How My First Tattoo Gave Me Autonomy Over My Body After Abuse

How My First Tattoo Gave Me Autonomy Over My Body After Abuse
Credit: Emily Tyler

“Don’t get an anchor. Everyone gets an anchor.” Apparently my friend had become an authority on tattoos since I’d last seen her. “Well, I’m not saying I want an anchor now,” I replied. “But I thought an anchor would be a good first tattoo for when I finally found a place I wanted to stay.”

People are entitled to do whatever they want with their bodies and if someone wants to get a tattoo simply because it looks cool, all power to them. Personally though, that seemed like a fast way to have a permanent regret once my idea of “cool” changed. I wanted something that would last a lifetime. For me, that meant getting a design that held a deeper meaning. I had an idea of what that might be but I hadn’t yet hit that landmark.

My friend and I had a tropical Costa Rican beach largely to ourselves, tucked away in a cove of Curu Parque Nacional with a few other humans and a hefty raccoon named Bubba. I was finishing up a year of travel and she had come to visit me for a week, our exploration bringing us to this little treasure trove of paradise. Who wouldn’t want to lock in a memory like that? This felt like a special time in my life worthy of something monumental.

My friend had several tattoos by this point and wanted to collect more. While she had no hesitations about getting another one, I was still heavily debating whether I wanted to break the barrier and get my first. Isolated from the internet and other opinions, I hounded her about her own tattoos and whether she had any regrets about them. One of them matched with someone she was no longer friends with. Did she regret that one? No was her answer, and with it came some of the best insight I’ve ever heard about a tattoo. Her lack of regret came from the moments she captured in ink. She used them like I used photobooths in high school: to capture a happy, halcyon moment when life felt good. Regardless of how life turned after that, each tattoo was connected to a memory of something good and a connection shared with another person. The moment or connection might not last forever, but the tattoo was proof that it had existed.

This was one of those times we wanted to remember but an anchor wasn’t the way to do it. I still didn’t feel rooted anywhere and my friend was adamantly opposed to it. We continued to deliberate tattoo ideas while we splashed around in the gentle surf of the cove. The next day, we continued on to Monte Zuma, a small coastal town known for baby turtles and its relaxed drug culture (it was known locally as Monte Fuma). When the bus was over an hour late, we opted to hitchhike. When we eventually rolled into the small beach town, we started asking around about a tattooist. We got a couple of laughs and mostly entertained the locals with our high expectations of their little beach town. Very few stores accepted credit cards and the single ATM was always out of cash by Sunday. If we wanted anything besides surf and weed, we were out of luck.  

My friend was persistent in her search and, eventually, our hostel host Davíd said he knew a guy. This guy was an Italian expat fisherman who didn’t speak English and lived up in the mountains with a makeshift tattoo table next to his kitchen. My friend deemed he was ok because he had tattooed his wife, though I’m not entirely sure I follow that logic. Would I recommend this to someone getting their first tattoo? No. Am I glad this is my story? Absolutely, but mostly because I didn’t end up with any diseases.

Davíd arranged for this guy to pick us up later that night around 8pm and came with us to help translate. Over dinner, my friend and I continued the tattoo discussion. She was mostly settled on vaya hidden along her bikini bottom area, a command for herself to just go. I was still debating if I would even get one but somewhere between the wine and the pasta, I had an idea.

Squirtle. I presented the idea to my friend. “How many people do you know that have a Squirtle tattoo?” She wanted originality and I gave it to her. But a Squirtle also held a personal meaning.

Credit: Emily Tyler

I was twenty years old, coming to the end of a year abroad. I had spent spring semester in Denmark, the summer backpacking Europe and on a whim had decided to spend another semester abroad in Costa Rica, where I was now due to meet a guy who tattooed people through word of mouth. I had grown a lot over the course of the year and in doing so had started to recognize my independence more. Part of this was standard adolescent distance, recognizing that I was an individual separate from my family with my own values. More of it was deciding that I didn’t need to carry the baggage of my past around with me. I had carried a heavy backpack with me for much of the summer but that wasn’t as heavy as the childhood issues that I still carried with me.

I was abused as a child. I’d been beaten, made to feel inferior and invalidated and grew up with the primary emotions of shame and anger. Anger at my situation, of not being protected at a time in life when that is so vital, and shame at feeling like it was somehow my fault and a reflection of my own worth (or lack thereof). This was done to me at an age when I had little control to affect otherwise. Emotional baggage isn’t something you can set down on the side of the road as you rest with your thumb out. You can’t rest it against a wall as you take a drink of water. It’s there, attached to you, and I wanted the chance to create a new type of attachment.

My whole childhood was not terrible— no life ever is. There were moments of connection, of joy, of teachers who encouraged a love of learning and friends to run around with. There were Saturday morning cartoons with my brother and watching the adventures of Ash, Misty, and Brock taking on the world and crushing it. Collecting Pokémon cards and playing video games made me feel like I could live those kinds of adventures too. I even had this silly idea as a kid that I would save all my Pokémon cards and sell them later to pay for college. Sometime between elementary school and graduation the cards got lost and I blamed my mom for the general chaos that allowed it.

My family does not approve of tattoos. Getting one for me was a decision to care about my own wants and needs above theirs— less of a “fuck you” and more of a “this is my body, and I choose what happens to it”. Having a Pokémon tattooed permanently on me allowed me to reclaim something that felt unfairly lost.

Squirtle specifically is a water type Pokémon, and I have always had a strong connection to water. It represents fluidity, power, and the rolling waves of the cove that had inspired my friend and I to get tattoos in the first place. It was a reminder of a good moment, a thank you to happy memories and the little things that got me through. Perhaps the opposite of an anchor, my tattoo allowed me to let go of the past and move on, letting go of the luggage that didn’t serve me and to choose a lighter souvenir to carry forward to the next phase of life.

Related: 6 Women Share Their First Tattoo Experiences

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