Photography by Rebecca Britton
“What does your mother think of your tattoos?”
I get asked this question a lot. I usually don’t answer as it’s just nosy strangers curious about whether or not they’ve made the correct assumption about my culture and its attitude towards tattoos. However, it is also because I don’t really have an answer. What does my mother think of my tattoos? She doesn’t think anything, because she just doesn’t know I have them.
When I was 19, my mother spotted a small tattoo of an arrow on my forearm that slipped out of my sleeve as I reached for something. I still remember how her finger felt poking into my tattoo as she angrily accused me of “trying to be cool”. She gripped my forearm the entire time she interrogated me on why I would “vandalise my body for a trend”. Because I moved away from her shortly after that incident, it wasn’t until my university graduation that I’d have to think about it again.
I had told her earlier that day to not be alarmed when she saw me because I got fake tattoos drawn on to look “cool” for graduation. I had planned on wearing trousers and a long sleeve shirt so I could hide my tattoos from her (even though it was the middle of Australian summer) – but she insisted I wore a dress. Fueled by anxiety and fear of her making a scene at my graduation, I thought the most logical solution was to just pretend they were fake, just like how actors get tattoos drawn on them for movie roles they play. I was sure that she was going to make a scene when she saw me, but to my surprise, she bought my lie and was pleased the dress she bought me looked nice.
That was a few years ago, when I only had a handful of tattoos. Now, I have almost two full sleeves, most of a leg, my chest, my stomach, my entire left hand and neck tattooed. All different styles and designs, ranging from traditional bold coloured tattoos, to Eastern European style black work tattoos, to the new style of ignorant/new school style to single-needle work fine line designs. There is no turning back, I am heavily tattooed and can’t really hide them from anyone anymore.
Growing up Chinese in Australia wasn’t particularly an environment that encouraged me to love the skin I was in. From a young age I experienced rampant racism. I had eggs thrown at me by my neighbours, my classmates ordered me to “go back to my own country”, random children on the street pulled their eyelids down at me whilst laughing and I constantly received backhanded compliments such as “you’re very pretty, for an Asian”. Being constantly taunted for my “yellow skin” meant that it was difficult for me to muster up the confidence to be proud of my appearance. When you always unintentionally stand out in a room full of people, you kind of just want to hide away.
At home, things were also difficult. My mother was obsessed with paleness. In Chinese culture, people especially women are praised for having translucent porcelain-like skin. I have memories of my mother blaming me for having “ugly” tanned skin and punishing me for embarrassing her in front of her friends and family for not being pale enough. She would constantly give me skin bleaching products to use so I could be more beautiful in her eyes. I never really used any of them, most went down the sink along with my self esteem. How could I love myself for who I am if everyone around me kept criticising me for something I had no control over?
My interest in tattoos began in my early teens. I was fascinated by the different cultural meanings they had, the different techniques used to apply them and just the sheer beauty of the artistry behind them. As I added to my collection over the years, I noticed that the process of getting a tattoo made me feel more in control of my skin. The sense of control gave me new found confidence as I felt I was giving myself a choice about my skin. It stopped mattering to me that I got taunted over my “yellow” skin as a child or that my mother thought I was never pale enough to be considered pretty in my culture. I now have skin that I chose to have, which I love and cherish.
I tend to get tattoos during changes in my life so a lot of them are a permanent snapshots of my life that I can look on, almost like a photo album of my fondest memories. Some of them I look at and laugh, especially the silly ones I let my friends poke onto my skin, others I look at and reflect on my first trip to Berlin or the time I took a day trip with my friends in Zurich and had nothing to do for a few hours. Some of them have lost their original intended meaning as I’ve changed as a person over the years but it’s still nice for me to look at them and reflect on who I was and my personal growth. The journey I have taken with finding self-love wasn’t easy and I am very proud of how far I’ve come, I just wish my mother would be too.
I haven’t seen my mother in almost two years now. We have a strained relationship due to our cultural differences. She grew up under the oppressive Cultural Revolution in China whereas in contrast, I grew up in Melbourne. It’s also common in Chinese culture to not talk about your feelings so I never shared with her my experiences with racism or my disdain towards her criticisms of my skin. I did resent her for years but that’s all in the past now.
These days, I just want to get to know her and for her to get to know me. I want her to know about my life and my progress. I’ve reached that point where it doesn’t matter if people don’t accept me for who I am, I accept myself and nothing will change that, not even my mother. I know she will absolutely freak out if I show her how many I have and accuse me of betraying the body she gave me. However, I feel as a mother, shouldn’t she be proud of the journey I’ve taken all by myself to find self-love? I really want her to know.
I just don’t know how to tell her.