Storytelling Through Tattoos

by Zeba Tayabee

Art is subjective and there is always meaning behind the art. This is sort of the lens that I took when I decided to launch my passion project – an Instagram profile that shares tattoos, wearers, and the stories behind them. With a social work background and a curiosity of people’s lived experiences, I wanted to know the meaning behind the tattoo. After reading the stories featured on the Humans of New York page, I had an idea to do something similar – sharing stories one tattoo at a time. I wanted to get out my comfort zone and explore the streets of Toronto and the GTA and listen to the personal narratives behind the art and the wearer.  

My fascination with tattoos started many years ago when I became aware of the images, fonts, and designs on the bodies of people I would encounter. Observing from the seat on the bus, across a table in a restaurant, running on the treadmill at the gym, at school working on an essay, talking to clients at work, my attraction to tattoos increased. The lines, shading, patterns, hues of colours, all combine to create something so powerful and unique to that individual.  

Being a South Asian Muslim woman with a tattoo, I have had to hide my tattoo from family and/or justify it to them when it is something I did for myself. My life has been full of twists and turns with my cancer diagnosis, loss of loved ones, parents divorce and living with mental health challenges. Through it all, I somehow figure out how to thrive and learn to float above the darkness and struggles. I am a work in progress, but my tattoo symbolizes my connectedness to my past, present and future. Being part of a culture where both tattoos and mental health are taboo, I weaved my narrative into three symbols to (re)define and (re)claim my body. It has started conversations amongst my family about my mental health, grieving and trauma. Staring at my tattoo everyday gives me a deeper appreciation and understanding of my life – I feel grounded in my journey of healing.

Tattoos date back thousands of years ago to circa 3300 BC when Ötzi iceman was found with lines and dots in different areas of his body – perhaps used for healing, to display social status or decorative purposes. Cate Lineburry highlights that, “these permanent designs—sometimes plain, sometimes elaborate, always personal—have served as amulets, status symbols, declarations of love, signs of religious beliefs, adornments and even forms of punishment.” Tattooing has gone through many changes since then, especially in the last few decades, yet the connection between the mind, body and art remains. Tattoos, however simple or elaborate, have a purpose and often communicate some sort of meaning personal to each individual. Through this art of self-expression, bodies have become a canvas for showcasing stories.  

No two tattoos are the same and the story behind each tattoo offers a glimpse into the life and experiences of the wearer. Tattoos are able to communicate emotions, sensations, relationships, events – through ink, they transmit experiences and immerse themselves into the realm of storytelling. Jack London once said, “Show me a man with a tattoo and I’ll show you a man with an interesting past.” Everyone who has gone under the tattoo gun has a story to share about their piece(s) which exposes the relationship, and often the complexity of identity, society, body and meaning-making.  

From my experience talking to people for this project, there are common human elements in stories, but each story is as unique as the tattoo. I have learned that tattoos open up rich conversations on complex issues and important topics often not widely discussed in contemporary Western societies such as body art, sex, religion, addictions, trauma, violence, death and so much more. Many of these transcend into other socio-cultural communities as well where such taboo topics are shunned.  

Trying to take back control and focusing on positivity has been difficult for many individuals due to COVID-19. In a new study, nearly 50% of Canadians report that their mental health has worsened during this pandemic. Physical distancing has arguably led many to experience poor social health. Considering that with people being isolated now, tattoos can be a way of bringing people together even virtually in the art of storytelling. These connections can be created online using social media as a tool to build and grow a community. Sharing the intimate insights into the lives of Torontonians can help us connect and engage with each other.  

I hope that this Instagram page serves as a space where people can learn from and interact with the content. I look forward to virtually meeting people who are interested in participating in this project until I can safely walk down the streets of Toronto and share stories one tattoo at a time.

About the Author

Zeba Tayabee completed her Master’s Degree in Social Work from York University. She has been working in the social services sector since 2012 in different areas such as mental health and addictions to employment and community building. She hopes to explore narrative and qualitative research within the scope of health and healing.  To chat further, connect with Zeba on LinkedIn. To share your tattoo story, connect with @tattoos.of.toronto on Instagram. 

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