Getting My First Tattoo At 40 Has Been Both Liberating And Empowering

Hirsch filming for Brit(ish) in Lambeth, London, December 2017

For most of my life, I disliked tattoos. I wasn’t judging, they just weren’t for me. Clear, minimalist, healthy skin, I decided, was my personal aesthetic ideal. I wanted to minimise anything that got in its way. So no one is more surprised than me, on a rainy Saturday in east London, to find myself nine hours deep into a tattoo session. I’m sitting under the delicate needle of the Mauritian tattoo artist Emmy Lim Hon, watching transfixed as she dips ink from a tiny pot into hundreds of tiny dots on my hand with the rhythm and serenity of a ritual.

“It has been very healing for me to get into ornamentation,” she tells me, her intricately inked chest rising and falling as she speaks, her aesthetic reflecting her mix of Chinese and African cultural heritage. “It’s not about the pain, but more like regaining something that has been lost.”

Lim Hon is one of a new generation of artists who has reclaimed bodily ornamentation – piercing, tattooing and scarification – as expressions of ancient and ancestral culture. There are endlessly rich pools of tradition to draw upon – body markings have been ubiquitous, from the Amazon to the Arctic, spanning almost all epochs of humanity.

Activists have been using social media to powerful effect to intentionally revive these traditions. The Instagram and TikTok sensation Shina Novalinga, for example, recently obtained traditional Inuit face tattoos, a journey she recorded online with the defiant message that she could feel “my heart telling me my ancestors will be proud”. Late last year, New Zealand reporter Oriini Kaipara made history as the first person to anchor the news with a traditional Maori “moko kauae” or chin tattoo.

These women’s tattoos appear as a profound statement of identity and pride in their cultural heritage, transforming the wearer, as one author has described it, “into social beings with collectively recognised identities, the prerequisite of any culturally patterned social life”. The pattern of much of my life, by contrast, was dictated by forces that had little to do with my cultural heritage. In my former life as a barrister, I had to wear a black suit every day and keep my hair straight. As a TV journalist, I could wear colours, but only those deemed compatible with the corporate branding. My jewellery, accessories and natural hair textures were all the subject of discussion by male managers. If I had wanted a tattoo, anything visible would have been out of the question.

This was not without its small rebellions, though my initial forays into bodily adornment produced dismal results. Aged 15, on a regular outing to the 1990s teenage Mecca Kensington Market, I paid a burly white man to staple a too-large stud into my nose with a piercing gun. Later I learnt these guns were designed for tagging cattle’s ears, not human cartilage. When I got rid of the nose ring a few months later – it never suited me – it left a crater-like scar in my nose that remains faintly visible to this day.

Undeterred, I went back to have my tongue pierced a year later, incurring the extreme wrath of my mother, who regarded it as a form of self-harm. I thought it looked good, but I was only 16 and when I noticed the predatory reactions of older men, who, to my annoyance, saw my tongue ring as a sexual calling card, I went off the idea. It went into the dustbin. It was early confirmation that I wasn’t going to design my body to please anyone.

Like many of us, what I did know about tattoos was filtered through a colonial lens. The very word “ta-tau” (Tahitian for “to mark”) was introduced to the English language by naval captain James Cook, who enthralled Europeans with embellished descriptions of the South Pacific, depicting its inhabitants as poised in a kind of Eden before the Fall, in a “state of untamed nature”. Like other aspects of indigenous cultures they encountered, Europeans set about smashing tattoo culture in Polynesia, replacing it with Eurocentric, Christian ideals. This history is close to home.

The Akan culture, from which I’m descended – an ancient and storied civilisation in what is now Ghana – was famed for its beautiful scarification patterns. But I have never seen any evidence of it in my own family. Tracing their story, I learnt that colonial-era missionaries, who preached that many of our cultural rituals were pagan and savage, obliterated them from my communities well over a century ago.

“Tattoo practise was framed as demonic and as a result it’s disappeared in most places, says poet and activist Jessica Horn, co-founder of The Temple of Her Skin, a touring exhibition portraying African women’s personal experience of reclaiming ancestral ornamentation. “Across Africa, many in our grandmothers’ generation had tattoos. But in our parents’ generation, tattooing just stopped.”

Black women have been particularly affected by the loss of these customs. In many African societies, tattooing functioned for millennia as a powerful means of denoting status, belonging, rites of passage, sources of beauty and marks of distinction. “A woman without tattoos,” the people of Chaouia, Algeria, are known to say, “is not a woman.” Where tattooing has less effect on darker skin, custom often involved “cicatrisation”, in which cuts produce raised marks and ink is then added into the wound. In some cases, these raised patterns helped ensure women access to foreplay, luring a man to spend more time stroking the textured skin of her body. But the sexualisation of modern tattoos bears little relation to these traditions.

“If you look up #blackinkedwomen, you will find one style that is very hyper-sexualised,” Horn says. “That’s fine, but it’s very one-dimensional – the assumption is that women are getting tattooed for other people’s gaze. Our bodies are sacred. The symbols we inscribe in our skin as African women, the stories, the meanings behind them, that’s what we are exploring, with deep humility and respect.”

Turning 40 last year, I began to think about the ageing process and how we as women respond. Scarification, which I know has been done by generations of women in my lineage at some point before being admonished by missionaries, seemed so brutal. And yet suddenly friends my age are happily going under the knife for surgical procedures to cover up the signs of their natural changes.

“I started thinking about ways of really reclaiming my body after I gave birth to twins,” says Ebele Okobi, a close friend whose own journey inspired mine. “I was one of those people who had an effortless six-pack, but now, for the first time, I was feeling a bit self-conscious. I spoke to friends who said I should get plastic surgery, but that just wasn’t me.”

Okobi thought about how she could reclaim the sense of beauty she had always found in that part of her body and found herself thinking about Ani, goddess of fertility, life, death and justice, the most powerful deity in the pantheon of gods in her Igbo culture. “I love that our most powerful deity is female, in recognition of the ability to give life,” Okobi says. “And I started thinking about the fact my skin was marked by giving life. Why would I want to erase this powerful thing that I had the honour and privilege of doing? I wanted something that embodies that.”

The result is one of the most stunning tattoos I have ever seen, stretching from just beneath Okobi’s breasts to her pubic bone.“Those things that as Africans were stolen from us because we were told they were savage, that make us uncivilised, I embrace those things. I see it as a return to savagery,” she says.

Back in my chair at the Shall Adore tattoo studio in east London, Lim Hon poking deftly away at my hand, it occurs to me how far I have come. From having digested and internalised European ideas about the savagery of bodily marking, now I feel electrified, as a pattern inspired by the Akan ornamentation of my forebears reveals itself on my hand.

Lim Hon, who at 25 years old needs hardly worry about ageing, is telling me the story of an elderly Berber woman she encountered while researching ancient tattooing methods. “This woman, she was old,” Lim Hon says, “and as I looked at her I thought, ‘I want to look like you!’ Now I look at myself in the mirror sometimes, and imagine myself older, and find it beautiful.”

Listening to Lim Hon distracts me from the pain of the needle, but so does a growing wonder that something adorning my skin could shift something so deeply in my sense of self. My female ancestors gifted me a culture that reveres older women and a way of using my body to celebrate the struggles and landmarks that come with time. I find my tattoo beautiful too. But more importantly, every time I look at my hand, I feel newly connected to their story.