Friday Fashion : Tatoos, the ink of life by Shelly
I got my first tattoo immediately after I completed the law conversion. I designed it myself with painstaking precision.
I took my design to the local tattooist without seeing his work or knowing his style. He offered no guidance on sizing or placement, which, in hindsight are both poor. It’s not a great tattoo. What it is, however, is a reminder of those last heady days in York, a city I called home for 4 years. It’s a memento I share with one of my favourite people on this planet, the person who instigated what would become the first of many trips to a tattoo parlour. It’s a dramatic, if foolhardy, gesture of friendship. It’s a commitment two unlikely law students, who met across a room of suits, made to each other whilst still revelling in the fog of weeks of sleep deprivation.
In the end, this is what my tattoos mean to me. They preserve moments in time, feelings I want to hold on to, people I need to remember. The early ones, a footnote on my actual foot citing the passage on reason and passion in Khalil Gibran’s ‘The Prophet’ (the edition my father gave me) and the now blurry ‘Ἀχιλλεύς’ on my Achilles tendon, are testament to my earnest yet whimsical youth. Some have clear and literal meaning while others are simply freestyled pieces from artists I admire.
The rose nestled under my right arm was drawn from a photo of the one that bloomed in grandingmarrr’s garden after she died. A friend’s final words to me are emblazoned in abstract calligraphy across my feet. The brush stroke on my left shin forms a heart when I stand side by side with my husband’s best man- our best man, marks that keep us united even when we’re apart.
People often tell me they could never get a tattoo because they’re too particular; they wouldn’t be able to decide what to get and they might not like it forever. For my part, transitioning from a procurer of tattoos to a collector of art took the pressure off the control freak in me. I research artists, choose them for their talent not their ability to copy someone else’s design and then try not to disrupt their creative flow. ‘Perfection’ is impossible to achieve with a living medium. Instead, I appreciate how the work settles in my skin and changes with my body. I relinquish body parts I’m not satisfied with and get back flesh that seems to fit better than what I was born with… and so, my tattoos have also become an armour of sorts.
Imposter syndrome (for want of a better term, and a discussion for another time) is an almost constant companion for many of us at the Bar. In addition, there have been occasions I’ve been ‘othered’ as a woman of mixed ethnicity. My tattoos (and my facial piercings) now mark me as different for reasons I choose and control. I set the terms of your first impression of me when I decide to roll up my sleeves.
But while tattoos are now utterly mainstream, body modification at the Bar is still somewhat taboo. I do think individuality at the Bar is important and I do think we need to push against outdated, unjustifiable restrictions on appearance. That being said, we are a ponderous profession when it comes to modernisation and I don’t mean to be disrespectful of other people’s thresholds of acceptability.
Anyone who has engaged with me on this topic will know I’m quick to remind people I have the benefit of 15 years under my wig. I’m not applying for pupillage. I’m not trying to establish a practice.
It’s probably also fair to accept I benefit from a more relaxed approach to court dress in the family courts, although family work brings with it a broad client base from which emanate varying expectations of what one’s lawyer should look like.
In the areas in which I specialise, public and private children, I represent both professional and lay clients. I take off my jacket and expose my arms in client-facing situations but I don’t recall a negative reaction to my tattoos at work (not to my face anyway!).
Sometimes, my clients find them a helpful icebreaker or welcome talking point during the many hours of anxious waiting at court.
My overriding inhibition to fearless self-expression is what impact it will have on my client if the tribunal is distracted. I don’t sport any ‘job-stoppers’ (no face, no neck, no hands). Although, I do know a prominent barrister with a tattoo behind their ear!
Also, for reasons I explored during a recent conversation about court attire with It’s a Lawyer’s Life, I’ve never revealed my tattooed legs in court. The offence against modesty that is bare legs in court might be rooted in misogyny and ripe for redundancy but the unease of a woman who worries about bringing her tight-free legs to court is only compounded by the fetishisation of (or revulsion towards) women with tattoos.These issues play their part in me adopting a less exhibitionistapproach to the tattoos on my legs. I have spied a discreetly tattooed leg belonging to another female barrister in court, though.
I don’t expect everyone to understand or approve of my tattoos. Responses to body modifications are naturally subjective and negative preconceptions persist. Although, improvement in inks, proliferation of fine body jewellery, a greater commitment to safety and hygiene and promotion on social media of artists worldwide who spend years honing their craft all make quality tattoos and piercings more accessible and have done much to remove the stigma. Nonetheless, like many women with tattoos, I’ve had men helpfully inform me tattooed women are unattractive and/or unfeminine or, and I suspect I’m expected to be grateful for this one, that they normally hate tattoos on women but mine are alright.
More often than not, though, reactions to my tattoos are positive or motivated by curiosity. People want to know if they’re real (yes, they really are) and if they hurt (yes, having a stabbing needle dragged across your skin hurts but it’s perfectly manageable pain… although I did have to stop reading my book as a machine obliterated the tops of my feet and a 6-hour sitting certainly requires some sugar).
Children’s reactions are invariably adorable. When the oldest of my Godchildren was tiny, she would scrub at my tattoos with saliva covered fingers, a chore the others later adopted with relish. Now they’re older, it seems the designs present opportunities for colouring in. With indelible ink, fittingly.
My tattoos are (both physically and emotionally) a part of who I am now and, no, I don’t worry about what I’ll look like when I’m old(er). They will fade and they will change as inevitably as my skin will wrinkle and sag, but like the laughter lines I hope I’ll eventually wear one day, they’ll bear witness to the stories of my life.