A Life Story in Tattoos, and How They Liberated Me


As a child, people with tattoos were badasses and rebels—I imagined they sat in somebody’s basement, fearless, silent and maybe smoking a cigarette while someone bled them slowly in the name of body art. I wanted to feel that strength. I was petite and black and a girl and tired of being teased and abused. I wanted to flex.

When I was 13 I sat my parents down to tell them about an important decision. “I’m getting a tattoo as soon as it’s possible.” They, like parents, expressed mirth (my father, with the “aiiiiight” chuckle) and disappointment (my mother, with some sort of wild admonishment). By then I had absolved myself of the worry of disappointing my parents but not yet the tween pleasure in shocking them. I watched them squirm and went to my room to begin sketches. I was too young to understand the levels of my decision but I knew that one day I wanted to be covered in images like a pair of NBA jeans.

I diligently kept the promise I made my parents. 15 years later, I have ten tattoos and counting. My first was on my 18th birthday, as a present to myself: the masks of tragedy and comedy on my shoulder blades. (“Laugh now, cry later” is the number one hood tat, after prayer hands and your baby’s footprints.) That decision was more than just teen angst—tattooing had just become legal in New York again in 1997. I remember listening to the City Council members talk about how futile it was to ban tattoo shops—a mandate that had been in place since 1961— since they still operated all over the city. They argued that it was better they regulate them. I was ten and it was the first time I’d witness the government use common sense.

Tattoos, to me, were really creative way to make yourself unique and let motherfuckers know what you’re about. The most customized of accessories. Eventually, I got memoriam tats for my grandmother on both my ribs, lying on a bench in someone’s living room while I smoked a Newport 100, laid in enviable glory like North West’s baby hair.

Even still, I carefully considered all the ups and downs of being inked. What kind of job would accept a black girl with a full sleeve? Would I be doomed to wearing long sleeves every day like my best friend’s sister who was an RN? The idea of being restricted in my clothing was blasphemous so I began to eliminate all careers that were boring.

Would boys find it unattractive? Well, I would never date anyone that wack.

But I was setting myself apart and grabbing onto the right to be whatever I wanted. Tattoos were frowned upon in American society, merely, but to God-fearing Haitian people they were a downright insult. It was something crazy American kids did. Even my young church friends debated the rebels and the herbs—the herbs all wanted piercings because they were “reversible.” Simultaneously, my faith in the Roman Catholic church had started to wane dramatically—it was my social life, but I found myself side-eyeing during the sermon every Sunday. I perceived an attack on my womanhood and body before I even knew what that meant. The idea of casting myself permanently out of patriarchal heaven with the permanence of ink was the perfect middle finger to the church and all repressive culture. My third tattoo was of a cross on my spine.

As time goes on, the world fusses less and less about tattoos, and a few years ago I even took my boss, a high-level executive and father of two, who finally decided to pull the trigger. I watched him discuss his first tattoo with other clients and heard their confessions of falling prey to the “tramp stamp” or tribal band. But all of us were curious—we all wanted to challenge ourselves against the needle and survive, to play rebel for a bit. Some of us keep going back.

Sometimes I would chide myself for my tattoos not being big enough or colorful enough. But there are few colors that stand bright against my red-brown skin and I was still hesitant on large pieces. I would treat myself to a tattoo before every birthday, reminding myself I was alive and surviving far longer than expected. It became important to commemorate the brave sense of self I’ve been championing as long as I’ve been able.

By my early twenties I had switched from images to phrases, becoming more and more enthusiastic about what my artist Mehai of Fineline Tattoo, calls “antisocial-ass lines.” (This might have been caused by my brother flaking on our matching ink idea: a wide Joker smile that he loves on me but never got himself.) With each tattoo I would joke that I had sworn I would “never get one there” only to head directly for my wrist (impulse in the middle of my ‘06 econ final), my ribs, or that part of my forearm that makes me wince when I get a shot (seriously, Yaël, I will never forgive you for flaking!).

With each one, I would reassess. Sure, it was now acceptable to be a white accountant with two full sleeves. But I am a black woman: anything I give them to use against me they will. I went back and forth, kept getting them in places that could still work on my wedding day, even though I haven’t believed in marriage since operating a tattoo shop was still illegal. I postponed my giant Faberge egg half-sleeve until my 30th birthday “just to be sure.” Inside I knew I was echoing the voices of many herbs whose trepidation I hadn’t yet shed. And anyway, people feel too comfortable commenting on your tattoos and overall decisions casually in conversation. (I’ve heard every doggy-style and freak joke known to man because I have a crawling ”crack” baby under my collarbone—somehow people still don’t know who Keith Haring was.)

Last year I woke up with an itch and finally got one I’d decided on a couple years before. It was taken from the Golfwang photo book: “They are Them. We are Us. Fuck Them All.” The phrase inspired me but really, I wanted to get the word FUCK tattooed on my body. Though it was in a spot that would be missed I would know it was there and that was enough—it would be mine, my therapy and my choice. Every anxiety attack I ever had and still have when the needle starts buzzing is for me. It isn’t sadistic or sexual; it’s the most zen meditation I could get. It’s a little win every time that I still haven’t cried or ever made them stop for rest. That I thought about something and then made it happen permanently. It is my favorite gift to myself, something I do for my own amusement and my own distinction.

People are liberal with the idea of tattoos, now, but still conservative with the content. They question the decision that made you get it, opine about your choice, judge whether your story sounds “worth it.” It’s a chance to flex moral authority and give their unwanted misogynist thoughts about the depreciated value of women with tattoos—or the Serena-level backhand of fearing profanity, delineating acceptable boundary for protest. (And it comes equally from both sides, though it’s always sad to hear women repeat oppressive things.) People who like to question your tattoos impose every “value” they have on you, as if the thing’s not already etched into your dermis and for all intents and purposes irreversible. People will remind you that you are black and you’re just giving them more to use against you. That you’re a woman and have to be a “grandmother someday”.

I wanted the word FUCK so they wouldn’t be surprised when I said something like “What the fuck makes you think I care?” I wanted it to be a personal “Stop it five!” sign. “Fuck Them All,” because my chances of dying in the streets didn’t change based on this decision. Literally nobody else was affected except for me. However, within this ignorant judgment was some freedom. I knew the very image of the word would probably make them think: “That woman is probably not trying to have this conversation, she might rip my head off.” It was only and deliberately anti-social to those who felt that the tattoos were for them—their first mistake. I wasn’t “pissed off,” really. I just wanted my rights, my individuality. My story is my own responsibility.

I can be convinced to get almost any tattoo at any time, because the story is the point. The day after To Pimp A Butterfly dropped, I got “Every nigga is a star” inked across my forearm. My white artist knew better than to fight me. Another artist in the shop, who was black, expressed a bit of anger. “Don’t do that,” he admonished. “They already hang that title over our heads.”

Exactly, I said, And they don’t own me. Nor do my parents, the church, the herbs, nor the corporate world. Nobody does. Even on the day I get “Certified” tattooed along my edges, they never will. I knew what annoying conversations these tattoos would bring, the outrage I would have to yawn through a people once again discuss my body with entitlement.

But that’s not the point. Every time someone black looks at this tattoo and tells me it is absolutely beautiful: that’s the point. When I die, I will not be erased. The story of my life will be etched on my skin and they’ll remember that I lived as a real person and those who sought to quiet me, to quiet us: Fuck Them All.

Judnick Mayard is from Brooklyn, lives in Brooklyn and talks too much on twitter @judnikki.

Images via Judnick Mayard.

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