Beyond Tattoos

Here’s an article from the i back in February, an interview with tattoo artist Grace Neutral who is covered in tattoos, and has moved on to the next body alterations. There is a lot of interesting stuff here, but also much that I find worrying. For a start, tattoos are permanent. Yes, you can get them removed, but they leave scars, so getting one is not an act to be taken lightly. When I look back on some of the bonkers thinks I’ve done in my  life, I am truly glad I did not chose to commemorate them with body art. I guess many share this sense of relief. 

The article begins by noting how tattoos were once the choice of rebels and radicals,but are now being seen on vicars, so time to search for something new.

Grace Neutral has had ink injected into her eyes to turn the whites purple. The expanse of her stomach is now completely flat after her bellybutton was removed. Patterns etched across her forehead and cheeks are the result of a progress called scarification. Her tongue has been split and now forks into 2.

Neutral has travelled around the world for her documentary series Needles and Pins to examine the commodification of tattoos in Las Vegas, how tattooing has been forced underground in South Korea, and how the practice is deeply embedded in Maori and Japanese culture.

The east London-based tattoo artist began her journey by delving into the relationship between tattooing, subcultures and gender in the UK. Is she treated differently here? “F*** yeah, I live in London. Here it’s a lot more accepting. But I have definitely experienced the whole, ‘you’re such a pretty girl, why would you do that to yourself?’ The fact that I’m a woman makes the even more irate. Especially your old conservative white dude – it really gets to them.”

Women who have tattoos are often sexualised, says Neutral. In her father’s youth, the general attitude was that “the only people who have tattoos are prostitutes and sailors.”, and for some people that perception continues. Neutral says some men believe she “must be ‘up for it’ all the time with anyone” because of her body rt.

On the other hand, tattoos are now regarded by millions of people as normal. In 2011 the editor of tattoo magazine Skin Deep described them as increasingly bourgeoisie form of body art. The title was still “mostly bought by people who drive forklift trucks, but the most interesting letters we get are from surgeons who say, ‘I’ve been living for 5 years with this huge tattoo on my back and no one knows, I’d like to show it to you.’ I was at a wedding last month at which the vicar had a tattoo. As for the full-arm tattoos, we get pictures coming in on headed paper from Barclays and HSBC [banks]” The shift in perception of tattoo from radical act to widely accepted is perhaps best summarised by London-based tattooist Duncan X who began transforming his body into a canvas more than 20 years ago as an act of youthful rebellion. There is barely an inch of his skin uncovered, but that isn’t enough any more in a world where tattoo are so ubiquitous. “How do you rebel now? he wonders aloud …

For some transgression takes a more extreme and painful turn: body modification. Neutral’s relationship with a travelling body modification artist facilitated many of the changes she made to her body. “I don’t think I would have got half of them done if I wasn’t in that situation… It’s wanting something, but it’s also giving hat trust to someone.”

Trust is an understatement – Neutral risked going blind by having her eyes tattoed, but says this only reinforced the intensity of the experience for her. “I gave my sight to someone to play with. I got all of my modifications done by people I trusted. I felt like I was in a safe situation. A lot of it was gut instinct – I just felt like it was the right thing to do and it was.”

Having her belly-button removed was also dangerous, she admits. Neutral was a guinea pig for the person tasked with removing it. “I knew him,I trusted him, but yeah, he hadn’t done one before. I knew he was capable of doing it.”

There was a moment when even she paused for thought, when his assistant produced a cauter to ensure that if anything went wrong she “wouldn’t bleed to death”. She recalls: “I wan’t really scared until he sat down and I saw that. “ Yet she still went ahead. “It was fine,” she says blithely. “It was really quick – it took half an hour and there was minimal bleeding.”

The origin of Neutral’s interest in tattoos can be traced back to her mother, a well-travelled artist who kept books on body modification and tattooing within tribal cultures in their home. But why elect to have procedures that come with this level of danger? Unlike tattooing, body modification is completely unregulated. Is there a meaning behind each procedure?

“It’s not really a meaning. It was just things I’ve wanted to do to my body, because I’ve been experimenting with my body already in lots of different ways. Things on the outside make me feel good on the inside. I didn’t have this aesthetic; each piece was like a piece of a puzzle that made me feel more complete, I guess. What I got from the experience was even better than tattooing.”

Neutral uses tattoos as a way of reflecting her soul on her outer body. Modification is a ritual, I suggest – part of a transcendental journey and the experience to her is almost spiritual. She nods. “You are reborn every time into a better version of yourself and who you want to be.”

As long as people are not doing it for “self-destructive reasons” she believes body modifications can be pushed to its furthest boundaries. “People should be able to do whatever they want with their own body. If you are in the right state of mind, you should be able to take your legs off if you honestly believe that your legs don’t serve a purpose and you would be a happier human being.”

Neutral often describes herself as an alien, but her decision to turn herself into art is also about conquering alienation. “I like to think that I put good energy out there and you get what you give. I like o think the universe is telling me there is hope – there are people who think he same as me and I’m not just this alien in the world living alone.”

I find this final part very disturbing and sad. The idea of removing your own legs is beyond me. Anyone who could even consider this needs help. Without legs you cannot look after yourself, and nobody has the right to expect others to care for them in this way. Our health systems are struggling enough with people who are ill or disabled through no fault of their own.

Changing the colour of her eyes is also dangerous – if she was unconscious, this might suggest her blood supply was failing and could result in totally wrong diagnosis and treatment.

Removing your belly button could be seen as a craving to go back to Adam and Eve, a time of paradise, or it could be a rejection of your parents, your community. This is at best arrogance, so the opposite of traditional reasons for tattoos. But perhaps an indication of how out of touch with reality some people have become. It seems this body art has gone beyond self decoration, and in Grace’s case seems more a cry for help.

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