I started documenting tattoos unconsciously. I’d see people with interesting outlines on their skin and I’d initiate a conversation with them. The chats would invariably involve a story behind the tattoo. It soon became apparent that people get them for a number of reasons, and that there’s not always a long-winded story behind them.
During the time that I’ve been making these photographs, I became aware of how black and brown women with tattoos were perceived in public – as being loose, lacking morals, and up to no good. These images stem from the past three years’ worth of work, and feature women exclusively.
The efforts to document are an on-going process which keeps revealing layer upon layer of new information. What’s clear with all the women who shared their stories, is that they love the needle, to the point where an itch develops when one hasn’t got inked in a while.
I’ve always been in love with tattoos since high school. I’d tell my friends that I wanted tattoos. I think in their heads they thought oh, small little tattoos. But I visualized myself being covered in ink, you know?!
The tatt on my thigh is an eye, a Roman timepiece, a compass, and a flower. We put all of these pieces together with my tattoo artist without even knowing what they meant. But as I got to think about it, it came to mean in time, you will see the beauty of the journey that you take. I feel like that’s how life actually works.
I started reading a lot of poetry. The more I got into [it], the more I realized that there are particular lines that get me through a lot, and I never ever want to lose them. 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.
There’s an essay titled Poetry Is Not A Luxury by Audre Lorde. She speaks about how creative expression, but mainly poetry, is an essential part of black women’s lives. We just endure and experience so much; there’s so much trauma, but there’s also joy. There’s so much community amongst black people in general. Our feminine expression as black women is channeled beautifully through poetry. And [Audre Lorde] speaks of it as not being a luxury. We can’t take poetry for granted.
All my tattoos are quite spontaneous. I never make appointments; I just walk in and 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.
I’ve always been very idealistic about love, and I used to write mostly about [it]. As I grew older, I experienced a lot more things besides this idealistic stuff that I’d only read about in books. Life kind of broke that romanticized outlook, which is a good thing and a bad thing. It’s better to be grounded in reality than having this idea of what things should be like. So that’s why the heart’s broken.
When I got my first tattoo, a lot of people thought I’d regret it. I guess also because it was a shooting star, which was somewhat of 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.
My son saw one of my tattoos and went that’s new, I haven’t seen that before. He also knows my tattoos, which is pretty cool. I brought him here because I don’t like hiding things from my child. I also want to be the first to introduce him to things.
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.
Two years ago, when I got the tree, my dad sat me down, and said, ‘Listen, there are certain assumptions that people make about a woman with tattoos, and I know that that isn’t you, but you need to understand that this is the way the world is.’ I find that that’s a huge issue, because instead of saying, ‘Hey, go out and change the world by being yourself,’ he’s saying, ‘Change who you are because the world isn’t going to.’ I think that’s a terrible message to send. As a young, black woman trying to navigate through this space that was never, ever made for me, hearing something like that was very disheartening.
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. 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.
When I’m walking on the street, men will usually make derogatory comments like I wouldn’t date a girl with tattoos. They see it as both repulsive, and also extremely sexual, because I decided to adorn parts of the body that a lot of women don’t. Immediately, it has a promiscuous angle to it, and specifically coloured women are seen as being very promiscuous, very loud, very aggressive women, when you think of stereotypes. A lot of women are like that because of the experiences that they have to endure, and the kind of people they are [surrounded by].
WATCH Tseliso Monaheng’s full film TATT’D here…