With Temporary Tattoos, Artists Make Their Invisible Disabilities Easy to See

“We are not our failures” — Artist Kimber Teatro designed this temporary tattoo representing depression and self-harm. Photos by Sarah Mirk.

In the back a brewery last Friday, May 13, Portland resident Kate Walford held a wet towel over her forearm, busily applying a temporary tattoo. After waiting the requisite 30 seconds, she pulled off the tattoo’s paper backing to reveal a beautiful line drawing: an abstract portrait of a woman’s head bursting into a delicate shower of stars.

This temporary tattoo isn’t just pretty. It’s meant to represent something that often goes undiscussed: depression. Tattoo artist Aubrey Hight created the design for a new art project called Ink Visible. For the project, five tattoo artists with invisible disabilities created temporary tattoos to represent what goes on unseen inside their bodies.

Ink Visible was started by 26-year-old artist Arianna Warner, who has a chronic pain condition called reflex sympathetic dystrophy. “Something I experience every single day is people don’t realize I have an invisible disability and judge me based on that,” says Warner. “For me, it’s really important to make the invisible visible, so that people can understand and be able to relate a little bit better to people who have invisible disabilities, like myself.”

Artist Arianna Warner.

Warner began experimenting with temporary tattoos to make a statement a year ago, when she did a project where she applied the universal access symbol—the icon of a person in a wheelchair—all over her body in spots that are affected by her disability. The temporary tattoos in that project and in Ink Visible take what’s inside each artist and puts it, literally, on the outside. There’s real power in that transformation, says Warner, and it ties into being able to represent yourself to the world in the way you want to be seen—rather than having people project their own ideas onto you.

“Being able to show my experience under my own terms is really important to me. I really want to make sure I’m in charge of my own body and my own expression of that. Taking that ownership is really important,” says Warner. After the launch of Ink Visible in Portland last week, Warner hopes to recruit tattoo artists in other cities to bring the project around the country.

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One of the five tattoos on display last week was a giant tooth with a lighting bolt crack through it. A banner emblazoned with the word “bruxism” scrolls around the tooth. That’s not a word you see emblazoned on anything typically—it’s a chronic teeth-grinding condition, where people gnash and clench their teeth, resulting sometimes in headaches, jaw problems, and major damage. That design was created by Tanya Magdalena, who owns a studio called Above the Pearl Tattoo.

“I know a lot of people who have a lot of hidden disabilities that are not necessarily visible to the public,” says Magdalena. “A lot of my tattoo work is catharsis.” Magdalena’s arms are covered in permanent tattoos—gorgeous vines of flowers drawn in a style of Hungarian folk art that reminds her of her grandmother. She also has a gigantic owl on her leg that connects to her divorce. “Tattoos can heal people and offer a release, both mentally and physically, for pain and processing for whatever ails ya. They can be very healing.”  

The five tattoos designed for Ink Visible. Details on what they represent can be read at InkVisible.org.

The goal of Ink Visible is to include people without disabilities, too. Warner says she wants anyone to apply the temporary tattoos, even if they don’t deal with bruxism or depression themselves. Arianna says she hopes the tattoos will help people without disabilities connect in some way to the unseen experiences of others.

Covering herself in the artists’ designs is a way for Warner to connect with others, too: She’s always wanted to get a tattoo but can’t because of her chronic pain condition.

“By inflicting any pain, it would cause my disability to spread faster. I’ve never felt a part of that community, although I love tattoo culture,” says Warner. “My dream is to have a sleeve of tattoos—that would be awesome! I never thought that would be accessible to me. But with this project, I can go apply a sleeve today.”

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by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is the former host of Bitch Media’s podcast Popaganda. She’s interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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