Warning: this post discusses mental health, with some fairly graphic imagery included, so if you’re upset or triggered by talk of depression and talk/pictures of self-harm scars then please proceed with caution.
When I was a teenager, I used to suffer from depression, which led to self-harm. I’ve talked about my story (and what tactics I used to try and overcome it) over on the amazing Heads Above The Waves, so I won’t repeat it here.
Instead, this post talks about my reason for getting my new tattoos.
“Old Scars for New”
It’s not every day a 33-year-old decides to get quite sizeable tattoos on the tops of both arms. Some people who have known me for years were a bit like “oh, ok then” when they first saw or heard about my new ink, but there was a reason for getting them — and it was something that I’d been planning to get sorted for years.
The worst of my self-harming took place around the ages of 18–20, and took place at the tops of my arms. I don’t think I’ve self-harmed since I was about 20 — so 13-ish years ago — and at the time, someone said to me that they’d probably fade and disappear completely within 5–10 years. However, a few years beyond that and they’re still pretty prominent; noticeable white lines criss-crossing around the outside of both of my arms, the lower scars of which would usually be visible if I was wearing a short-sleeved t-shirt.
For a good number of years, it really didn’t bother me. But then two things happened that caused me to change my mind and inspired me to do something about them:
- My oldest son (who’s 5 now, but was probably 3 or 4 at the time) saw them, pointed at them and said: “what are those, Daddy?” I panicked and just said something about them being ‘old marks’ and left it at that. One day I’m sure I can have an honest, grown-up conversation with him about it, but it didn’t seem right to tell him the truth — and as he got older, he might’ve gotten wiser as to what they actually were…
- The less brave reason: my brother-in-law’s stag do is taking place in Las Vegas in July, and I was told we’d be spending a lot of time around the pool. I only know 2 of the 10-ish people involved (just the stag and his best man), and similarly, I didn’t want awkward conversations or people feeling weird around me because of them.
But the plan wasn’t originally to get tattoos…
Plan A: LASERS!
First of all, I went to a laser clinic called the Specialist Skin Clinic in Cardiff. Hats off to Dr Maria Gonzalez there, who was very understanding of my reasons and who was fantastic during the whole (albeit — in my case — brief) process.
Unfortunately, after a small patch test on one of the scars, we identified that I suffered a hyperpigmentation side-effect — i.e. the laser treatment caused my skin to go red afterwards. So while I could continue the treatment and flatten/hide the scars, it’d make the skin really red… which kind of defeated the object I guess. At that point, Dr Gonzalez said that laser treatment probably wasn’t the best way forward for me.
Then Plan B kicked in…
Deciding where to go
This actually ended up being a pretty easy decision, thanks to the aforementioned Heads Above The Waves. HATW partnered with and ran an event at Keep The Faith Social Club, a tattoo parlour and barbers in the centre of Cardiff. I asked Si of HATW about them and he pointed me in the direction of Shaun von Sleaze, one of the tattooists and co-owners of KTFSC, who took a look at the scars — to make sure that they’d be an ok ‘canvas’ — and thankfully he gave a nod of approval. (There’s a great article about Shaun here by the way, which I came across while drafting this post.)
With the ‘where’ sorted, as well as the ‘when’ (I booked a full day session for early May), we just needed to establish the ‘what’…
Deciding what to get
This was certainly the trickier part of the process, as I needed to get something that would essentially ‘hide’ the tattoos — and do it well.
Shaun advised against something with too much negative space — i.e. ‘gaps’ within the tattoo with little-to-no ink — as well as very minimalist styles. Getting something quite big, quite bold and full o’ ink was the best way to go about it, it seemed. I also wanted something black-and-white, so we didn’t need to worry about incorporating colours.
I ended up having a long flick through Pinterest, starting a Tattoos board with two possible angles: flowers and wings. I noticed that some of the flower ones I’d pinned had done the same thing I was planning to do: they’d used tattoos to cover their self-harm scars. In those instances, an eagle-eyed onlooker would be able to see the scars, but to be honest, the tattoos incorporated them well, looking like they’re actually part of the design. This is essentially what I wanted to achieve with mine as well.
Rose hips tattoo by Stellatxttoo #stellatxttoo #selfharmscarcoveruptattoo #coveruptattoo #scarcoveruptattoo…
As much as I liked the flower designs, wings was the way to go. In addition to having (very emo) angel wing scar tattoos on my back which I got done when I was 18-years-old, I’m a big fan of wing symbolism, plus things like Sephiroth from Final Fantasy VII (from my fave ever video game series) and the Wings of Freedom logo from Attack on Titan (my fave ever TV show) might’ve had an influence on the decision… 😉
A lot of the wing ones I pinned were quite realistic-looking, insofar as they looked like real wings with real feathers. But in the end, I asked Shaun to go for this one — a more modern and alternative design — to be the basis of the tattoos. Shaun then worked on them with that design as a starting point, but ultimately in his own style.
The day of
In early May 2019, I put my Out of Office on and spent 6 hours with Shaun getting the tattoos done. Here’s the end result:
(Note: click one of the pics above and it’ll take you to the tweet on Twitter, where you can see larger versions.)
And here’s a side-by-side comparison of pre- and post-tattooing on one of the arms:
Opening old wounds — the aftermath
From my wife to my parents to my friends and even to my oldest son, everyone’s been supportive and complimentary of the tattoos, even if they’re not really fans of tattoos. For those who knew my past, they’re more supportive of my reasoning for getting them done.
One negative thing that happened though, which is worth mentioning in case anyone reading this is considering doing the same…
My mum (easily one of my favourite people in the world) was really happy for me and supportive of my tattoos, even though she’s pretty anti-tattoo. When we first met up after I got them, we were talking alone and she suddenly started to cry…
“I wish we could’ve done more for you back then…”
“Why didn’t you confide in us while you were going through it?”
“We could’ve done more to help you…”
It was a really difficult and emotional conversation, that suddenly made me teleport back to being that 18-to-20-year-old again. And I was heartbroken that I’d upset my mum so much — not only back then but also in that very moment reliving and discussing the past.
So if you do decide to tattoo over old self-harm scars then be prepared for similar conversations with friends and family. It may reopen old wounds (so to speak). It should’ve been obvious that it could’ve been a possibility, but it completely caught me off-guard.
Happiness & confidence
I love my new tattoos, so it was definitely the right move. I no longer have to worry about people staring at my arms who might’ve caught a glimpse of one of those old white lines, and I know I’ll be fine when I’m sat by the pool drinking some American lager next month.
If anyone wants to talk to me or ask me questions as a result of this post then feel free to tweet me: @steviephil. Cheers.