Photo description: Elderly woman wearing blackout sunglasses and covered in tattoos gets a tattoo on her shoulder by a male artist
As people with normal vision, we often take for granted the ways our lives would be different if we were visually impaired. Sight affects nearly every aspect of our lives, including the tattoos we choose to decorate our bodies with. With the exception of the whir of a tattoo machine and the sensation of being pricked by needles for hours on end—the tattoo world is largely visual and the end product is almost entirely visual. However, many people with visual impairments and some who are considered legally blind have tattoos.
I first learned about the growing number of blind and visually impaired people with tattoos after subscribing to a YouTuber named Molly Burke. Burke is legally blind, however, over the years she's collected a number of beautiful tattoos despite not being able to see them. This led me to wonder about why blind and visually impaired people choose to get tattooed and in order to answer this question, I sought the expertise of Ben Shaberman. Shaberman is the director of science communications at the Foundation Fighting Blindness. Established in 1971, FFB works to "drive the research that would lead to preventions, treatments, and vision restoration for the spectrum of degenerative retinal diseases, specifically macular degeneration – including age related macular degeneration, retinitis pigmentosa, Usher syndrome, Stargardt disease and Leber congenital amurosis (LCA)." With the help of Shaberman, I was connected with six unique individuals with visual impairments and I had the opportunity to learn about their tattoo experiences. Take a look at the gallery below to hear their stories and let us know your thoughts on this topic in the comments section on Facebook.
“I'm not blind, just visually impaired. I have Stargardt disease, which is an inherited juvenile form of macular degeneration. It has been a gradual loss of central vision since high school. To me, a tattoo a sign of commitment to myself; a reminder of a value that I hold dear. Getting a tattoo is an experience, not just the design itself but where you go, who the artist is, who is with you - or who isn't. It's a stamp of that moment in time and the person you were. I have three small tattoos. The first I got in 2015. My latest was a year ago and says "be here now" in braille on my wrist. It's a reminder to me to stay present and appreciate the sight I do have. It's also a Mae song lyric. I think any time you get a tattoo you have to trust the artist tattooing you, but especially when you have a visual impairment. Chances are if I could have seen the needles going into my skin I would've have been much more freaked out than I was. When people ask me what it feels like to get a tattoo I tell them to scratch the next sunburn they get.” Amanda Mattingly Louisville, Kentucky
“I had always wanted one but never knew what to get. I wanted it to be a representation of something important in my life. Any then, at age 32, 5 months pregnant, I was handed a white cane. I cried so hard. I cried that my vision became to bad so quickly that I had to use this tool that let everyone know I couldn’t see. There was no hiding it anymore. I hated using it. I felt like it was a giant neon sign saying, ‘SHE CAN’T SEE WELL!’ Although, that is literally what the cane is for. I just felt different with this thing. I felt ashamed, embarrassed, and even weird. I wanted to decorate my cane to make it look edgier but I realized later that I needed to keep the cane just white and red. So what else could I do to give me an edge? Then it hit me. A tattoo. A tattoo that could be seen anytime my hand was outstretched while I used my cane. I also knew it had to be a cross. Then, every time I stuck my hand out, I could know Jesus was guiding me every step of the way, with or without vision. After much careful research, I knew my first tattoo had to be by someone incredibly talented. That’s when I found Ben Chambers (@BenChambersTattoos) of Sero Tattoo Collective in Columbus Ohio. I knew I could trust him for correct placement and size. We chatted about the reason for my tattoo and he was very helpful in explaining the placement and size, as I only have about 10 degrees of vision. He tried some on his arm, on mine, and allowed me as much time needed to decide details. Yes it hurt, but it felt more like a victory. A victory over fear, embarrassment, and sadness. This tattoo has since given me strength to hold that cane out strong and proud. I love sharing my story behind it.”
Jen Walker of Columbus, Ohio
“I have a condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa which has caused me to lose most of my peripheral vision and night vision. I've had it my whole life but just found out about it in middle school. I can't drive, and I use a guide dog to travel independently. I got my first tattoo on my shoulder when I was 18 and I drew it myself. It's a sort of eye burning through flames, and to me it was about carrying my vision with me like a chip on my shoulder. My others that I've got over the years all have some kind of similar symbolism or deep meaning. I'm really excited about a piece that I'm working on now that it is based on Greek mythology but as a storyline for my life and vision. I've got the titan Atlas on my shoulder carrying an orb that to me is the burden I carry all the time with my vision loss. Doing these sort of deep images is almost like a form of therapy since I get to express how I feel through creativity and art (even though someone else is doing the drawing). As a blind person getting tattooed, I feel like trust and communication are really important. I have a really good relationship with the shop I go to here in Columbus, called Sacred Hand Tattoo Society. Troy Mort, who travels between PA and Ohio, is really patient with the weird things I ask for and is accommodating when I come in. My guide dog has a safe place out of the way in the shop and everyone is really cool about not making a big scene about a dog coming in. Sometimes I get nervous when I can't see what is being done or can't see the whole image since my field of vision is so small, but I trust those guys at the shop since I've known them, and they wouldn't let me do anything dumb or rip me off. Troy is really good with describing what he's doing as he's about to do it and tells me what I'm feeling based on where the needle is. With blindness, or any disability, there's a big mental component that makes you feel insignificant, less-than, or disconnected from others. I think tattoo culture brings all kinds of people together through art and eccentricity, and my tattoos are a source of pride that I get to carry around all the time. Sitting at the shop, people are laughing and singing along to whatever is on the radio, and people know me by name now, so it's like going in and hanging out with friends for a couple hours. Many blind people are cut off from social interaction because so much of society is visual or unadapted for people with disabilities. Having social interactions and shared experience is important for people with disabilities because there is always this feeling that there's something wrong with you or broken. Having really awesome art on you makes you feel like you're connected to something bigger and part of a culture of people who have felt similar things to you. Even though they're becoming more socially acceptable, a lot of people look at people with tattoos like they're something abnormal, and people see individuals with disabilities the same way. So my thinking is, if people are going to look at me weird anyway, why not give them something cool to look at?”
Tony Taliani of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
“I have always had an appreciation for tattoos and the art of tattoos and I got my first tattoo at 18. My partial blindness came from a ruptured brain aneurysm that happened on May 25, 2014. I was 25 years old. I was actually working out at the time that it happened. I was airlifted from Crystal Lake, Illinois to University of Chicago hospital (UI health.) I had one ruptured brain aneurysm, and four additional ones that they found as well. I was in a coma for two weeks and I had to relearn how to walk, spell, my alphabet and colors. I also can't walk without an AFO; leg brace. As a result, my whole left side of my body can't function as it once did. My vision has gotten progressively worse since my aneurysm and I have no peripheral vision on my left side. My eyes no longer see at the same rate, which causes double vision and headaches. Because of this, I often tilt my head to the right when doing anything on the computer. I decided to celebrate the first anniversary of my aneurysm (2015) by getting a tattoo. It's the aneurysm ribbon colored in Burgundy (the brain aneurysm color.) In the ribbon it has fighter and survivor followed by the date May 25. I didn't get the year because this will not define my life but is just a chapter in it. Since then every tattoo has been on my right side because I don't know how different the sensation will feel on my left. I've got a half sleeve sense then and my tattoo artist has been very accommodating sense I can't go on my belly. I noticed that with every new tattoo sense my aneurysm, my muscles in my body has tensed up more than usual. This may be a bit more pain, but it's always worth it in the end. My family has always supported me through this journey. My husband, brother and even mother have gotten tattoos dedicated to me.”
Alana Sattler of Crystal Lake, Illinois
“I just turned 40 years old and am legally blind. I have the eye disease x-link retinitis pigmentosa. Meaning that my blindness is hereditary. My grandpa was blind and some of his relatives were blind and I also have several cousins that are either legally blind or have the gene. I am not totally blind but am legally blind with my eyes deteriorating every day. I have been legally blind for about 8 years now. I decided about 6 months ago that I want a tattoo that will feature my 2 kids names in it. They are my world. I want to always have them a part of me so I figured this would be a great way. This will be my very first tattoo and am in the process of saving up to get it done. It’s something that will mean the world to me for as long as I live.”
Mike Kindhart of Sciota, Illinois
“My only tattoo is a memoriam on my shoulder to my Grandfather with his nickname and time of death ("RED 10:14"). We were pretty close and I take after him in many ways. I technically got the tat a few years before my diagnosis, so whether or not I would be able to see in the future wasn't really a factor. However, I do have a few tattoos I'd like to get eventually, and my long-term prognosis is stable, but certainly not guaranteed.”
Mike Valenti of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania