Tattoos often mean more than what you can see on the surface, especially after an SCI. SCI BC’s Digital Communications Coordinator and Peer Gabe Chesman shares what his ink means to him and things to consider when getting a tattoo after an SCI.
Tattoos can be a simple form of self-expression or a way of celebrating a major life change. I’ve seen births, deaths, spirituality, love and sadness celebrated in tattoos. I’m not the kind of person who just gets a tattoo for no reason. Each one was carefully thought out and has a very personal, profound meaning to me. Having these tattoos to celebrate special moments in my life has been a way to combine the past and present.
I have two tattoos. The first one I got was before my injury and the second was after. My first tattoo is of a phoenix and I got it to commemorate the birth of my niece, which was only 4 months before having a spinal stroke. I was fascinated with the idea of this mythical creature that would burst into flames only to be reborn from its own ashes. Even though I got it pre-SCI, a phoenix ended up being my power animal. It was like I had been reborn from the ashes of my former self. My second tattoo is in memory of my grandmother. She collected owl figurines my entire life. Any time we travelled we would get her an owl that represented the local culture. She passed only days before I left my home in New Jersey for Vancouver and so, to carry her with me wherever I went, I added an owl tattoo to my ink collection.
While I’m not the most inked person, my tattoos help shape the way others see me. They help take the focus off of my wheelchair or peculiarly shaped body. Instead of awkward conversations about how I ended up in a wheelchair I’m approached by tattoo admirers who are interested in talking shop. Swapping stories of insane tattoo artists or how a design came to me is much better than the alternative. It’s also a way to show people I’m ok with the way my body looks. I’ve got skinny quad arms that used to make me self-conscious in public. Adding ink to my misshapen limbs helped me feel more confident about wearing short sleeves. I’ve seen tons of people get tattoos to cover scars. It’s one way to turn something that may be perceived as a negative thing into a positive. All that being said, my tattoos have no connection to my injury. Most people think I chose a phoenix tattoo as a profound statement about overcoming SCI. The truth is I never felt the need to get something like a Christopher Reeve-inspired Superman tattoo (which was extremely popular among my rehab cohorts) after my injury. In fact, choosing an unrelated design is another way I felt I could “normalize” myself. Plenty of people get tattoos just for the sake of it so, while mine mean a lot, you don’t have to overthink it. Go ahead and get that unicorn tattoo if it makes you happy.
I do get a lot of questions about my tattoos some of which are related to the paralysis. Can you get a tattoo after a spinal cord injury? Does it hurt? What were you thinking? I’ll be honest, I didn’t consider any of the potential medical issues around getting a tattoo before I just went and did it. I figured I’m already paralyzed so what’s the worst thing that could happen? The only time it even came up was when I met the tattoo artist. “Are you sure this is safe?” he asked me. I found it slightly ironic that a man covered in tattoos was uneasy about throwing caution to the wind but I understood his concern. I told him that, while I didn’t have much feeling in the area I was getting the tattoo, I knew my body and explained what he could expect in terms of pain, autonomic dysreflexia and spasms. He took me at my word and was very accommodating throughout the process – taking extra breaks, asking how I was feeling and making me laugh with some self-deprecating jokes. All-in-all it was a great experience that I will always remember thanks to the owl that now lives on my arm.
For those with a spinal cord injury who are interested in getting a tattoo but haven’t found their inspiration yet, there are a few things to take into consideration. First, if the tattoo is below your injury level there is a chance of autonomic dysreflexia to occur. Tell the tattoo artist about AD, what to do when it happens and if you feel it coming on. Don’t be a hero. I’ve dealt with AD a number of times since my injury so I can tell when my blood pressure is up. Luckily, I didn’t have any issues during the inking process but if I had, I would’ve stopped before things got out of hand. As bad as it would be to end up with half a tattoo, it’s not worth pushing myself.
Infection is a problem for anyone getting a tattoo, regardless of their mobility level. For those of us with spinal cord injuries, getting a tattoo below our injury level may take longer to heal. Everyone’s body is different – some heal faster than others. Keeping the area clean and following the directions from the tattoo artist will help ensure that you avoid infection and keep your new art piece looking as good as possible. If it’s in a spot that you can’t see make sure somebody else is checking and cleaning it daily.
Finally, spasms could be an issue. I have quite a lot of leg spasms that are a pain in the butt, especially while being tattooed. All you can do is stop until they subside. The lines on my tattoo are clean and straight because I took the time to get through any spasm attacks.
Some shops might ask you to get a doctor’s note or sign an extra release form to waive their responsibility for any medical issues. Avoid any shops with a sketchy vibe – not only could your tattoo come out looking terrible but you could end up with a serious wound. If possible, find a tattoo artist with experience in tattooing people with SCI. Now, let there be ink!
Are you inked? Do your tattoos mean anything in particular?