Tattoo artist transforms scars of trauma survivors into empowering masterpieces

VANCOUVER — Clients with scars from traumatic surgeries, suicide attempts and abuse are turning to a Vancouver tattoo artist for healing inside and out.

Auberon Wolf designs tattoos around cut lines from self-injury, burn welts and traces of physical violence, painting them into symbols of empowerment.

“You just can’t help but think, what can you put there to help the person feel more comfortable in their own skin,” said Wolf. “What can I bring to that with love and care, that’s more than just art?”

The process, which may take weeks or months, can be more therapeutic than the finished artwork, said Wolf, 29.

During busy weeks, as many as 10 clients visit Wolf’s vibrant studio to collaborate, paying with cash or traded skills. Wolf’s “most intense” work has coloured over wounded flesh up to a finger’s-width thick, while the artist hopes in the future to ornament burn scars featuring more ripple and texture.

One of Wolf’s favourite pieces is a watercolour fractal sunflower on the arm of a friend who cut herself as a street kid, helping the woman let go of her past identity. Another features a pattern of morning glories creeping around a woman’s ribs, which Wolf said sent her into spasms as the process evoked anguishing memories of a miscarriage.

“There’s something inherently radical about people carrying trauma investing in themselves, even if it’s going to take them to a painful or triggering place,” said Wolf. “We can rewrite that moment.”

Jenny Magenta is getting inked with a flower bouquet in tribute to her deceased mother, embroidering two unrelated scars on her right arm: a suicide attempt and a harrowing experience when an intravenous needle was used for a migraine.

Magenta said she had flashbacks when she first exposed her flesh to Wolf and the tattoo machine, but added she felt completely safe.

“I now have a beautiful piece of art here,” said Magenta, 46, tenderly pressing a pink dahlia. “I’m able to use this as an empowering device. I don’t get traumatized anymore.”

It’s not uncommon for artists to be asked to mask scars, such as from mastectomies. And in Brazil, a woman tattooer receives funding to paint domestic violence survivors from an NGO called the Municipal Secretariat of Policies for Women.

Wolf was drawn to trauma survivors after multiple personal incidents, including sexual assaults, car and bicycle accidents, and being on campus during the 2006 Dawson College shooting in Montreal.

Wolf said tattooing other trauma survivors is a calling that gives life purpose. A design on Wolf’s left arm fuses scars from self-injury during mental health struggles as a teen.

“Receiving tattoos was an immense vehicle for personal empowerment,” said Wolf, who identifies as genderqueer, or someone who doesn’t see themselves as exclusively masculine or feminine. “To heal over and over again as my skin healed.”

Cleanliness is paramount at the studio, said Wolf, who requires every client to sign an exhaustive consent form.

Laura Wallace, 42, said getting tattooed by Wolf stopped her from killing herself. She described the process as “bloodletting in a really safe way.”

“I could howl,” said Wallace, whose full back tattoo incorporates a recent lymph node extraction. “Some of it was attached to the pain happening on my body, but a lot of it was about what was going on in my life.”

There’s something “positive, more hopeful” about painting art on the body as a method of working through trauma, said Elizabeth Saewyc, a University of British Columbia nursing professor.

One theory explaining self-harm is that a person is seeking “to feel” after their body dissociates to handle distress, she said. The painful tattooing process might similarly ground someone, she said, but cautioned that individuals may respond differently.

“One size does not fit all,” said Saewyc, who studies trauma and resilience. “As with any other way of reclaiming your body and dealing … it’s really good to go into it thoughtfully and to get that careful, informed consent.”

Sugar Kaur, 40, a blind trans woman who has been physically abused, will soon have a dharma wheel tattooed over the vestiges of spina bifida surgery.

“I’m feeling a huge sense of relief that it’s actually in somebody’s hands,” said Kaur, explaining she neither wants to hide the prominent scar tissue nor draw attention to it.

“Just owning it.”

— Follow @TamsynBurgmann on Twitter

Tamsyn Burgmann, The Canadian Press

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