My name is Ilona and I live in Helsinki. Originally, I came across with Humans with Tattoos blog via a friend of mine. I started going to therapy a while ago, and that way I have recently dealt with things that have happened in my life, learned to recognize the ghosts from my past and how to get rid of them. In a way, I see participating in this project as a continuum for my ongoing process.

I got my first tattoo when I was 21 years old. I designed it myself, and I planned it for three years or so before I finally had the courage to get it. I come from a religious family, and that’s also why I had to consider my first tattoo for a long time. For me, getting a first tattoo meant that I truly exceeded myself. The idea that I can get a permanent image like this was just so great – that my body would have something that is not determined by genes, and I’m able to modify myself and my body if I want to.

I felt so euphoric for many months after getting my first tattoo. I just thought I did it, I really got it! It was wonderful to realize that I can modify my body, even though I’ve always been taught that I can’t. In a way, after getting a tattoo, I was able to leave behind all those views that were given to me when I was a child, and I finally realized that I can take control of my body.

The feeling of taking control of my body was also important for me because I was diagnosed with rheumatic disease when I was 17. Rheumatic disease is a physical condition that impacts on your ability to control your own body. It involves pain, which often leads you to a point where you have to stop doing certain things that you used to do. Because of my disease, I had to quit playing football and athletics that I had been practicing for years.

When you’re diagnosed with rheumatic disease, your body easily begins to feel somewhat clinical. Doctors are constantly examining your body, and there are always new blood samples that need to be taken – in a way, it starts to feel like even though it’s my body, I’m not in charge of it anymore. Tattoos have helped me to feel that I can control my own body, and I’m capable of doing something permanent to it. No-one else has decided for me that I should get a certain tattoo on a certain spot. My tattoos are always based on my own will.

I’ve always been sensitive to pain, and although getting tattooed is painful in its own way, it differs from the joint pain that comes with rheumatic disease. Instead of being unpredictable, tattoo pain is always controlled by the tattooist: as the needle gets lifted from your skin, the pain also ends.

I became depressed when I was 13 years old. I’m not sure whether it was actual depression at first, but during my middle school years, I started feeling really low and often anxious. I used to be a perfectionist, I held myself really high standards and thought I have to manage every aspect of my life well. But since I was constantly feeling low, I couldn’t perform in a way I wanted to, and therefore my self-esteem collapsed. I started to see myself as obese and I tried to lose weight. I didn’t know how to talk about my feelings, and in a way, I also felt ashamed of being so tired all the time.

Because I didn’t know how to cope with all that, my problems started to manifest in anxiety attacks. As I showed no outward signs of anxiety, other people knew nothing about my condition. I often had self-destructive thoughts, and for example, I couldn’t walk over a bridge alone because I was afraid that I would jump off. At the same time, I hid my feelings behind a façade and made sure that everything looked good on the outside. Later my friends from those years have said to me that they never would’ve guessed how I really was. I was always an average pupil in school, and I guess that people often don’t expect an average kid to suffer from depression. Especially when I couldn’t or didn’t even want to express it to anyone.

During those years, there was one good thing that kept me holding on. When I was 12 years old, I got my first own dog, a Tibetan spaniel called Helvi. Helvi was a huge part of my life, and I spent so much time with her. When my anxiety was at its worst, I dealt with it by walking around with Helvi. As soon as the wave of anxiety hit me, I took the dog with me, headed towards the forest and strolled there together with her for three hours straight.

Because of Helvi, I didn’t want to hurt myself, as I thought she couldn’t survive without me. When I walked across a bridge with her, I thought to myself that I can’t jump off it now, because if I did, she would be left alone and she would end up in trouble. Later I’ve thought that it’s mostly thanks to Helvi that I’m still alive. She was my key to survival. 

Helvi died when she was 11 years old. Last August, I got this memorial tattoo on the same day she would’ve turned 13. For me, Helvi was important beyond words. Now she will be forever on my skin and always in my thoughts.

I got my wrist tattoo quite extempore, although I had been thinking about it for some time. I went to a tattoo studio to book an appointment, and the tattooist told that there was actually a free spot on the calendar right now. Half an hour later, I stepped out of the studio with a fresh tattoo on my wrist, and I just thought wow, what did I just do?

This tattoo is also connected to my youth and getting over self-destructive thoughts. If there would come a day when I’d think about hurting myself again, this tattoo will remind me that I want to keep on living.

My latest tattoo reminds me of certain places. The first coordinates point to my childhood home, the second ones to my exchange place in Germany. The third ones are the coordinates of Helsinki. Even though all these locations have a special place in my heart, Helsinki is the one where I’ve most felt like home.

As I thought out loud my history of tattoos to my roommate before the interview, I realized that all my tattoos actually seem to be connected to each other. They have recurring elements: exceeding myself, my personal background, and all those things that have carried me through the hard times. The coordinates, for example, also remind me of my younger days when I felt I couldn’t get a hold on anything and I’m just drifting around in life. At those times, it felt like I’m not in charge of my own life, and the feeling became even stronger after I was diagnosed with rheumatic disease that caused consistent pain and sickness due to the side effects of my medication. The coordinates point to those places of my life where I have felt comfortable.

When I was younger, I didn’t like myself and my looks. To be honest, I’m still not fully able to love myself, but it’s something that I constantly keep on practicing. Tattoos are my way to make myself feel more beautiful and getting them means somewhat the same than adding make-up might mean for someone else. Make-up and hair dye always fade away at some point, but tattoos stay forever.

I guess that often people don’t even realize how tattoos may mean so much more than just the fact that they look nice or that some single design is a symbol of something. I’ve wanted to get tattoos especially because with them, I can make my body look how I want it to. Even though genes define the major part of how I look, tattoos are something I can affect. It’s mostly because of genes that I’m this size, this height, I have a certain type of hair and my eyes are of a certain color, but tattoos are a part of my body that I have decided myself.

Photos: Pinja
Text: Mervi