Indelible love

22 July 2010
 Louise's skin, five days after tattooing. Wellcome Images

Louise's skin, five days after tattooing. Wellcome Images

Tonight at our Tattoos: Marks of meaning event, the winning design from our tattoo competition will be committed to our volunteer’s skin. As we saw in a previous post, modern tattooing is blooming. But how does it feel to go under the needle, and how do you choose a design? The Wellcome Trust’s Louise Crane explains how her back comes to be adorned with the image chosen to illustrate the event on our website …

One November day back in 2007 a small, fine needle injected black pigment under the skin of my back. Did it hurt? Well, about as much as getting tight French plaits woven into my hair for a ballet exam. But not as much as dancing en pointe for it. The nearer the needle got to my spine, the more the vibrations caused an uncomfortable sensation of drilling. It took a lot less time than I thought and, once the tattoo had been finished, I was on a high. The gnawing pain was forgotten as endorphins rushed around my body.

My tattoo is of a stylized swan, my favourite animal. ‘Swanny Wonny’ was an early Christmas present from my aunt – something about her cuddly yet graceful form captured me, and from then on I was swan mad. I collected ornaments, visited the swans at the local park and all my school art and woodwork creations represented the graceful bird. You could call it an obsession.

Two months before getting my tattoo, I had started working at Wellcome Images, so I offered my newly-inked back as a subject for photography. A series of photos of my healing tattoo were taken over 14 days. As the skin damaged by the needle heals, it crusts over and then flakes off to reveal new, shiny skin cells, forever coloured in.

A tattoo is a permanent mark on your skin, so the design has to be an indelible love. My obsession about swans is exactly that. I googled ‘swan tattoo’, seeking inspiration from other people’s designs. I found this Tolkien-inspired creation by PaleHecate at DeviantArt. The beautiful drawing seemed to be exactly what I wanted etched onto my skin forever.

I saved the design to my computer, deliberated, and didn’t get it tattooed until three years later, after my brother died. He had three huge tattoos and was too scared to tell our mum about them – my tattoo, I decided, would be in memory of him. A friend redrew the design I had found, adding the letters of my brother’s name hidden in the wings. I couldn’t wait to get it inked.

I thought a lot about where on my body to get it done, and who would tattoo me. Researching a tattoo parlour is vital – I lived in Camden at the time and there are plenty of places there to get tattooed. Not many are good, though. Kanae, an artist atEvil From the Needle, redrew the modified design to fit between my shoulder blade and my spine. Not quite bespoke, but it seemed made for me now. I remember seeing the final drawing for the first time and instantly wanting the image to be part of me.

Straight after I had been tattooed, I initially regretted the positioning. No matter how hard I twisted my neck I never felt I could properly see my new tattoo, and I couldn’t show it off in backless tops in November. But I came to realise how fitting it was to have a tattoo dedicated to my late brother, someone I could never see anymore, in a place I myself couldn’t see. My tattoo means more to me than what the pattern of ink markings show, it’s the reminder of someone I’ll never forget, my loves and my losses.

Louise Crane is a Picture Researcher at the Wellcome Trust.