A Scar of My Own: How Tattoos Can Empower in the Face of Chronic Illness

A Scar of My Own: How Tattoos Can Empower in the Face of Chronic Illness
Credit: David Clifton

It was the summer of 2016, and I was a week into a month-long gig shooting Facebook Live interviews. Come fall, I was having major abdominal surgery, the recovery time of which was as yet undefinable.

That morning, I read my call sheet and saw Mehai Bakaty, Fineline Tattoo. A memory rushed through my head of the time when, eight years before, I sat with my friend Sara for two hours at Fineline and fed her gingersnap cookies while Mehai tattooed her first major piece; a half sleeve comprised of octopus tentacles transforming into a silk parachute above and around her shoulder.

Mehai walked into the studio, and, almost shyly, I introduced myself and asked if he remembered me. He smiled widely and assured me that of course he did, before asking how I was doing. When the shoot was over, I mentioned I wanted to get my first tattoo. Mehai said of course, and to come by the shop on Saturday. I texted Sara on the way home and we made a plan to meet there. It was on.

Platitudes are bullshit, until they’re not. There is no reason why I got Crohn’s disease at age nine, no reason why any child (or person of any age) should get saddled with the trauma, physical and emotional, that a battle with a chronic illness leaves. Growing up I never wanted a tattoo. My parents were against them and I always thought bodies should stay unaltered. But as the years passed and my illness flared up and down, it began leaving its own marks. Some, like the bruises from blood tests, eventually faded. Others, like scars from multiple surgeries and procedures, will stay forever.

At some point that year, it dawned on me that the biggest argument against a tattoo, the classic “don’t you know it’s permanent?” line, was an empty threat. With another surgery date looming, I made the decision that for once, whether it was under the knife or needle, the mark would be made under my control. Given how monumental this decision felt to me, how private I was with my body, just walking into any tattoo shop with a 5-star Yelp rating wouldn’t cut it. It would have been difficult for me to articulate clearly then, but my first tattoo was eight years in the making. I ran into Mehai that day for a reason.

If the gatekeepers of tattoo culture were in the business of giving out landmark plaques, Fineline Tattoo would be one of the first in line. Founded in 1976,  Fineline Tattoo existed underground for almost 20 years, until New York City’s ban on tattooing was lifted in 1997. Mehai’s father Mike Bakaty operated the shop first on the Bowery, then opened on 1st avenue and 2nd street in the East Village, where Mehai operates it to this day.

Walking in with my friend felt like a reunion of sorts. As native New Yorkers, it becomes rarer and rarer with each passing year to find more than two of us in one place, and here were the three of us catching up in the city’s oldest tattoo parlor.

I’d prepared my design, two words by Greek philosopher Epicurus, tattooed on each side of my ribcage. Mehai made a few adjustments, made sure I was comfortable, and got to work. Sara held my hand like I did hers eight years before, and in 20 minutes it was done.

Within the confines of chronic illness, you learn very quickly to accept a level of powerlessness. Pain happens to you and it has no reason. You agree to let strangers cut you up while you sleep and then you wake up and survey the damage. My tattoo subverted that. Not only was I awake for the pain, I had chosen it. I gave my trust to an artist who I liked and respected and who made sure I was good every step of the way, and I was holding my friend’s hand. Nothing I had ever worn or done to my body came close to the sense of power and ownership I felt when it was over.

Sometimes I see Mehai on my way home. If it’s a nice day we chat outside the shop, or he’ll make us some herb tea and we’ll shoot the shit for a few minutes inside, sharing stories and East Village gossip. I’ve since gotten another tattoo by Mehai – a floral piece, bigger, but on my hip where few people see. It’s important to me that, for now, my tattoos remain private. For my eyes only unless otherwise instructed.

I no longer think getting tattooed is such a big deal. I’ve gotten used to my tattoos the same way I’ve gotten used to my scars. I like that my body can be defined by their beauty as well as their pain. I like that they are completely mine.

Related: How Tattoos Can Help With Healing After a Mastectomy

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