The girl with her own tattoos: the joy of homemade ink – The Guardian

I have a little tattoo of a cross on my right hip. It is horrible. It is small and fat, like someone made a cross out of clay then squashed it. It leans to the right for no particular reason, like a terrible tribute to the tower of Pisa. I am very fond of it, because the story behind it is incredibly stupid.

I was 18 and cool-adjacent just about enough of my acquaintances were cool that I could hang out in cool social circles, but deep down I knew I was only cool by association, which pained me greatly. My housemate and I had been invited to a squat party in south London by this woman, Cat, who was definitely cool.

We spent most of the afternoon figuring out what to wear then took the bus down from Shoreditch to Camberwell, only to realise wed misread the text. Wed turned up to the cool south London squat party two hours early. Cat still let us in, we were mortified, and about an hour in we overheard her on the phone tell a (presumably cool) friend about these two random French girls whod arrived already. We looked at each other in silence and terror.

People turned up eventually and the party got going. The room was full of beautiful, heavily tattooed men and we just about managed to blend in. At around 4am, Cat announced to the room that she had a safety pin and Indian ink, and had recently learned to tattoo people. Would anyone like a tattoo? The beautiful men all raised their hand, so I raised mine as well.

It got to my turn at about 5am, and a very drunk Cat asked me what I wanted. I panicked and said a cross, because it was the first shape I could think of, and on my love handle, because I figured it would be better to pick a fleshy part of my body. I did my best to look relaxed and tough while she repeatedly poked me with the pin shed used on about half a dozen people already, and one of the beautiful men held my hand for support.

For a week afterwards I was quietly convinced I was going to get sepsis then die, but I didnt instead, I will just live the rest of my natural life with a vile little cross on my hip. It took some time, but I really like it now. Here, just under my skin, is a reminder that nothing will ever quite match the bone-deep, all-consuming obsession an 18-year-old can have for being cool. It is also a lesson in self-acceptance. Getting a homemade tattoo done by a random drunk woman just to fit in is trying too hard. Im a massive try-hard, and there is nothing I can do about it.

I also know this because of the little star I have on the inside of my right knee, tattooed on me by a random drunk woman when I was 22. Id gone to New York with two of my best friends none of us had been to New York before and it had turned out thered been a misunderstanding. I was hoping to party every night and sleep through the days and they wanted to do tedious, adult things like walking around Central Park and visiting tourist attractions.

I was desperate to come back with a neverending list of shocking anecdotes, but the days went by and nothing exciting happened to us. I was furious. On our last day I ditched them and went to a backyard party in the depths of Brooklyn, recommended to me by a beautiful, heavily tattooed man I knew in London.

Everyone there was very cool and relaxed and I was incredibly tense, and determined to do something anecdote-worthy before sundown. I got talking to a musician who was so obscenely Texan I assumed it was an act, but it didnt seem to be. That could work, I thought a dalliance with a man whose accent was so strong he made the whole conversation sound like we were in a movie. That would be something to write home about.

When he left abruptly to go to a band rehearsal I was so angry I could have cried, and so I did the one thing I knew I could always do. I went up to the woman in the corner who was handing out homemade tattoos and I asked her to do one on me. If I couldnt go home with outrageous stories, I could at least worry about sepsis on the flight back.

The star hasnt aged quite as badly as the cross, maybe because it was made by someone a little less drunk, but it still isnt very nice. You can really tell it wasnt done by a professional. Compared to these two, the other handful of tattoos I got since then look a lot nicer. I paid handsomely for them, planned them in advance, and picked my artist carefully.

Still, I dont love them as much as my terrible stick and pokes. I love these two so much that in March, when the lockdown started, I went into a sort of trance and ordered a kit for homemade tattoos online. There was a plan: I was going to train on the sheet of practice skin the kit had provided an A4 of worryingly glutinous material and once I had perfected a design, I would get started on my own skin.

It felt like a good compromise. I am no longer 18 or 22, and if I must be silly, I should be responsible about it. Instead, what happened was I got drunk on tins of beer alone three nights later and watched Birds of Prey, the movie about Harley Quinn. At around 11pm, I grabbed my supplies, drew a small diamond on my right thigh with a pencil, and tattooed it into my skin.

The week that followed was an anxious one. I am already worried about the ever-present threat of sepsis at the best of times, and having nothing to do but sit around and worry about it was not an enjoyable experience. On the bright side, it healed well. It is not a very nice diamond, but it is a bit better than the star, and definitely a lot better than the cross.

It also gave me something to talk about when lockdown ended and we started swapping notes about our survival techniques. Some had made banana bread, others got into yoga, but I, a woman nearing 30 with a respectable career, had tattooed myself while drunk. That I did it makes me a try-hard. I know it does.

It is what I like about stick and pokes, really. Here, on my skin, are multiple admissions that sometimes you just do things because you want something to talk about. I am no longer an 18-year-old tragically trying to become cool of my own accord, or a 22-year-old desperate to come back from New York with exciting and salacious stories to tell my friends. I am 28 and, in comparison, quite boring now. My hair isnt even green or blue or pink any more.

In fact, Id assumed that my homemade tattoo days were behind me. Id changed and grown and there was no need for me to prove myself by doing something daring but dumb. I was wrong. The pandemic showed me that. Faced with the prospect of being alone for weeks on end, I realised that what I craved was something truly spontaneous, and that is what the diamond provided. That I tried to plan it first was foolish the entire point of a stick and poke is that it takes you by surprise. One moment your skin is clear, the next it has been altered forever, on a whim.

They also create an indelible link to your future self. Like uncovering fossils, I can now look at my hip and remember exactly who I was as a teenager and how it made me feel. I hope that in 10 years, when I am 38 and even more boring, I can look at my knee and fondly think back to the person I was at 28, and to what I went through that year.

All things considered, I no longer think theres any shame in doing things mostly so you can say you have done them. It is not a cool admission, but its fine. I like trying too hard, its who I am. I cant even lie to myself about it my wonky little tattoos will always give me away.

Marie Le Contes book Havent You Heard? Gossip, Politics and Power is out now at 9.29 from guardianbookshop.com

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The girl with her own tattoos: the joy of homemade ink - The Guardian

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