Content Warning: This piece contains mentions of self-harm, suicide, drugs, mental illness, and scars.
Taylor Medeiros’s tattoos are covering up the pain of her past life — a past life she wants to reclaim.
Medeiros, 22, has floral tattoos covering her chest, arms, and legs. Bright red flowers wrap around her arm, covering it completely from wrist to elbow. Purple amethyst crystals — which represents protection and self-healing for Medeiros — are scattered throughout. Each flower is highlighted by a vibrant ocean blue background. White fireflies peek through the petals, representing Medeiros’s bravery.
It is hard to tell that this tattoo is covering up self-harm scars.
Self-harm is any intentionally self-inflicted injury. According to a 2014 study from the Canadian Institute for Health Information, 45 per cent of hospitalized teen girls were admitted due to self-harm. Medeiros was one of those girls.
Medeiros cut herself from the ages of 12-18. She said she can’t count how many times she attempted suicide. Collectively, she believes she has spent two years in the emergency room. She has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression.
“I never thought I would make it past 21. I didn’t have any plans,” said Medeiros.
But she did, and in May of 2019, Medeiros decided to cover the scars on her arm with a tattoo. She was ready to start a new life and close off the darkness of her past. Medeiros’s artwork is a symbol of pride. A life she said was once so dark is now full of colour.
“My tattoos tell my stories, whether they are positive or negative,” said Medeiros.
Medeiros first self-harmed at the age of 12. Her parents got divorced and started dating new people. Her mother had just come out as a lesbian, and her father started a new life with another woman.
“A bomb went off and I had to deal with reconstructing a family,” said Medeiros.
Before the family split up, Medeiros saw herself as a daddy’s girl. Her dad had taught her how to draw and bought her comic books. But when he started a family with another woman, he made it clear that he no longer wanted Medeiros in his life.
“It’s like I was torn away from something I was so used to. That’s when everything got really serious,” said Medeiros.
Medeiros has not seen her dad since she was 12.
“Within a year I had completely deteriorated. My mom said I was a zombie.”
Medeiros was living with her mom full time. Family and friends started distancing themselves when they found out she was self-harming. Medeiros said she was not ready to deal with the isolation she faced.
“As children, you don’t understand what you’re going through, so you don’t know how to deal with anything.”
Medeiros’s mother began dating women. Medeiros said their relationship has always been strong, but the initial news was traumatizing.
“I didn’t know how to deal with it. I would always just say I wanted my dad back.”
Medeiros believes she used self-harm as an outlet for her emotions. Each traumatic experience brought her closer to her own downfall.
Medeiros recalls her second last suicide attempt as her turning point.
She was 14 and had just enrolled at a new high school. Her condition was getting worse every day. Medeiros claims she was in the most emotional state of her life. She was in and out of therapy programs, but they were not working for her.
“Carnage. Absolute carnage.”
Medeiros skipped class to hang out with a student-run women’s group. She tried to surround herself with people, but she said she felt like she had no one to talk to. She said she reached a point where she was done with it all.
“I tried to off myself at school. I took more pills than I could count.”
She attempted to overdose on Advil, Tylenol, and prescription drugs she had stolen from family members.
She said she didn’t feel comfortable confiding in many people. She said her principal felt like the only person who cared. She told the principal she was ill and needed her mom to come to get her. The principal called and her mother did not answer, so they called Medeiros’ family friend to pick her up. Medeiros started passing out in the car, and her friend rushed her to the hospital.
Medeiros woke up in the emergency room. She had her stomach pumped and she could not stop vomiting. She was sick for 24 hours with her mother at her bedside.
“I really thought I wasn’t going to make it.”
Medeiros stayed at the hospital for a 72-hour psychiatric assessment. She had been through assessments like this before — but this day was different.
“Across the hall, there was a four-year-old girl needing a heart transplant. That was the day I really put everything into perspective. I thought, fuck, my life is nothing compared to what this little girl is going through.”
Medeiros said she bonded with the little girl. Medeiros’s mother bought the girl a robe to wear around the hospital. Medeiros and the girl talked about their families together.
“I couldn’t imagine what that family was going through just trying to help that little girl live. And I felt so selfish for wanting to not live.”
Medeiros is unsure of what happened to the girl after those 72 hours, but she says she can still feel the girl’s presence. Medeiros attempted suicide once more three months later, but she said meeting the little girl marked a turning point.
When released from the hospital, Medeiros started dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT). DBT is an out-patient therapy that works on emotion regulation and mindfulness. DBT benefits people with diagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety, and depression. DBT teaches people to look at all sides of the story. It focuses on mindfulness, distress tolerance, and interpersonal communication.
Natasha Smikles, a psychiatric nurse at Birch Wellness Center, has worked in DBT for the past seven years. Smikles believes patients must take control of their lives to find success.
“We need people living their real lives and applying these skills to their life. It puts the individuals back in control,” said Smikles.
Medeiros attended DBT meetings twice a week for individual therapy and group therapy. She had access to a therapist whenever she needed. She spent four years in the program and gradually stopped self-harming.
“It felt like a rebirth. I was a completely different person after this program,” said Medeiros.
When Medeiros completed her DBT program, she got her first tattoo. Her mother approved of her 17-year-old daughter’s tattoo — on one condition.
“I had to write an essay to my mom about why I wanted to get the tattoo,” said Medeiros.
She planned every aspect of the tattoo. She drew a detailed picture and included a colour scheme. She still has the sketches of her original artwork. She wanted this tattoo to represent that she was okay.
“It was a statement. I am getting better.”
Six pink roses are spread across Medeiros’ chest. Each rose is highlighted by an ocean blue background. Dark green leaves poke through, with two rose buds meeting in the middle of her sternum. One purple and yellow pansy stands out among the others. Medeiros said each flower represents a person who helped her in her recovery.
“The little roses were for my little cousins; they were really important to me. One for my mom, stepmom, and one for my friend Brett. The pansy is for my grandma. She loves them.”
Medeiros wanted to honour her recovery. In delicate cursive handwriting, the words “create a life worth living” is inked across her collarbone. This statement was on the back cover of every book she read during her time in DBT.
“It means to be truthful and mindful about how you’re living, and why you want to live.”
This tattoo was the start of her new life.
Medeiros said getting her tattoo was painful. The pain made her feel vulnerable. Medeiros considers tattooing a form of self-care. Even though she felt the pain of the tattoo, she said it is a therapeutic experience. She believes her tattoos have helped her to heal and become more spiritual.
“It’s like a suit of armour. Some people say that they could never get a tattoo because of the pain, but that was nothing compared to what I felt on the inside,” said Medeiros.
A large shading tattoo gun uses up to 21 needles to pierce the skin. These guns can pierce the skin up to 3,000 times per minute. This causes the body to experiences trauma. The immune system tries to heal the wound, the same way it would if it were healing a cut.
When Medeiros turned 21, she was ready to get another tattoo. This tattoo was different from her previous ones. She wanted a tattoo that would cover up the self-harm scars on her left arm.
“I was really ashamed of my scars. I didn’t want to look at them anymore,” said Medeiros.
The scars are old, healed over. They remind her of a life that was once too much to handle. She wanted to cover them up with something beautiful.
Tattoo artist, Keri Hamilton, specializes in scar cover-ups and medical tattooing. She said cover-ups are a personal experience between the artist and the client.
Hamilton, the owner of Cosmedic Ink, has been tattooing for 15 years. She covers up burn marks, surgery scars, and self-harm scars. She can camouflage scars with a flesh tone, or she can cover up scars with a decorative designed piece. Hamilton has even tattooed a belly button on a client who lost theirs during surgery. She used shading to make it look three-dimensional.
Hamilton has tattooed three clients with self-harm scars. She said these clients were quiet and rarely talked during their sessions.
“It’s private because they did it to themselves. It wasn’t done to them,” said Hamilton.
Not all scars can be covered. If a scar is too fresh, or if it is too raised, some artists won’t tattoo over it. With a fresh scar, the nerve damage could also cause the pain to be more intense.
One of Hamilton’s most popular services is for breast cancer survivors. She tattoos nipples and areolas onto clients who had theirs removed during surgery. One of her clients has had over 15 breast cancer surgeries.
Clients often jump up and hug Hamilton when they see their new tattoos. Hamilton said it is an emotional experience to watch someone gain back something they had lost. They never expect to feel whole again.
Bobbie Hornan got her areolas tattooed by Hamilton. Hornan was diagnosed with cancer and had a double mastectomy with reconstruction, areola reconstruction, and chemotherapy. She had her areolas removed which left a lot of scar tissue.
“When you see your scars every day, it’s a constant reminder of your trauma,” said Hornan.
Hornan covered her scars with areola tattoos in the summer of 2014. Hornan said she never doubted her decision.
“Don’t hesitate. Just do it. It makes a huge difference on how you feel about yourself,” said Hornan.
Hamilton, along with three other artists, founded a soon-to-be-charity called Angels Ink Foundation Manitoba. Their goal is to raise money to pay for clients’ scar cover-ups and nipple tattoos. Hamilton said not all clients who reach out to her are emotionally ready for the tattoo. Hamilton needs to interview every client to see if they are ready for the change. It’s her own version of a therapy session.
“I want to be sure I can help them. I had one woman who couldn’t even look at herself in the mirror. Cancer is hard on a lot of people. She wasn’t ready,” said Hamilton.
If Hamilton believes a client is not ready for the tattoo, she instructs them to seek counselling. For some, tattoos cannot heal the emotional trauma they are feeling.
“One woman wanted her eyebrows done. All the things she said during our consultation made me realize that eyebrows weren’t going to help her at all. I told her I didn’t think she was ready, and I suggested counselling,” said Hamilton.
Her clients — both potential and accepted — have one thing in common, they just want to feel better.
“Some clients never thought they would feel whole again,” said Hamilton.
Hamilton feels honoured and grateful to be a part of her clients’ journeys. It isn’t just emotional for the clients, it’s also emotional for her.
“Sometimes you just want to cry,” said Hamilton. “The most rewarding part of my job is being able to see them heal right before your eyes.”
Bright red flowers cascade down Medeiros’s arm. Purple amethyst crystals are hidden throughout the flowers. Medeiros said she believes this tattoo has always been a part of her, and her artist helped her to reveal it.
“It’s not only therapeutic to get this tattoo, but to be proud of something that you’ve thought of, that you’ve put meaning into and wear it as a badge of honour for the rest of your life,” said Medeiros.
Medeiros has five tattoos in total. Her shoulder tattoo is an illustration of her favourite movie, Spirited Away. A blue ocean background highlights smiling ghost-like characters as they perch on rose petals. A black and red mask with wide eyes is the focal point. She said the tattoo reminds her of happier times in her childhood.
“I would watch this movie every time I was feeling depressed. I’ve probably watched it 200 times, no exaggeration.”
The heroes in Spirited Away represent bravery. A white dragon with flowing blue hair wraps around Medeiros’s calf. The dragon, Haku, is a guiding light in Spirited Away. Medeiros sees Haku as her role model.
“I wanted to capture Haku’s energy. I want to be my own Haku and guide myself through life.”
Medeiros has a black outline of a small jar on her ankle. Inside the jar is a small piece of sage. Sage represents Medeiros’s spiritual side and self-acceptance. It is a stick and poke style tattoo she got with her best friend.
“We got matching tattoos. Now I have that bond with him forever.”
Tattoos are a form of public expression for Medeiros. She uses this art form to express her love for film, nature, and herself. People approach her on the street and comment on her tattoos. Medeiros said most comments are positive. A stranger once said she would be more beautiful without her tattoos.
“Beauty comes from the inside. The way you are as a person and the way you treat other people makes you beautiful. I think I am beautiful with or without my tattoos.”
Today, Medeiros finds beauty in her ability to grow and change. Her biggest focus in life is taking care of herself. She has started to become more spiritual. Instead of a television in her living room, she has an altar of crystals and candles. Her kitten, Basil, runs around the apartment and watches Medeiros.
Medeiros wants to use her past to help other young people going through trauma. She said she hopes to help people who feel misunderstood.
“I was supposed to go through that and learn from it. Now I can be empathetic to people who are going through stuff like that.”
When Medeiros imagines her future, she hopes to be open and honest about the path she has taken. She wants to remember monumental moments by looking at her tattoos.
“People always say, ‘What are you going to do when your old?’ I just say I’m going to value the experiences that I went through to get these tattoos.”
In addition to her tattoos, Medeiros says she practices Pranic Healing — harnessing energy to help with motivation and happiness — once a month to self-heal, cleanse her chakras, and manage her stress levels. It helps her to feel energized and in control of her emotions. Medeiros said she is proud to no longer be on any medication.
“I wanted to start a new life that I wanted to live, that I wanted to be proud of.”
Medeiros has not harmed herself in over four years. She said there is no turning back.