No matter who you are or where you’re from, every tattooed person has been asked the same question—“You know those tattoos are permanent, right?” Chances are that this query has never once been met by anything other than an eyeroll and sigh of exasperation, but there is some merit in going a little deeper on the idea of tattoos and permanence. A tattoo is more difficult to get rid of than a bad haircut or even a poorly thought-out piercing, but as collector Bee Vanian would put it, tattoos are part of an ongoing and changing life story.
“I don’t regret having my face tattoos at all, for me this is a journey,” Vanian says. “I got to experience life with my face being tattooed and now I’m in the process of removing them because I’m on a different path in my life. I’m going through a metamorphosis and although these tattoos bring me joy, sometimes they make me think about really hard times when I wasn’t a very happy person and I don’t feel that way anymore.”
Vanian’s tattoo journey began at 21 and almost immediately after getting their first piece, they started gravitating toward large-scale designs featuring heavy blackwork. This decision was not only informed by their love of the style, but as a means of gaining back autonomy over their own body.
“When I was 15, I’d met someone who I thought I was going to be with for the rest of my life,” Vanian says. “It turned into an extremely abusive relationship and they were abusing me from ages 15 to 21. It took me until 21 to finally leave the situation and it almost cost my life. That person had told me I’d never be anything, no one would ever want me as a friend and no one would ever find me beautiful or attractive. They said I was going nowhere and I was going to end up dead. But then, that’s when I started getting tattoos.”
After leaving that relationship, Vanian spent the next several years learning to love themself. During this time, getting tattooed became a way to heal from the years of trauma they’d experienced. “I wanted to be covered from the neck down, because for me it’s almost like a security blanket,” Vanian says. “I guess you could say it was something to hide behind and I felt safe in my little cocoon. [Getting tattooed] gave me confidence and I just continued getting them little by little.”
As their collection grew, Vanian began making bolder and bolder tattoo choices. First came blackwork, which Vanian has embraced on their arms, legs and torso. Once they’d covered those bases, they felt they were ready to move on to face tattoos. “My first face tattoos were the clown dots under my eyes,” Vanian says. “At the time, I felt like I was a sad clown. I was someone who wanted to be perceived as happy, even though I was dying on the inside. But, I don’t feel that way now. I feel more like a happy, goofy clown.”
In the last few years, Vanian has undergone a major change—both inside and out. They’d struggled for years to connect to their body and getting tattoos was a way to slowly but surely understand their identity. But tattoos could only do so much. Through self discovery, Vanian realized that they were gender fluid and many of these insecurities they’d felt about their body were a result of gender dysphoria. “Before I got top surgery, I was a very miserable person,” Vanian says. “I was trying to do my best, but I didn’t feel like I was living honestly with myself. Once I got top surgery, I started noticing changes in myself spiritually, internally and emotionally. My life has been insane and I’ve lived so many different lives, but I feel like my metamorphosis has led me to become this final-stage person.”
Surgery put everything into perspective for Vanian, making them feel free for the first time ever. It’s changed virtually every aspect of their life, including the act of getting tattooed. For years, Vanian used tattoos to cover up and hide how they felt from the world. Now, Vanian is proudly showcasing their new chest piece for an audience of millions on TikTok.
“I didn’t know I was going to blow up on that app,” Vanian says. “I felt like if I posted my chest then maybe some other people who felt the same way would feel less alone. I have a lot of gratitude because I’ve gained somewhat of a support system with the people I’ve met on TikTok.”
Vanian has a new lease on life. They’re no longer hiding who they are, but showing it proudly with their head held high and their chest puffed out. It took years to reach this point and along the way, they’ve removed tattoos that no longer serve them and added new pieces to their collection. Lucky for Vanian, they have the rest of their life to continue figuring it out.