Read time: 43-45 minutes. Potential triggers: contains details of depression/anxiety, trauma, PTSD.
Should self-employed people be overextending themselves when being confided in by their customers and clients? Should we be treating our hairdresser or tattoo artist like a therapist? Why do we shy away from the idea of professional therapy?
One of the most basic and primal human instincts is to avoid pain and suffering at any and all costs. When you willingly expose yourself to the experience of being tattooed, it can bring forth a lot of other pain lurking under a perhaps otherwise calm surface. Having a safe, positive experience of pain and suffering through tattooing can free yourself of fear, empower yourself (through decorating the precious body you live in) and help you understand that tattoos are only as permanent as your skin!
I love the entire experience of being tattooed, from start to finish. I love the preparation and anticipation: saving up, emailing the artist and pulling the appointment together. Booking the travel and accommodation well in advance. Counting the months, weeks and days. Preparing myself: drinking more water, moisturising my skin, protecting the tattoo area etc. Getting an early night with my bag prepared (full of essentials and goodies) the night before.
I love the buzz of the tattoo morning: barely able to eat breakfast due to nerves and excitement; eventually settling myself and meditating/deep breathing whilst travelling and waiting for the appointment start time. Wearing my comfiest clothes and cosiest items: including a blanket, hot water bottle/mini fan, snacks and last but not least, my toy dinosaur 🦖
I love the experience of the tattooing itself: the ebb and flow of endorphins and stress hormones, the introspection of gently observing and noticing pain, random thoughts and other sensations. The relaxed, almost meditative state you can eventually get yourself into. The blissfully subdued and ‘happytired’ feeling afterwards. Hurrying back home to relax and recover: enforced self care.♥
I’ll be writing more about this in another blog post: “Prepare to be Tattooed!”
Sonder [son-der] (n.) –
“The realisation that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.”John Koenig’s definition of sonder, which he coined in 2012.
Technically, it isn’t a ‘real’ (English Dictionary) word. In German, sonder is an adjective that means “special”; in French, it’s a verb meaning “to plumb.” In Afrikaans it means “without.” Sönder means “broken” in Swedish. So you can see, sort of, how Koenig might have mixed all those meanings together to come up his own definition, which fills a gap in English. I have been obsessed with his concept of sonder for years, and think about it often.
I want to begin this post by raising my hand up and admitting that I am a (recovering) chronic over-sharer. Guilty as charged! Info-dumping and monologging are two of my biggest autistic traits. I whole-heartedly apologise for my numerous accounts of unsolicited, unwelcome ramblings and rantings as a fumbling, intensely ambitious raconteur. I’m hoping that the reason(s) why you are here is that you wish to understand how to conduct yourself better in tattoo appointments, or that you want to know more about therapy.
I will not be discussing the gory details of my trauma stories here, but I will be sharing some pretty heavy, potentially triggering stuff with you.
I feel like it’s only been in the last 3 years (the entirety of my thirties to be exact) that I’ve started to make any real conscious effort to learn, grow and do better. I’m learning as much as I can about trauma, therapy and mental health; and how best to approach heavy subjects with the people I’m lucky enough to tattoo. When I see you for our appointment, I am a grateful witness to but a keyhole into your entire universe on that one particular day. I hope I can make it a happy, memorable one.
Allow me to properly introduce myself:
I’m Lala: a tall, white, commercially pretty cis woman. I define myself as queer, but am straight-passing. I am disabled (Autism & Fibromyalgia) but can pass as able-bodied. My slim build is largely due to my chronic illness and symptoms, but I pass as physically attractive, according to most conventional Western/European beauty standards.
My ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) score is 9/10.
In-between my privileged (25/100) Western existence and whiteness, I have faced and survived extreme hardships in my lifetime: homelessness, extreme physical/emotional/sexual childhood and adult abuse, emotional/physical childhood neglect, addiction, family dysfunction, missing education, learning difficulties/cognitive impairment, domestic violence, sickness and poverty. I have also experienced great luxuries and comforts, similar to any normal middle/upper middle class upbringing and lifestyle. I am incredibly grateful to have the life I have now. Having a high ACE score means that statistically, I’m at a considerably higher risk of stroke, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, chronic illnesses, cancer and an earlier death than someone with a lower ACE score. However, if I needed to in most situations: I could pass ‘safely’ as a white middle class, pretty, femme, able-bodied and neurotypical straight woman.
The mask I wear is an elaborate one.
I’ve been tattooing for almost 10 years.
Here’s the biggest thing about 2020: not one single person in modern society has been unaffected negatively by the COVID-19 global pandemic, subsequent civil and human rights movements and political events. They are now intrenched deep into our history. They have changed our human experience; created new trauma and triggered the old. Our routines and lifestyles have been severely impacted.
However, there’s still lots of joy, calm and hope to be found amidst the strife and suffering… If we just remember to be kind, patient and stay in our lane! Let’s use “The Great Reset” to reset ourselves and move forward into becoming more compassionate and careful in our interactions with others.
Do tattoo artists have a tendency to over-work and over-extend themselves?
Tattooers rely on creating good tattoos and good customer experiences to succeed and thrive. We are self employed, and do not have paid leave for sickness, bereavements or holidays. I like to think that my boundaries are much better now. But in the last 2 years alone, I’ve skipped events, parties and special occasions to be able to fit clients in on specific dates. I’ve sacrificed time with partners, family and friends in order to try and “keep clients happy”. Some of these clients I overextended for still haggled on the cost of my time, complained or half joked about how I work, that I should tattoo them all night and the next day to make sure it’s finished(?!). I had the building my previous studio lived in opened up outside of normal working hours, by the owners who travelled from home on days off. I’ve worked much later than agreed, and given hours of hard work that I haven’t charged extra for. Some clients I treated with extra care still took my hard work, generosity or extra customer service for granted. It’s no wonder that tattoo artists, hairdressers and other self employed people in creative industries have such high statistics of work stress: self medicating with alcohol and other drugs. In business, I am always learning what does and doesn’t work. The biggest thing I’ve learnt is that I only have a finite amount of time and working years left. If I am to keep working consistently and at my best, I need to be mindful of the clients I work with, and maintain my professional and personal boundaries – so I can stay sober and stay sane!
As your tattoo artist: I believe I have a duty of care for you. I will do my best to make sure you feel safe and comfortable. I will strive to treat you with dignity and respect, pay my best attention to you and how you’re feeling, and stop when you’ve reached your limit. You’ve given me your precious time, money and skin to work with, and I understand how big of a deal that is. I want my behaviour to reflect this as much as possible. I understand that I am responsible for the energy I bring into the tattoo appointment. I want to arrive well-rested, clean(!) well fed, relaxed, prepared and on time, every time. The same goes for you! Sometimes life happens, something unexpected comes up. Sometimes we have to cancel, start late, reschedule or finish early. No big deal. Tattoos are non-essential, a luxury. I promise to do my best, and hope you will too.
It’s one of the biggest reasons I have a private studio: I bring treats with me to work sometimes, provide a great sound system, aromatherapy, heated seats, decent tea & coffee (COVID regulations permitting!). I’ll ask you what music you want to listen to, and understand how important that snack break is. If you’ve been really lucky and we’ve both had the time, I sometimes order takeout to the studio!
However: if you can’t work with me, then I can’t work with you. It takes two to tattoo!
I always strive to make amends if I run late, or make a mistake. despite how hard I try to get everything right, it’s impossible to please everyone. Last summer whilst doing a routine tidy up during a late afternoon tea break, I threw away a cold, half-empty takeaway coffee that had been sitting in my studio for over 5 hours. The client was visibly upset and frustrated to learn that the coffee she’d brought with her early that morning was now gone. Even though I was confused and shocked that she would still want to drink it (I had also just made her a third cup of tea), I apologised profusely and memorised her order for next time. I woke up an hour earlier and found a Starbucks at 8am before the next appointment, to make sure she had a complimentary fresh cup of coffee ready to start the new day. I also gave her a heavy discount twice, in a desperate (stupid) attempt to keep things amicable. Unsurprisingly, that woman became a complete living nightmare: she and her boyfriend’s harassment and accusations ruined my mental and physical health for 6 months, ending in a cancer scare and being unable to work full-time. I sometimes wonder if I’d just shagged them both and given them what they really wanted, it would have been a different story.
(Calling all FetLife couples: exit on the left please!)
Around the same time, I learnt that another client had wanted to sue me: claiming that a human error on my part was “illegal” (I got her name mixed up with another person with the same first name, both had recently married and changed their surnames). I mistook a cancellation email from said other client as herself and refilled the day. She suggested (demanded) that I tattoo two people back to back for 12 hours that day so that she could keep her original appointment. I refused to work 2 long sessions that day, and later received flowers and an apology. I have never made a mistake like that before, nor have I made it again since. Taking on an assistant this year was one of the best things I’ve ever done.
I had to cancel on a client last minute due to a Fibromyalgia flare up recently, and I was told that “maybe I’m in the wrong job” and that she was going to “write a bad review”. Jokes on you huns, I’m not Starbucks, I’m literally one human person. I don’t have a review system (not anymore!), and yes I’m autistic and chronically ill. When I’m bad, I’m really bad. But when I’m good, I’m fucking exceptional.
“Because you’ll only end up bitter if you try to keep everyone sweet.”— Chidera Eggerue, How To Get Over A Boy.
This summer, during a brief stint of online dating and asking a few people out on dates, I asked someone out for “mocktails sometime”, who had instigated a conversation asking about my fibromyalgia diagnosis and sobriety. They received the request positively, but a date/plan was never made. 3 weeks of intermittent, vague half flirting later, they told me they really wanted to book in for a tattoo (cue eye roll). 12 days later, they actually made an appointment, which then fucked up my plans of taking them out on a date, making a mess of my professionalism.
However, I really wanted to create the project, and was already working on a couple of design commissions with a close friend of theirs. I decided to focus on my job and paying my bills, and ignore my libido (which I’m pretty good at!). Unexpectedly, they tried to resurrect my dead date offer nearly 2 months later: suggesting we could go for “drinks” straight after tattooing. Also, after finding out I had the day off booked the next day (starting the project and professionally tattooing someone I’d asked out and got turned down was going to be hard work), they ‘joked’ that I could maybe tattoo them all night and the next day too(?!). No mention of any extra money, of course. Along with a hard eye roll, I turned both excruciatingly exciting offers down. Impressively, I somehow felt even more used and rejected than if we’d just fucked(!). They continued to try and flirt with me while they knew I was now dating someone else (and at one point, tried flirting with my best friends). This dragged on intermittently for ages. I finally came to my senses 3 months later, grew a backbone and stopped being so fucking polite and “nice” – I dropped both the design projects with their friend, returned the hefty commission deposit and stopped responding to their messages. A few days of silence later, I noticed that I was tagged in a grand online gesture: showcasing and promoting the tattoo work I made 3 months before, gushing about how I was “genuinely one of the best talents out there”, “a completely gorgeous person, inside and out!” and they were “very very lucky”, also managing to boast that they sat for “10 hours plus”.
I laughed at the unbelievable avalanche of audacity: I blocked them on social media shortly afterwards, filing the whole interaction and mishap under “manipulations of my professionalism/autism for their own gain”.
I wondered how many people looked at this self employed, chronically ill and autistic woman living alone, during a pandemic, whilst plotting how they could benefit from it.
Here’s the thing: I don’t actually owe anyone that duty of care in my profession. There are plenty of tattoo artists out there that don’t provide the level of customer service that I do, and clients keep going back again and again. I offer and provide those things to you freely, in the hope you can appreciate how much I love and respect my job. I am able to take care of people more if I’m taken care of first. The UK has a strange attitude to tattooing, generally speaking: how cheap and how fast a tattoo can be done, is valued above how much time and how much care the tattoo artist takes to complete said permanent, sterile and professional procedure. In the UK, the general public are willing to spend more money on their hairstyle and iPhones than they are on their tattoos (hair grows back and phones go out of date!). Also, not many people can even tell the difference between a good tattoo and a bad one, let alone a good tattoo and a great one.
In tattooing, I believe I need to respect the weight of the task at hand and make sure I’m taking care of myself, and you should be making sure you are too. I wrote more about self care in a previous blog post: Life is too short to suffer.
We may carry it well, but that doesn’t mean it’s not heavy.
Almost all of us are anxious and depressed, I think that’s more or less a given now (especially after 2020’s utter bullshit!). Modern living isn’t designed for human thriving. We feel stressed on a daily basis and suffer prolonged fatigue from stress. Many of us have psychosomatic health problems due to stress, and excess stress hormones building up in our bodies (adrenaline, cortisol etc).
Tattoos have been used medicinally for over 5000 years. Today, when used similarly to acupuncture therapy, tattoo sessions could help relieve stress in everyday life. Tattoos have also been found to reduce cortisol levels: this improves the immune system and also helps provide stress reduction, enabling tattoos for depression and anxiety to possibly be useful.
During my entire tattooing career, this profession has often been referred to as “therapy.”
“Tattoos are my therapy!” “Another session of ink therapy”, “Who needs therapy, *eye twitch* when I can just get more tattoos?!”, “I don’t need therapy *sweating, shaking* I just get more tattoos!”
Joking aside, should these dialogues be happening? Think about it. Are tattoos really a form of therapy, or are they just therapeutic? There’s a big difference.
Are any of the tattooists you choose qualified therapists? Should they have to be? Do you treat them like they could/should be? Offloading on self-employed people in creative industries whilst they’re up close and personal is killing us and our creativity. Seriously, I’ve lost tattoo friends to suicide. It’s no surprise that work pressures contributed massively.
“Therapy” has replaced “Tattoo” as the new taboo.
Isn’t it just cooler to say your tattoo artist is your therapist? You can talk about how “edgy” and damaged you are, without admitting that you’re actually feeling completely on the edge and broken inside. You get to mention your tattoo artist in a reply to a mental health enquiry (“yours”, as if belonging to you) in a way that implies you spend many many hours with them, and that you have a super candid, relaxed connection with them. Extra cool points. Also, I’ve noticed a lot more cishet men are happy to mention me when it comes to the subject of therapy. Historically, cishet women are expected to naturally overextend themselves (I’m not hetero but I pass as straight). We must be agreeable, be accommodating, be polite, be caring, be a “good girl”. Extra emotional labour comes as standard, lest we risk looking like a cold heartless bitch.
Car crash TV in spoken form. The modern world is obsessed with trauma stories. Murder, crime, drug abuse, paedophillia, sex trafficking… If you haven’t directly experienced it, you might want to live vicariously through it. The shock, the disbelief, the adrenaline rush. Maybe you’re reliving it, or escaping through living inside someone else’s. Maybe you feel the need to share it excessively, like a protagonist shares their backstory in the movies.
“We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on the mind, brain and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present.”
“Trauma results in a fundamental reorganisation of the way mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our capacity to think.”— Bessel Van Der Kolk, The Body Keeps The Score.
I’m a huge advocate for mental health candidness. But how candid should we be during a tattoo session?
Unloading leads to Overloading.
Have you ever vented and (without warning or asking consent) dumped a long, angry rant, an exhausted confession or anxiously revealed an awkward or terrible secret to us while we’re trying to concentrate? Did you become stressed/upset/angry/fidgety whilst you did this? Did you stare at your tattoo artist, directly in the eyes/face whilst they were focused on tattooing your body? Did you wonder why the appointment took longer that day? Did you turn up unprepared, miserable, stressed or angry? Have you ever wondered why the artist became anxious/hurried, or took longer than you expected to finish the piece completely?
There’s a really good reason why counsellors/therapists always sit a certain distance away from their clients in therapy sessions, and limit the sessions to 1 hour.
“Don’t arrive cold and empty in the hope of being filled up with warmth and joy. Don’t expect people to accommodate your bullshit either.”— Brené Brown.
If you expected your tattoo artist to overextend themselves to tend to your mental health, in a similar way a therapist would, did you at least tip them after the appointment was over?!
Good tattooist, bad therapist
I might be the right tattoo artist for the work you want doing, but what if my style of mental health approach makes you uncomfortable? For example, I’m probably going to discuss my sobriety if you discuss heavy drinking (I’ve been sober for 3 years, I understand everyone’s lifestyles are different but obviously don’t share that same enthusiasm anymore). I’m going to naturally defend the person with autism that a neurotypical person has just started complaining about to me. I’m going to have to fight through being triggered by a man talking about being physically abusive to people. I have my own biases and experiences. Over the years, I have tried a number of different therapists. I didn’t connect with them, didn’t feel understood by them and didn’t feel I could trust them. They also presented me with information and ideas I wasn’t able to process and take onboard at that time. If you treat a tattoo artist like a therapist, and are adverse to the idea of real therapy with a real therapist, you risk the same thing happening during the completion of a tattoo project. I may also have to adjust my responses in conversation as a matter of good customer service, not because it honestly reflects any of my particular beliefs and opinions.
Do you really want a tattoo session to be like a therapy session?
Trauma overwhelms listeners as well as speakers. If you’ve never been to a professional therapy or counselling session, or haven’t been consistent with your therapy: your family, friends and coworkers may become your therapist. Not only are these people biased because they love you, they are probably under-qualified and (deep down) unwilling. They will be fighting through their own demons and inner struggles too, maybe trying to recover from codependency and generally trying to rescue others from difficult emotions.
I discuss alternatives to therapy a little later in this post.
“Visiting the past in therapy should be done while people are, biologically speaking, firmly rooted in the present and feeling as calm, safe and grounded as possible.”— Bessel Van Der Kolk, The Body Keeps The Score.
In the last 18 months, I’ve had about 28 sessions of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). During a Skype therapy session in the summer, I admitted to her that I was “afraid of the impending stress of returning to work after 4 months in lockdown”. Totally understandable, but I had no idea how to navigate it. I’d become visibly distressed and upset admitting this to her, so she suggested we did a short guided meditation together. She then explained to me the difference between stress, anxiety and fear.
“Stress can be reduced, anxiety can be managed and fear can be confronted and worked on.”
Stress can be defined as the degree to which you feel overwhelmed or unable to cope as a result of pressures that are unmanageable. You can reduce stress simply by reducing unrealistic deadlines, introducing better time management and a work/life balance, streamlining work days and increasing self care, quality sleep and rest.
Anxiety is an emotion and medical condition, characterised by feelings of tension, irritability, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure and heart rate, sweating and IBS. You can manage anxiety through relaxation and grounding techniques: such as meditation, journaling, running, making healthy changes to diet, reducing screen time, alcohol and caffeine intake and increasing self care and rest.
Fear is a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil or pain, whether the threat is real or imagined; it is the feeling or condition of being afraid. Fear is a great teacher that alerts us to something that requires our attention and care. Although fear is completely natural, persistent fears can be explored and solved in talking therapies.
I use this as an example to show how effective CBT is in breaking down problems.
They say that a problem shared is a problem halved, but a problem shared in therapy has a chance to be truly understood and solved.
Surely that’s better than just venting to a co-worker, hairdresser or stranger on the bus?
I am required by law to provide a sterile and safe working environment. The rest (like customer service, music quality and conversation) is up to me. I’m trained to offer first aid, and in the last 2 years alone I’ve spent over £1,000 on private therapy sessions. I’m legally required and obligated to provide first aid to clients, but not therapy. For the same reason I don’t expect clients to book in for tattoos based on my first aid experience, I don’t think clients should book in for tattoos based on my therapy/mental health experience.
Getting tattooed doesn’t have to be this great big grand experience, full of big loud feelings and heavy taboo subjects. Getting tattooed can be calm, respectful, even gentle. I want to create an environment full of music, (maybe some singing), peace, fun and focus: for both of us.♥
A good tattoo session is one that leaves both of us worn out, sore but feeling uplifted and positive. We arrive back home feeling “happytired”, not totally drained and exhausted, and with a fuzzy head from too much sugar, not from a “vulnerability hangover”. Tattooing can be a positive, healing experience, for both the client and tattoo artist.
Sometimes I have to break out of “customer service mode” and ask politely if we can change the subject. Sometimes I have to say “that’s not something I want to talk about when I’m tattooing”. I want you to be able to say the same if you’re uncomfortable.
Speaking up about the conversation ‘going off-piste’ is extremely hard for me to do, and usually when it’s got to that point I’m already at a considerable level of stress. It’s difficult to “stay in your lane” and not offer advice, when clients confide in you or present you with a dilemma they’re stuck in. I can easily say, “please could we not discuss this anymore, it’s making me uncomfortable”, but how would that feel if I said that to you, on top of the pain of being tattooed?! Maybe we could both be more mindful of conversations going forward.
As tattoo artists, we have to concentrate while clients tell us intense stories and vent their anger/sadness/frustration/hopelessness while we’re creating incredibly intricate (permanent) work with tiny needles.
We have to be constantly engaged in both what that you’re saying and doing, and intensely focused on what we’re saying and doing, for hours and hours. I’ve had clients turn their heads to face me completely when I’m working in close proximity to their face: examining my eye makeup, my hair, staring at my chest, my legs, examining my tattoos etc. I now wear extremely unflattering scrubs, two sizes too big: for hygiene, comfort and feeling safer. I’ve felt clients intensely looking into my eyes for the entire time I’ve got my head down working, as if searching for a level of attention, intimacy or engagement that I simply can’t give them because I’m trying to
do my fucking job create a good tattoo – the one and only thing they’ve actually asked and paid me to do! It’s nice to look, rude to stare.
I get it, you’re curious and anxious and that’s okay.♥ Tattooing can be a really scary, exciting and horrible experience. I’ve been tattooed many times by many different people, and have had both good and bad experiences. I can put up with all of the above, to a certain point. It’s all part of the process and trust me, I really do fucking love my job! I’ve worked so hard to be able to do this for a living, and I’m so unbelievably grateful to be where I am today.
“When we share vulnerability, especially shame stories, with someone with whom there is no connectivity, their emotional (and sometimes physical) response is often to wince, as if we have shone a floodlight in their eyes. Instead of a strand of delicate lights, our shared vulnerability is blinding, harsh, and unbearable…
When it’s over, we feel depleted, confused, and sometimes even manipulated.
Sometimes we’re not even aware we’re oversharing as armour. We can purge our vulnerability or our shame stories out of total desperation to be heard. We blurt out something that is causing us immense pain because we can’t bear the thought of holding onto it for one more second.”— Quotes from Brené Brown on “The Vulnerability Armoury”.
I haven’t published any blog entries since February this year. I began writing this post straight after Grief and Growth, as I was feeling exhausted from overextending myself to clients whilst dealing with a cancer scare, a breakup and moving homes. I was still battling unknown health complications every day. I was very tired, and very scared. As the pandemic crept into the UK during March, I moved what I could into my new place and kept my head down. I worked as much as I was able to, making sure that I had some savings to rely on should “the worst” happen – both with the pandemic, and my own health.
2020 has been a fever dream, right?!
Such an exhaustingly scary year.
Bleed & Bloom.
Before you can start healing, you need to admit that you are hurting and bleeding.
I opened my own studio in 2018: in the midst of a breakdown, knee reconstruction, autism diagnosis and intensive CBT therapy. I wrote more about this in a previous post, Rejection and Redirection. Despite trying to heal and working extremely hard, I was still bleeding.
After suffering for most of my twenties, dragging around (diagnosed) depression, anxiety, complex childhood and adult PTSD, and (yet to be diagnosed) autistic burnout and chronic illness, I got sober at 30. Piece by piece, things started to connect; the muddy water slowly began to settle and become clearer. I could see a way out, gradually. I started weight training, ended some big toxic friendships and relationships, opened my first independent tattooing business and got the knee reconstruction I desperately needed. I finally found the right therapist for me: she allowed my life to start making sense. Slowly but surely, I started to finally breathe, bleed and process those 3 decades fearlessly. I got my autism diagnosis, and started to pursue a chronic illness investigation/diagnosis. After bleeding openly to my therapist, a small group of my dearest and most trusted friends (and yes, some of my clients!), I published some of my writing last year. I poured the last drops of my angst-soaked blood into my new blog, along with careful and caring introspection. It was a calm catharsis, and I felt released. I’ve continued with inner trauma work and self care, and finally got the answer to my lifelong chronic illness mystery with a Fibromyalgia diagnosis earlier this year. I’ve become a runner and have been celery juice cleansing for 7 months to heal my body and mind, and further process trauma and years of physical/emotional damage from almost constant, unrelenting stress. Feel it to heal it!
We’re not qualified, but maybe we should be? I feel that being trained in “mental health first aid” for tattoo sessions would be as useful as being able to provide medical first aid. This crucial medical training, quite literally, saves lives. Tattooing is an invasive procedure that can put you in a vulnerable and risky position: physically, mentally and emotionally. Nobody plans on having a seizure, or passing out, or injuring themselves at the studio through an accident; nor can they consciously stop it from happening. Same goes for an unexpected mental health crisis. Saying that, if tattoo artists choose to spend the extra time and money learning new coping strategies and skills regarding mental health, we shouldn’t be relied on for them – the same way we shouldn’t be treated like a GP/paramedic for our first aid skills! Before the pandemic hit this year, I had planned to study an entry level counselling course (recommended by my therapist upon my request). I wanted to be able to process and handle some of the heavier interactions with clients more lightly. I also had my first ‘guided imagery’ trauma session planned, which I was really looking forward to experiencing. I hope I can still achieve these goals next year.
I’ve read a handful of books recently about trauma, therapy, stoicism and self-improvement this year in the meantime. I have lots more books on my list, and am launching a book club in the new year. Stay tuned!
Expert tips for tattoo sessions & alternatives to therapy sessions:
I’m doing the work, and if you like, you can too: I’ve learnt this stuff from my own personal experience, access to books and the internet. I’ve lived on my own for the best part of 8 years. This has meant I’ve been able to take lot of time to dig deep and get to know me, and educate myself further on things I wanted to know more about. Tattooing full time and being self employed has meant that most further education has been out of my reach; but books, YouTube videos and podcasts have always been an option. I’ll be sharing a more exhaustive list one day, but for now: here’s two books that you can read before embarking on therapy, and later can compliment whatever step you choose next.
I feel like I’m really late to the Brené Brown party, as I only started listening to her podcasts and TED Talks last year. I now recommend her to everyone, and Daring Greatly is the book I wish I could’ve read 10 years ago. I couldn’t put it down, and managed to read through it during a few long baths and one cold November evening. This is an essential read if you want to learn how to protect your energy and your well-being by learning when and how to be vulnerable with the rest of the world.
I’ve learnt a lot about integrity recently. Brené describes integrity as “choosing courage over comfort; choosing what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy; and choosing to practice our values rather than simply professing them.” I’ll be writing more about this in an upcoming blog post about integrity, internalised misogyny and the military: “Invented Integrity”.
The Body Keeps The Score is the book I’d been preparing myself to read for 3 years.
It’s natural to want to progress from therapy sessions to research case study books and counselling courses etc. “Research” eventually becomes “me search”. Such is the way of healing: to want to ‘level-up’, expand your knowledge and share with others once your mind has start to clear and your own cup has been filled. I started reading this book after Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly – she’d given me that last little push that I needed. My darling cat, beautiful flat and my best friend next door have been wonderful anchors during the deep dives of trauma recall. Also, playing through FFXV whilst eating chocolate kept my inner child feeling happy and safe.
I can’t recommend this book enough if you want to finally confront the boss level of your suffering and recover. I now have a greater understanding of myself and others, particularly ex partners that I was so hurt and confused by before. In understanding, there is forgiving. Approach this book with patience, bravery and plenty of self care and respect, and make sure to reward yourself often and read something lighthearted and uplifting afterwards!
Here’s 3 conversation pro tips:
Number 1: pretend your tattoo appointment is a PODCAST.♥
A calm, compassionate, sometimes candid but mostly positive (public) podcast – along with lots of breathing space and intervals of quiet, retrospective focus. Also, less time talking can mean more time tattooing.
Be mindful of the conversation you’re creating.
“When it comes to vulnerability, connectivity means sharing our stories with people who have earned the right to hear them — people with whom we’ve cultivated relationships that can bear the weight of our story. Is there trust? Is there mutual empathy? Is there reciprocal sharing? Can we ask for what we need? These are crucial connection questions.”— Brené Brown, Daring Greatly.
I confess: I worry and think about clients outside of work. I have a really good long term memory, and am haunted by some of the things clients have told me. Vicarious trauma can be extremely powerful. I’ve lost nights of sleep, wondering if that person that confessed about wanting to end their life in their last session (who hasn’t responded to my last 2 emails) is still alive. I worry about clients getting home. I hope and pray that they’ve stopped cutting, stayed sober or left their abusive partner. I have to find a balance between caring and caring too much. Sometimes, the calmness of my tattoo studio, my (hopefully) reassuring presence, the music or the pain of the tattoo session can be enough to make people blurt out things I’m sure they never ever planned to tell me. Adrenaline is a hell of a drug!
I want my studio to feel like a safe space. However:
Maybe think twice before ‘slagging off’ an ex who is a long term client of mine, or fiancé’s ex wife, or ex husband and his partner when I personally know them (it’s exhausting and stressful). Explore why you feel the need to lie about achievements, hobbies and stories, in an attempt to please or impress me (my validation should be irrelevant). Consider holding back on the gory details of your weeping divorce. Please do not tell me that story of how you beat someone up on the weekend in your hometown, or strangled your last manager “because he deserved it”. Maybe think twice before admitting that you’re having an affair, 10 minutes into your first day session. You might want to explore why you would show me unsolicited, treasured wedding photos of you and your ex husband from 10-15 years ago while I’m tattooing, when you know I have his new fiancé booked in next week (what are you trying to convince me of?). Maybe don’t disclose to me (while I’m trying to concentrate) intimate details of your sex life (yikes, very distracting) or that you and your partner are looking for a third person to join your relationship (double yikes, and what the hell happened to asking people out to dinner?!)
These are just a few examples. There have been hundreds more, and far worse. Although these confessions and are overwhelming at times, I am honoured and grateful to have been confided in and trusted with them – to keep the innermost personal details secret and safe. If it’s unlawful or dangerous, the same rules should apply in tattooing as it should for therapy: and ask yourself why you would confess to dealing drugs, beating people up or other various crimes to someone who’s 3 years sober, obsessed with Star Wars and designing cute merchandise.
Oversharing is one of the most common trauma responses.
I get it, some tattoo appointments turn into a bit of a venting and ranting session, and that’s perfectly okay. I discuss some real heavy, intimate shit with some clients. Especially when I’ve been tattooing them for years and they feel more like a friend. I don’t want this blog post (handbook?) to echo hints of toxic positivity, like “good vibes only”. I’ve always been more “all vibes always”, and believe most vibes can still exist freely without altering the tone of the session.
Shit happens, life happens, and it helps to share and get it all out. Being human can get really messy sometimes.♥
Sometimes, I feel like I have to mirror the person ranting to join in and make them more feel comfortable during the appointment (mirroring is a big part of my autism too, one of my biggest autistic traits). But when I catch myself ranting or revealing too much, I know that I need to wind my neck in. I start planning to increase my self care when I get home, and try and get to the bottom of why I keep bringing certain events, people or situations up to others. Maybe I’m full of pent-up energy, or I simply need to book another therapy session to explore it.
“Mishaps are like knives, that either serve us or cut us, as we grasp them by the blade or the handle.”— James Russell Lowell.
Number 2: always remember the 5 minute rule.♥
The 5 minute rule can be really helpful for people on the Autism/ADD/ADHD spectrum, or have social anxiety/panic disorders. If you’re feeling nervous, it can be easy to try and make conversation by pointing out things you notice. If it can fixed in 5 minutes, it can be helpful to mention. Pointing out someone’s hair is out of place, food in their teeth, or that their makeup is smudged is easy to fix. Pointing out the shelves in my studio or my teeth are crooked, or making a comment about my height, weight, tattoos or my choice of socks: not so easily ‘fixed’ in 5 minutes! Telling me that your dad thinks I’m “not a legitimate business owner” because I “don’t have a landline”, is more likely to create a big ball of awkwardness rather than an interesting topic of conversation!
Number 3: Karaoke, anyone? 🎶
Seriously though, if you’ve been tattooed by me in the last few years you’ll probably notice that I sing while I work. Since I got sober, I sing all the time (not even that well, but it feels great!). I have a default playlist of hundreds of songs that I love, and love singing along to. Devin Townsend, Santigold, Taylor Swift… I fucking love musicals too. In the same way that exercise boosts endorphin flow, singing releases those delicious ‘feel-good’ chemicals – resulting in a sense of euphoria, enhanced immune response, and a natural pain relief. Singing also triggers the release of oxytocin, which helps relieve anxiety and stimulates feelings of trust. If we can sing a musical together (even badly!) or harmonise even for one moment whilst we’re working, my god it’s the fucking best feeling ever. I remember ‘tattoo duets’ so fondly – Phantom of the Opera, Greatest Showman, Six or Little Shop of Horrors (in their glorious entirety!). The days that Phoenix, CHVRCHES, Florence & The Machine or Tame Impala have played during the whole appointment are absolute bliss. Tell me the songs that set your soul on fire and make every pain of living disappear in that moment! Fancy reliving Glastonbury 2011? I was there too, let’s go back! Fancy reliving the days when you were a 16 year old mosher/goth/chav? Fuck yeah, let’s do it!
If singing still isn’t your thing: talking, headphones or peacefully listening to the music works for me too.♥
“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.”— Almost Famous.
“Never look down on anybody unless you’re helping them up.”Jesse Jackson.
Merry Crushmas! 🎄
Christmas is in 10 days. This entire year has finally caught up with me. I’m currently fighting through a breakdown, autistic burnout and fibromyalgia flare-up: but I’m still sober and working hard to focus on my self care full-time. I haven’t been well enough to tattoo for 5 weeks now, but hope to return soon.
I’ve survived a cancer scare, breakup, breakdown, severe financial hardship, lifelong medical diagnosis, moving house, death of a friend (and I’m just talking January-mid March 2020 here).
I not only survived lockdown, I fucking thrived in lockdown. I kept up regular weight training/hiking/meditation/yoga. I had so many baths(!) and kept up with my appearance. I launched an art subscription club. I started juice cleansing and was taking 20-30 supplements a day on top of an improved diet. I brushed up on my limited Japanese. I smashed all my laundry and KonMari folding everything! I tried online dating again. I left my old studio, built and opened a brand new studio. I did a fuck tonne of unproductive shit too, my flat was a mess as soon as I went back to work. I did this to stop spiralling, adapt to the new normal and set myself up for the future.
Despite doing all this work, I was criticised for not answering emails in a timely fashion, not producing enough artwork, not producing the ‘right’ artwork or entertaining content, not tattooing enough or being professional enough – after emerging from 4 months in UK lockdown during a global pandemic, after what I went through in the months before?
The frustrating side effect of doing “the work” was that people assume you are bullet-proof. They assume that the stuff you’re carrying so well isn’t excruciatingly heavy.
Most people’s biggest achievements in lockdown were sitting around on furlough, completing Netflix, making banana bread, not drinking themselves to death, not shaving their head or managing not to murder their partner and kids (hey, that’s okay too).♥
I am so grateful for the positivity, support and admiration I receive about my tattoos, art and writing over the years – but please don’t put me on a pedestal. Expectations are planned disappointments: it makes it impossible for me to be human without you becoming disappointed and disheartened. I am absolutely not above anyone, ever, and shouldn’t be.
If you’ve ever put me on a pedestal, please consider me knocked off! It’s inhumane and stops me exercising my natural human birthright to make mistakes or say something that upsets someone somewhere. It saves us both lot of guilt and a lot of resentments.
Holding me to the same high regard and level of customer service or professionalism that you’re used to, during a global pandemic, is absolutely insane.
Let’s use this Winter Solstice and New Year to move forward into a Great Awakening along with The Great Reset: let’s all agree that we’ve experienced collective trauma, suffered together.
Let’s have more honest and open conversations, but keep them kind and compassionate. In tattooing, customer service needs to be seen as customer collaboration – with effort on both sides.
If you want to talk to me in person about something heavy and honest, get help finding a therapist (or maybe an autism or chronic illness diagnosis), talk about recovery or sobriety in more detail, ask about getting into tattooing or just connect with me on a deeper, more personal or vulnerable level – you can book and pay for a consultation with me (via video call or at my private studio). You can also buy some of my art prints and arrange a date/time to collect them from me in person.♥ Make sure to mention what you’d like to discuss beforehand, so I can understand the context and prepare for it.
Respect me, my time and my energy, so that I can provide more of it to you more easily: firstname.lastname@example.org