07 July 2014

Fat activism and tattoos

On Saturday around noon my girlfriend and I went and got tattoos.

It wasn't my first, that one was in 1996. I'm hardly covered but every now and then I'll go under the needle. I like it, the pain feels good, I enjoy the rush afterwards as well as having a picture on my skin. I have one tattoo that I might do differently with hindsight but I've never regretted them, they remind me of things that I don't want to forget.

We got matching tattoos, which is really lezzie, but the subject matter has other stuff going on. In 2004 someone who will be known here as Yeti, unless they want me to name them, and someone else known as Big Blu designed a symbol for a fictitious girl gang project that I was stirring up called The Chubsters. This symbol became known as the Screaming C: a fat letter C, with fangs dripping blood. To me it symbolised the fat person who bites back; a refusal; a snarl. The Screaming C has been deployed in various ways over the years, as graffiti, as embroidery, as doodles, even as stonemasonry. It's a fantastic symbol. As a project The Chubsters is more or less played-out, though a web archive is on the way. But that symbol endures, I think about it often.

Alice works on my skin
We got Screaming Cs tattooed on our hips. I'd been hemming and hawing about it for a while. I'm aware that my tattoos further position me as a marginal person in many people's eyes. I've been reading news stories lately by tattoo haters about how getting tattooed is akin to self-harm. Nice girls don't get tattooed. This is precisely the reason why I went ahead: I'm not and don't want to be a nice girl.

We didn't pretty-up the artwork, we used the original drawings as source material and our tattooist, Alice at Divine Canvas, was faithful to it. It looks like someone has taken a biro and scratched it onto us, which is not so far from what actually happened. The blood droplets are red.

I realised on the day that so much of today's tattoo aesthetic is about prettiness, 'a work of art on your skin,' an inflated idea of art, or 'good art,' taste, which of course is all about class and cultural capital (knowing what the 'right' art is, for example). I like bad art, cruddiness, things that are bodged together. I don't care so much about prettiness. It's one of those things that I conflate with being nice: "nice and pretty". This is not what I'm looking for in life.

My favourite tattoos on other people are ones that would be deemed crap: the group of friends who got a banana tattooed because it was only a tenner; a wonky Siouxsie Sioux; dots made with a sewing needle and ink; a friend who has a cartoon penis and fanny tattooed on her ankles; a pal who has a devil with the words 'Not sorry' underneath, and so on. It's no coincidence that these tattoos are always the cheapest ones in the shop, or homemade, they don't cost the equivalent of a small car.

Having a Screaming C tattoo feels like part of the work of feeling at home in my body as a fat person; it's playful, silly, has meaning and is nothing more than what it is. It felt freeing committing to a tattoo that is not about high-minded aesthetics but is connected to something more basic.

Anyway, getting our tattoos was a lot of fun, not very expensive, and now they are healing nicely and I'm looking forwards to flashing mine from time to time. Some people said that they also wanted to get Screaming C tattoos. I'd rather they went for something more original than copying my tattoo, but it's up to them what they do. The experience has made me think of other fat activists and their tattoos, and it's led me to wonder about fat activist tattoo aesthetics.

I hope commenters will chip in with their own thoughts and pictures, but at the moment it seems to me that a fat activist tattoo often has one or more of the following qualities: cute renditions of junk food; slogans, especially Riots not Diets, inspirational quotes; vintage-cute renditions of fat figures, maybe cartoons, or traditional Western tattoo culture figures (they might have names that I don't know); fat animals, pigs, whales, cows, manatees and so on. Fat activist tattoos are placed on parts of the body that are coded as problematic in the rhetoric of weight loss: bellies, thighs, fat rolls are popular. A theme emerges where fat and tattoos converge where bodies are embellished by flowers, the natural world, sea creatures; these symbols beautify bodies that are reclaimed from, for example, medicalisation and fatphobia, with love that has been hard-fought in many cases, they say to me something like: "My fat body is beautiful and worth beautifying."

Obligatory dodgy tattoo selfie with added flowery knickers
So where might this go? I don't want to yuck anybody's yum, I wish power to all fat people and their beloved tattoos, but what happens if a tattoo is not necessarily about being beautiful? What happens if tattoos undermine discourses of beauty? What might happen if fat activists question the trend towards cuteness? What's that cuteness about anyway? What might a fat activist tattoo - or aesthetic more generally - develop into? A tattoo of a raised fat fist? A trashed set of scales? A broken chair? The cover of Shadow on a Tightrope? I want to see more of this stuff! Fat activists, unleash your imaginations, it's only skin after all.


Jessie said...

Name away, it's the only "bad art" I've ever managed to do well!

I'm a little confused as to why people are acting like you own it, though. Blu and I made it for the Chubsters, so it seems like any Chubster should be able to use it. Then again I don't know whether the people asking you were Chubsters or not.

Lesleigh said...

Thank you for the thoughtfulness of this article and a deeply interesting analysis of the politics of cuteness.

I've been pondering a fat pride tatt for a long time but just don't know where to begin. Something did ding inside when I ran across a pic of a cartoon fat woman with a banner underneath saying something like "Fattest woman in the world doesn't give a fuck."

I do have a tatt of a rainbow bubble on my calf. As I tell people when they ask, it's representative of me: loud, round, and rainbow.

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

Jessie! It is such a brilliant symbol.

Yes, the ownership is weird. I feel like I own this particular tattoo, by which I mean this moment, this body, this skin, but the symbol is in the public sphere. Who's going to police whether or not people are Chubsters? Not me.

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

Lesleigh, the cuteness really intrigues me, but not as much as "Fattest woman in the world doesn't give a fuck"! So good!

Camilla said...

Colliding worlds- I know Alice from the days we used to knit together in Bristol.

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

Ha! There is nothing she can't do.