Featured image: Maud Wagner, an early U.S. tattooist, in 1911. (New Yorker)

A year ago, I could stroll peacefully around campus without anybody noticing I existed. Nothing particularly stood out about me apart from my cropped blonde hair – a far cry from the long locks of most girls wandering around Exeter. Even then, I weaved in and out of crowds unnoticed.

Then everything changed.

I still remember that showering spring day last academic year when I booked my very first tattoo. I was excited, my hand shaking whilst I signed the contract. I paid the deposit and, a week later, turned up rather drunk to be tattooed. I expected the worst but the pain was like a hot scratch. It was a soothing pain, a pain that was satisfying because it was a means to an end. A very expressive and beautiful end.

That first tattoo opened a can of worms. I got another, bigger and more painful one the month after, and then delved into the world of piercings, having my tragus done. Now, after the first term of my final year, I have three tattoos and twelve piercings.

My tattoos are mostly visible when I go clubbing – short skirts and backless tops show them off. My piercings aren’t so easy to cover up – two of them are on my face. In Exeter University’s homogeneous population, I stick out like a sore thumb. It seems that the populous doesn’t approve of expressing individuality, with a huge proportion of students decked out in Jack Wills and modeled on barbie dolls. As a consequence of my personal style, people actively stare at me. Even lecturers, who know me for my eccentric, outspoken nature, find it hard to concentrate on anything except my eyebrow and lip piercings.

The reactions vary. Some people are too petrified to approach me, assuming I’m a Satanist (particularly if I’m head to toe in black). Others take a genuine interest, quizzing me about which piercing hurt most and what my tattoos mean. Some, it seems, wish to model themselves on the stereotypical American high school teenagers you spot in cheesy teen movies – they look with disgust and sneer behind my back. I can’t tell if that’s pure pettiness or it’s because they’ve been brought up to think that having copious tattoos and piercings isn’t the done thing.

I don’t regret my tattoos and piercings, despite the strange glances and glares I get whilst traipsing around campus. Recently, I was walking from town toward campus only for a fellow student to turn around, stare at me and make a vomiting noise, then run away. I was hurt for all of two seconds, before realising that I should be proud of my tattoos and piercings. I do look different, and it’s something to celebrate. After years of self-loathing, I finally feel comfortable in my own skin, and free to decorate it however I want.