deal with it. I tap into my internal strength and grit my teeth. There are a lot of taps, the pain gets worse as he continues. It’s as if the more he does, the rawer the skin is, so future taps become more painful. It feels like my skin has been ripped off and tiny sharp knives are being briskly whacked into me. Yes, it is excruciating, but I am doing OK. I am not moving and not crying. This experience seems to represent so much of my life. Trauma upon trauma. It is very fitting.
I want someone to commend me on my bravery, but no one does. This is about me and my own path. I chose this, I must deal with it.
I love being surrounded by these strong men, even if I have voluntarily submitted myself to be tortured in their presence. Just when I think, you know, I can handle this, the men roll me on my back so the tattooist can do the underside of my arm. My ribs are locked and I slowly wriggle to pop them out from being stuck under each other. With some trepidation, I allow the men to lift my arm outward and upward. I feel completely exposed and vulnerable, yet safe at the same time. They grip my arm so tight, I couldn’t flinch even if I tried. He starts, tap, tap, tap, OMG, is this a tattoo or an arm amputation? I flick my eyes up, trying to locate a free hand. I sight one and slip my hand into another protective grip and squeeze, trying to brace my arm still and tolerate the pain. I can’t see what the tattooist is doing but I am quite sure he is cutting my arm off. Any second now I’ll hear a sickening pop and the men will wave my amputated arm in front of me with some words of praise, while they smirk at each other. I want to tell them to back off and ask why they have doubled the pressure on the sensitive part of my arm? I also want to sit up and say, “What the hell are you doing, you are cutting my effin arm off?” I am sure the artist is whacking me harder than what he does for the locals. When I watched this being performed two weeks ago, it looked like a little blunt instrument being so gently tapped that I couldn’t work out how it could even leave a mark. But now it feels like a blade is being hammered right through the flesh and I can hear it thudding against the bone. The pain is unbearable. I let out some groans, the master tattooist confidently says, “Breathe, breathe.” I breathe deliberately and as slowly as I can. It’s just like the pain of childbirth, but on the back of my bicep. At this intense moment in the procedure, I hear the lyrics of the song on the radio, “Pump that pussy nice and hard!” This trial suddenly doesn’t seem like a spiritual experience and I can’t help but laugh out loud. The men realise why I laugh and switch to another song. Gangnam Style (remember that one?) blares from the speaker. Nope, not spiritual. Here I am, in Samoa, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, having a tribal tattoo applied with half a dozen burly Samoan men pinning me down and torturing me while Gangnam Style is playing, I laugh again at how ludicrous it seems.
A facet of my personality is my obsessive desire to control everything about my life, yet I have handed my body to a stranger in complete faith.
The excruciating pain continues, but my tattooist tells me, “Just one line left.” I don’t quite know what he means but it seems he’s indicated the end is approaching. I settle into the pain which continues for another twenty minutes. I gaze up at the thatched roof of the fale, which is inhabited by two little geckos. I fixate on their beady little eyes and almost enter a hallucinogenic state. It helps a little. It’s almost finished. I suddenly remember I have absolutely no idea what the tattoo is going to look like. I haven’t even peeked for fear I wouldn’t like it. I had hoped for swirls, and no thick lines, but didn’t want to stifle the master tattooist’s creativity by making suggestions. Plus, how can you do circles when you are using a straight blade? A facet of my personality is my obsessive desire to control everything about my life, yet I have handed my body to a stranger in complete faith. This stranger’s artwork will be with me for the rest of my life. Finally, the tattooist says, “It’s finished.”
My husband and daughters have arrived, they walk into the fale, while I am sitting on the floor with the master tattooist. For the first time, I look down at my permanently marked arm. The tattoo is not swirly like I had hoped, instead, it is angular and symmetric. Not what I imagined, but it’s a pleasant surprise, I love symmetry. I love it. My surprise is fitting as my life is not at all what I had envisioned, yet it’s still beautiful.
I love the tattoo so much that the pain is now irrelevant and I want to cry. The Samoan man has honoured me. I wanted to punch him just a moment ago, instead, I now ask to shake his hand. I wave to all his assistants who are now sitting silently outside of the fale. I am not sure which of the men held me down or who held my hand. I smile and wave and express my gratitude with one of the few Samoan words I know.
Fa’afetai. Fa’afetai. Fa’afetai.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
The tattooist verbally gives me some vague instructions of how to care for my tattoo and I wander off with a piece of rag in my hand, wondering exactly what I am meant to do with it. My husband pays him and I leave with my excited family. It’s more than I could have hoped for.
Another aspect of my personality trait is to be bold and courageous, but afterwards be filled with doubt and trauma about what I submitted myself to. In this case, I am emotionally OK, I don’t fall to pieces or regret my decision. But it seems my body is not aligned with my resolve, and it freaks out on my behalf, without my permission.
My fears about the pressure applied to my arm and imagined amputation soon physically manifest themselves. By the next day it’s obvious I’ve begun bleeding beneath the skin under my arm, where the procedure had hurt the most. Had the tattooist gone too deep? There’s a lot of bleeding, but it’s all trapped beneath the skin. I could see the blood slowly seeping down the inside of my arm. It’s been terrifying. I’ve had panic attack after panic attack as I watch the blood slowly oozing down, not knowing if or when it will stop, it seems to be getting worse. The tattooist told me he would be out of town today so I can’t go and ask if this is normal. I show a couple of local Samoans and they contort their faces in perplexed concern, as if they have never seen such a reaction before. I am suddenly very keen to return to Australia, should I need medical care. Would I get blood poisoning, or would I haemorrhage or would a blood clot give me a heart attack or a stroke?
Once back on Australian soil, my arm looked so horrendous, I was too embarrassed to go to the doctor. I kept envisioning the doctor’s face when they saw my tattoo and blood-filled arm, thinking I was crazy to have a tribal tattoo applied so far from home with blades that are whacked into you. I kept imagining the conversation in the doctor’s surgery where I would say, “But it’s out of context. You don’t understand. It was spiritual experience to represent my personal pain and life journey. It’s so symbolic.” But all I could see is some wealthy, older doctor smirking and slightly shaking their head, thinking I was an idiot and then rushing me off to a hospital or specialist. I just crossed my fingers and hoped I didn’t die as I waited to see if the bleeding stopped or if one of the many horrendous ailments I was capable of imagining, struck me dead.
Why does it not surprise me that making the big decision of formally accepting my own authenticity, would leave me battered, bloody and bruised? All the steps in my transformation have been like this emotionally, it’s kind of fitting it would happen physically too. And the symbolism continues, in that, my life is not at all what I had envisioned, but still, it’s pretty cool.
It has been ten days since I received my tattoo. It still stings a lot on the underside, yet the bleeding seems to have stopped. The blood has moved down my arm and pooled on my lower bicep above my elbow. It looks like the bruise from hell, but the tattoo is some distance from the bruising. I think I am past blood poisoning, or an infection but I am still worried about clots. I am a hypochondriac and I recently completed my first aid course and I care for people who have had strokes, so the fear is lingering nearby. Fear itself is always lingering in the shadows.
I am looking forward to the purple clearing up so I can proudly show off my artistic armband of honour and personal acceptance. Today, still anxious about the blood in my arm, I said to my husband, “I love my tattoo, but I don’t really feel like I am out of the woods yet.” He replied, “None of us are ever, really out of the woods.” He was very perceptive. Rather than encourage me to have confidence that there will be some safe future time, when I can relax, it’s best if I learn to live with the uncertainty. I never, ever feel out of the woods, there is always something big and scary, life threatening or intimidating that I am confronting. I just need to learn, that while I am in the woods… to keep breathing. Not to hold my breath, waiting for some secure perfect, future time when all the scary stuff is behind me. If I did that, I would hold my breath for the rest of my life.
So, as I breathe and admire my armband and the bruise and the pulses in my body that I think may be a huge blood clot, I recall, sitting on the floor of the fale, with the big burly tattoo artist as he explained the symbolism of the patterns forever etched into my arm.
Each line of patterns has its own symbolism. The octopus represents strength. The spear signifies protection. The zigzags are the waves of the ocean. The next line are open boxes. I love the open boxes as they symbolise my life, going into a box, and then coming out, and moving into another box, another of life’s phases, another version of me. The little boxes wrap around my arm, each one open at both ends. His interpretation of the open boxes is, “You give and you will receive, what you give, you will get back,” I love that too. Another pattern is birds that represent travel, migration and my spiritual journey. They all go right around my arm, no beginning and no end.
Fear and bravery, courage and insecurity, open mindedness and purposefulness, all contrasting elements in one person, are now represented by a beautiful artwork on my body. Layers of personal experience and development, an exquisite tapestry of my human existence.