In the tattoo world, most artists are their own bosses. The profession itself allows for people to circumvent traditional workplace expectations and in turn, this industry opens itself up to people with diverse experiences, backgrounds and expectations. One of these artists is Charl Davies, a black-and-grey tattooer in South Wales who stars on the show Just Tattoo of Us. In recent years, Davies discovered that she was on the autism spectrum and has since become an advocate for the community. We sat down with Davies to learn about her unconventional discovery process, how autism impacts her work as an artist and why women with autism are significantly under diagnosed.
When and how did you learn that you were on the autism spectrum?
I always felt different growing up and I didn’t really understand how or why, but it really started to impact me when I was around 10 years old. I realized that I was different from other children in terms of the way I think, feel and respond to things. I copied and mimicked other children’s behavior but wasn’t aware of what I was doing or why. I never really fit in at school. It wasn’t until I turned 25 that everything made sense and I was diagnosed with Autism.
But I always made sure I had goals that would keep me busy. My artwork has been my solace and comfort throughout and it’s actually what eventually led me to my diagnosis. After graduating from University, I started training as a tattooist. A few years later, I was approached by MTV and literally fell into the TV industry filming “Just Tattoo Of Us,” not really knowing what to expect. I really love my job, I love being in front of the camera and just making the most of it and enjoying all the craziness. But, despite being the positive and optimistic person I am, it didn't stop me from crying most days while filming the first season and there were days where I physically couldn’t speak for hours at a time. I just couldn’t understand why. I was left unbelievably frustrated and felt isolated. It really was bizarre and I just couldn’t explain it.
By the time the third season started, I was struggling to cope with pretty much every aspect of filming—things like lighting, noise levels and being social. I felt exhausted from just being in the presence of others. One evening, some of the cast members and I went for a meal and I just remember feeling massively overwhelmed. I ended up having a huge meltdown and became hysterical. I didn't know why or what was happening to me.
I stopped saying yes to joining in on any social activities because in all honesty, I felt inadequate and a total freak.
MTV put me in touch with a psychologist and a few months later, I was diagnosed and it was a huge relief. I was finally able to help myself and help others understand—it felt great to know I wasn't crazy. I started to embrace the fact that I was different and it felt awesome. Now I love to help others embrace who they are, but not everyone is as fortunate as I am to get a diagnosis.
How does autism differ between men and women?
Women are generally more socially aware and are prone to masking, which is hiding behavior that may be viewed as socially unacceptable. Because we are socially aware, autistic traits like avoiding eye contact for example may be disguised by masking, as we force ourselves into uncomfortable situations in an attempt to fit into society. We will go to many lengths to make sure that the other person does not suspect that we are strange or weird in any way. Masking can also include scripting which is using learned quotes and phrases in conversation. This can be problematic with the diagnostic process because masking isn't yet widely recognized due to there being little research. Women are often under-diagnosed or misdiagnosed and then there are individuals like myself who are diagnosed very late in life or sometimes not at all.
How does autism impact your job as a tattoo artist?
I love my job. I love the different processes and technicalities that go into drawing and tattooing, as well as the satisfaction of making my clients happy. Although autism can often make overcoming daily obstacles and the smallest of tasks seem impossible, it’s also given me a coping mechanism. Being undiagnosed meant that I was left to my own devices and had to find my own way of coping, but drawing has always been my sanity. I rely heavily on my routine and it's difficult for me to adapt to sudden change, like a cancellation or last minute amendments to a design. It can stop me functioning properly for days at a time and even lead to a meltdown. Being autistic means that sometimes being in the presence of others is too much and even ringtones. I find consultations to be very difficult and meeting people for the first time, especially when a client I barely knew once hugged me. Thankfully I have my support network to help me, otherwise my life would be an absolute mess.
Being in full time employment leaves me feeling burned out a lot of the time, but I don’t consider being autistic a negative thing and I often view it as my superpower. It gives me the ability to focus intensely on the smallest of details for long periods at a time and has definitely made me a perfectionist, which I wouldn’t say is a bad thing in this industry, But for the sake of my sanity, I always try to remind myself that there’s no such thing as perfection, only progression.
I’ve never been to a tattoo convention, as I don’t think that it’s something I’d cope well with but it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I’m hoping that with more awareness raised, there will be autism-friendly conventions so that people like myself can feel more included. There are a lot of artists in the autism community that would love to experience more in this industry.
Why is it that only 16% of the autism community employed full time?
A lack of understanding from employers and co-worker's, as well as a failure to make adaptations to the workplace means autistic people are often overwhelmed in the workplace. At the best of times things are difficult. Sometimes leaving the house due to poor executive functions can be difficult without throwing employment into the equation.
I chose to be my own boss because it means I can make changes to my workplace that help me cope. For example, I have over sensitivity to noise and light, so I’m able to dim the lights, reduce the noise levels and remove myself from a stressful situation whenever I need to without having to justify myself to an employer. It’s less pressure which helps me to function better and focus on the artistic side of things.
These small changes can make a world of difference to someone like myself. If employers could learn to look past our autism, then they would be able to see our potential and utilize our skills. But sadly a lot of the time, this is never the case. I find that being my own boss is the only way I can survive in the working world, but I do consider myself one of the lucky ones.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions people have about having autism and your job?
People bizarrely think that because I’m on TV or sometimes wear make-up that I can’t possibly be autistic. They couldn’t be more wrong and invalidating. Some of the biggest names out there are on the autistic spectrum, but I’m totally used to these statements being thrown my way, which is why I work hard to raise awareness and stomp out any misconceptions. The spectrum is huge and no two people the same. A diagnosis is so important because not only is it validation, its a key to opening new doors to self-help and helping others to understand.
What are some aspects of autism that positively impact your work?
Autism makes me obsessive in nature and being the perfectionist that I am, I often find that autism can have a very positive impact on my job. Sometimes, the need for everything to be perfect can drive me a little insane because I am constantly striving to better myself with the contradiction of perfection being an impossibility. It's a bit of a battle but it makes me the person I am, I'm constantly improving.
Although autism it can make the social aspect very difficult, my creativity outweighs the negatives. I’m very focused, driven and hard-working. I’m relentless and tend to overcome any obstacles that come my way because I stop at nothing to get to where I want to be. I want to give hope to other autistic people and encourage them to not give up.
Autism allows me to be focused and to tune my senses but a good day at work means a very exhausting next few days. Socializing is hard but I feel less pressure to talk when I am distracted and since opening up about autism, my clients have been very understanding. This means putting in noise cancelling headphones or sometimes not being able to speak isn't being interpreted as ignorance.
Since becoming part of the autism community, have you been contacted by anyone who’s been inspired by your story? For so long, I hid away hoping that I would one day turn invisible because I felt like I didn't belong.
Since I’ve opened up about it, I have been inundated with messages of support, positivity and love from people who reached out. It’s good to finally know that I’m not alone and there is a community out there of like minded people. Establishing connections with others is hard, but I have met so many amazing people in the autism community. For now, my mission is to keep raising awareness women on the spectrum.
It's so important that people recognize that some disabilities are invisible. The world wasn't built with autism in mind, so we have to keep sharing our stories to make positive changes and the world a better place.