Life as a living canvas.

When I was 19, the mother of my then-boyfriend pointed to my ears and went, “Ewwww.” She was not referring to my deafness; she was saying to my face that she thought my stretched earlobes were ugly. In hindsight, I should have had the guts to inform her that her bowl haircut was gross but not as appalling as her manners. Her manners, by the way, got her sacked from her job at a Christian bookstore as well as from Mrs. Fields’ Cookies.

That’s right: she was too rude for Jesus and baked goods.

I was 19 in 2002, and this was right around the time stretched piercings started going mainstream. It was still during a time when stretched ears were reason enough to be denied a job. It was not that having a hole in your earlobe that was the problem, but the size of the hole. How big is too big? If one jumps from 14 gauge to 12, would that person be rendered unemployable?

It was up to the company where to draw the line.
It’s a fad, people said. “Your earlobes are going to be all saggy when you’re old.” I was told.

Here I am, 17 years later. With jewelry, my earlobes measure 5/8″ (or 16mm). Without jewelry, they droop. Because of how they were stretched, they do not pucker up like a cat’s butt hole; they’re just crescent-shaped voids bordered by flesh (as seen in this photo of me taken after my bike accident). I see them in the mirror every morning, and at night before bed; they’re my normal. They do look better with jewelry, but the same can be said for standard ear piercings. I don’t miss my unmutilated earlobes.

When your ears don’t even work as designed, it seems superficial to not get hired because of their aesthetics. Fortunately, within a few years of stretching my ears, their shock value wore off, and all us floppy-eared folks were put back on the job market. In my case, my deafness had kept me from customer-facing jobs anyway.

My tattoos didn’t come until after I found employment. I was 21 when I got MC Escher’s curl-ups tattooed around my right side. My family had always been forthright about their opinion on ink-based body modification, so I hid it from them for years. Even many of my friends were old fashioned with their “tattoos should have a meaning” mindset.

For this reason, the MC Escher curl-ups is the only tattoo that comes close to having any significance. My grandparents had a framed MC Escher lithograph (Cycle – 1938) in their home while my dad had a poster of Metamorphosis II  wrapped around his workshop at home. As a child, I spent a lot of time examining the two pieces, captivated by how something static could be simultaneously dynamic. MC Escher was the first artist whose works earnestly I looked up, even before the family PC got plugged into a modem.

If I loved Escher’s work as early as the age of five, and still loved it at 21, I could commit to having something of his tattooed on my body, right? So far, so good.

MC Escher Curl-ups done by Heather McLean. (I had the black outline touched up by another artist in 2012.)

Being too poor for tattoos when I was younger worked in my favour because at 14 I wanted a dolphin on my ankle. No good tattoo artist is willing to work on a minor, not even with parental permission; the only ones willing to do this are hacks desperate for money. No exceptions. If you’re underage and wanting ink someday, use that time to save up for a tattoo so beautiful, even your parents can’t criticize it. My dad hates the idea of tattoos, but struggles to criticize what I’ve got. Had I decided I still wanted that dolphin at 21, it would have at least been well-executed. Instead, I settled on giving a boring beetle a permanent home on my ankle.

Banded Alder Borer (a wood boring beetle) and trillium. Done by Evan Dowdell.

My collection took about 90 hours to do and includes a floating wooden chair, the heel of a baguette, an oarfish, bees, and a flying fish with an underbite. I’ve turned myself into a human canvas, and I even have a tattoo of an easel. The easel is a part of my favourite piece which is an artist’s (Craig Moston) interpretation of an artist’s (Philippe Halsman) portrait of an artist (Salvador Dali). I’m still patting myself on the back for coming up with this idea.

Dali Atomicus by Philippe Halsman by Craig Moston.

As superficial as my tattoos may seem, they’ve benefitted me in ways most people wouldn’t have considered. For starters, I am so fair-skinned that the unsightly blood vessels around my chest were prominent until they were covered up by a tattoo. I have spider veins all over my legs, which are now mostly concealed by tattoos. Tattoos that people like to remind me will not look as good when I’m old as if I had never taken this into consideration. As if old people routinely bare their flesh in public. As if the anti-body modification crowd is sharing this knowledge in good faith. As if they’d have still done their finger wagging had I chosen to zap my spider veins away with lasers.

Other than making me feel more comfortable with my body, tattoos have enabled me to take better care of my skin. Within a few years of getting my chest piece, it became apparent how damaging UV rays were. For this reason, my chest piece looks more weathered than the rest of my collection. As I’ve seen the consequence of my carelessness, I no longer venture outside without coating myself in sunblock.

A surprising downside of having this much coverage is how often sparsely tattooed seek my approval of their small collection. They’d lift their shirt and point at their tattoo (they have to point because it’s almost always inconspicuous) in hopes that I’ll say something nice, which is precisely what I’ll do because I have more decency than Mrs. Bowl Haircut. My tattoos aren’t an invitation for people to lecture me on my personal choices nor do I want to judge other people’s personal choice.

It’s not even the idea of altering the appearance of your body permanently that is the issue. As long as someone disagrees with your idea of what’s attractive, they’ll give themselves a pass to be rude. Had I been born with an extremely long, crooked nose, I’d have been mocked until I opted for cosmetic surgery, which is a form of body modification! I don’t think having an unconventional idea of what’s beautiful justifies hateful, bigoted comments nor should it lend as an excuse for workplace discrimination. I would have been a better choice to serve customers a warm cookie in a mall food court than Mrs. Bowl Cut.

The mother of all drawbacks would have to be guys who pay me a hands-on compliment. This only just started happening 4 years ago, after the completion of my full sleeve. The allure of my oarfish acts as a bait for creeps who appear amazed by how my tattooed arm feels no different from an unmarked arm and act nonplussed by the bitchface I make after being petted. I did not sign up for this.

They better not start double-stroking once I get the other arm done.


My body, my choice!

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