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Coal Dust Tattoo

Before this experience, I never connected up my recent love for tattoos with an earlier life of self-injury, although I think I found it less intimidating to start permanently marking my body with ink when it was already marked with scars. I cut myself between the ages of 14 and 17, with very rare lapses since; I started getting inked on Valentine's Day 2004, when I was 18 years old, and I booked an appointment for my fourth tattoo this morning.

I've never really looked outside tattooing in terms of body modification, although I respect those who do. I've always felt tattooing to be incredibly versatile, and the possible images I could create seemed like enough to be getting on with. The exception was an orbital piercing in my left lobe, which I did myself a couple of years ago; I pierced my lobes with 3 or 4 holes at once a few times during my mid-adolescence, always removing the borrowed jewelry before I returned home from my friend's house. So I suppose, looking back, that I have a tendency to take matters into my own hands, and this time was just the latest example of that.

The rubbing itself is small and unimpressive - a small black line, it measures no more than 5mm (1/4") and runs between the outer two knuckles on my left hand. The reason I love it has less to do with how it looks and more about how it came to be.

I don't really remember where the idea came from. I was alone for an evening - a situation that usually pushes me to commence some ridiculous project for the purposes of self-entertainment. I was staying on my friend's houseboat in the north of England, just after the new year. I know my friend and the people she puts up on her boat through political activism, and I met them during the preparations for the G8 summit in Scotland last year. The summit itself ended, for me, with a violent arrest on false charges and a nightmarish journey back home through the night on threat of imprisonment. I was on bail for months and stood trial in October. My co-defendant and I were resoundingly aquitted and in the eyes of the law, the matter was closed.

Except it wasn't. I had thought of my arrest and time in custody before falling asleep every night without fail since it occurred, and our 'not guilty' verdict did not stop the images of being held down by riot police, the memory of the pain they inflicted in me, and the times I lay and replayed the experience in my head. On one level I dealt with these things using structures of trauma care that I'd learned to be better able to care for myself. On another level, the flashbacks slowly eroded me, and intensified. Things came to a head over the turn of the year, and in the middle of one January night I found myself weeping hysterically in bed, damp with cooling sweat, in the midst of a choking panic. It was horrible, but it seemed to be a turning point.

A week later I visited the boat. After fulfilling my bail conditions that tied me to my home town for a week after the G8 summit, I had travelled to this boat for refuge. I crawled under the duvet of my bed , which was enclosed by the bedroom walls (it was literally a bed-room), sipped the tea that my friends brought me, and weathered the storm. My co-defendant also lived on the boat, and we spent many summer nights drinking on the roof of the boat, crying as we tried to exorcise the memories of violence, loneliness and pain. We had easier times too, filling our days with half-thought-out projects and errands for friends. But eventually I had to leave, and return to my life. Now I found myself back there, and I felt an incredibly strong attachment to it; it's tiny rooms, beautiful wood furnishings and the warm heart of the Rayburn coal-burner that heated the whole place. I sat with my feet resting on the heat of the stove, yet felt restless.

As I said before, I don't really remember where the idea came from. I remembered a folk song I'd seen in a book recently called 'Coal Dust Tattoo', and while the content of the song isn't particularly relevant, it seemed to suggest that coal in cuts could be safe. I only wanted a small mark, so I took the risk, hoping that any complications would be easy to sort out with such a small wound. I think rubbings are a really satisfying form of self-modification, but in future I would definitely plan it a little more, and I'd feel much more confident with the proper equipment laid out in front of me - I'd definitely recommend anyone thinking of doing the same to put time into making the experience a safe one - I'd certainly never go below the basic level of using a clean blade and cleaning the area first.

My major problem was lack of equipment. With more planning, I could have made it much safer, but it was a spur-of-the-moment thing. For a blade I cracked open a disposable razor from the bathroom - it was new so I knew that it hadn't been used. I boiled the kettle and poured it into a mug with some salt, then used the saltwater to clean the back of my hand. I cut a small line between my knuckles, where planned. It bled quite freely, and I held some tissue over it at first. I then scraped some coal dust from the scuttle by my feet, which was quite sticky and damp, with a knife. I had a little heap on the knife which I pressed into the wound, which I then rinsed off and held closed. I would have preferred to have been able to tape the wound shut over the coal pigment, then put a dressing over that, but I didn't have the supplies. I went to bed when the bleeding stopped, hoping that a scab would form overnight.

When I woke up I found that the cut's depth made it quite a wide wound, meaning that it hadn't quite scabbed over. I think more pigment would have stayed in if I could have held it shut, but it's still dark as it is. I left the boat a few days later and when I got home I taped the cut shut with surgical tape, because it kept reopening. Before long it healed, and I was pleased to see that some colour remaining, leaving me with the black mark I had intended.

I have much larger modifications that people stop me and ask me about, but the discreet black mark between my knuckles that nobody notices is hugely special to me. I love the placement, and the way that the mark moves with my hand, especially when I make a fist. I have told a few of my friends about it, who between them thought I was crazy, brave or both, but I haven't yet mentioned it to my 3 friends who live on the boat. There hasn't been a time when I've felt it appropriate to mention - it's not something I want to slip in to conversation. One day I will thank them for their support, and for letting me into their beautiful home when I needed a place to hide and heal, and I will show them how much the boat means to me - that I found a way to always carry the boat and its warm, coal-fuelled heart with me.


submitted by: Anonymous
on: 10 May 2006
in Scarification

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Artist: Myself
Studio: On+a+beautiful+narrowboat+on+an+English+canal
Location: +

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