A week ago I got a free tattoo.

To some (probably to most) this sounds like a bad idea. There were definitely some eyebrows raised when I told people what I was doing!

This was my second time ‘getting inked’. The first time was last June, on my last day in Darwin. I had been in the tropical city attending the NT Writers Festival, and I had also just returned from a four day solo adventure driving a campervan through Kakadu National Park. I wanted to quite literally ‘mark’ the occasion, with a permanent souvenir.

I did my research before the trip and found a tattoo artist I liked near Palmerston, and had booked an appointment for my last day in Darwin. I hadn’t heard from the artist to confirm we were still fine to go ahead, and sent her a message. She replied that she had to cancel to accompany her partner to a medical appointment, and suggested she could reschedule me or refund me. I chose the refund, as I was returning home to Queensland the next day.

I frantically rang around to other tattoo studios around Darwin in search of a last-minute appointment, but everywhere was booked out. It was the school holidays, and apparently every other tourist had had the same idea for a souvenir as I had.

My last resort was my last preference. When researching studios, this one had the least positive reviews. But I was out of options. I gave them a call, and they booked me in. I was relieved, but nervous about why they had time, when no other studio did.

I showed up to the studio, and was greeted by a heavily-set, bald man covered in tattoos. The studio was like a warehouse- cold concrete floors, black walls, sparsely furnished. I was greeted with a smile by the artist who would be doing my piece. He took me to his station, and I showed him the design I wanted: a writing quill, positioned on the inside of my right forearm, the tip pointing down into my writing hand. The design had evolved; I had been inspired during my time in Kakadu, on a day trip to Arnhem Land. While visiting a sacred ceremonial site, I had found a brown and white feather lying amongst the fallen leaves. I asked the tour guide if he knew what bird the feather was from. He hadn’t known, and being a sacred site, I dared not take the feather with me. I took a photo instead, and later decided that I would use the colours in my tattoo later in the week.

Fortunately for me, one of the other tattoo artists happened to be an avid birdwatcher. He took a look at the photo, and while he couldn’t be 100% sure, he suspected the feather was from a white-bellied sea eagle, which was native to Kakadu.

My first tattoo experience was amazing. The artist was professional, and considerate of the fact it was my first time. It took an hour, and yes it hurt, but the pain was worth it. To this day, I still smile when I look down at the brown and white quill on my right arm, and am reminded of this epic adventure I went on. The best part was, it was $50 cheaper than the artist who had cancelled on me!

Anyhoo, back to the latest tattoo…

When I was two weeks old, I underwent surgery for hydrocephalus, a neurological disorder caused by an abnormal build-up of fluid in the ventricles (cavities) deep within the brain. This excess fluid puts harmful pressure on the brain’s tissues, and I was at risk of suffering permanent damage. Fortunately I was able to have prompt surgery which relieve the pressure. A small valve called a shunt was placed above my ear, and a tube drained fluid from the shunt into my stomach and away from my head. This drainage system would stay in place for the rest of my life.

Three years later I returned to hospital for more surgery. My body had grown considerably since infancy, and the drainage tube needed to be extended. This procedure resulted in a small cut to my upper right abdomen. I have had this scar for most of my life, along with the shunt and tube. It gives massage therapists quite a surprise, as I often forget to tell them it is there!

I had been wanting to get my second piece of ink, a fairy sitting on top of a scar I have in the right upper corner of my abdomen. I had been getting quotes from tattoo studios around the Gold Coast where I live, and not surprisingly, it was far more expensive than Darwin. I took my car for a service in mid-January and was informed by the mechanic that I needed three new tyres, and I also had a problem with my brakes and brake lights. All-up, I was looking at around $500 worth of work to be done. My new tattoo would have to wait.

Then one day at work, my colleague Sienna casually mentioned that she was going to get her first tattoo. A friend of hers had started her apprenticeship at a studio on the coast, and was offering free tattoos to gain practice and experience. I asked if I could have Noa’s contact details, and as it worked out, we ended up going together, Sienna for her first piece, me for my second. Noa was a little apprehensive as I showed her the designs I had saved on Pinterest. She had not yet learned how to do shading (colouring in the tattoo), so a black and white outline would have to do. We settled on a design that I liked and Noa was comfortable with. She did ask me ‘Do you mind if it’s shit?’. I was a little unnerved by her lack of confidence, but willing to take the risk. Sienna and I encouraged her to take it slow, we had all afternoon free. Sienna was still feeling jittery, so I volunteered to go first. I lay down on the table, and Noa got to work.

Thank goodness for pranayama, or yoga breathing. Due to the location of my tattoo, I was conscious of moving too much, so I focused on breathing through my nose. Noa had a steady hand, and after an hour, she was done. She was not impressed with her work, but both Sienna and I were squealing with delight at the end product. I had taken a chance on inexperience in order to save up to $200, and the gamble had paid off. I am deeply grateful for this opportunity, and feel like it was a bit of fairy magic sent my way.

As to be expected, the piece was tender for a few days. The swelling went down, and because it is a fine line tattoo with no colour, I avoided the skin peeling that I experienced with my quill. I did have a moment of doubt two nights after getting it, while looking at myself in the bathroom mirror. Too late now even if I didn’t like it! But I do.

For most of my adult life, I had no interest in getting a tattoo. I actually had nightmares about waking up and having regrets about having a tattoo I didn’t want! I always had this vision of myself in a wedding dress with visible tattoos, and I didn’t like the idea. But then I had the inspiration for the quill, and I was sold. Then, the idea of this little fairy, who resembles Tinkerbell with her topknot bun, popped into my mind.

After getting the quill done, I ‘got’ the tattoo thing. I am addicted, and while I won’t be covering myself with ink, I have at least three more pieces in mind. These permanent pictures tell a story, my story. They are part of me now, and if I get married one day, I will show them off proudly!

The quill is a reminder of the trip of a lifetime to the Northern Territory, to celebrate writing and meeting like-minded people. It reminds me of how capable I am, having driven for four days through Kakadu National Park on my own. This latest addition is a reminder of how strong I was at three years old, at two weeks old. I am a survivor, and thirty-three years later, am still thriving.

She is called Scarlett.

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