Portland woman taps into tattoo community to make invisible disabilities visible

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Portland State University grad student Arianna Warner reacts after having temporary tattoos placed on her forearms by Hawthorne Ink tattoo artists Aubrey Hight, left, and Kimber Teatro.Portland State University grad student Arianna Warner gets scathing looks on a regular basis.

Quick with a laugh, upright and energetic, Warner looks like any other 26-year-old college student. That’s why when she uses her disabled parking permit, she catches a lot of heat.

“People make these huge assumptions,” she says. “It turns into this attack.”

Warner has an invisible disability that makes it painful to walk and it is what has inspired her degree project in PSU’s Master of Fine Arts in Art and Social Practice. Called Ink Visible, it’s a project in which five Portland tattoo artists created temporary tattoos that are inspired by their own invisible disability. The idea is to make an invisible disability visible — to have a conversation starter that gives people an easy way to start talking about a condition that may not be readily apparent.

Hawthorne Ink tattoo artist Kimber Teatro says she was immediately drawn to the project.

“I know that with mental health, people don’t recognize it as an illness,” Teatro says, adding that she has started a support group ironically titled “Portland Cry Babies” for that reason. “I just want to spread the awareness that just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

In fact, Teatro says that her career in tattooing was inspired by her depression and tendency toward self-harm.

“I can’t hurt myself there because I have a tattoo, and I don’t want to ruin my tattoo,” she says.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Hawthorne Ink tattoo artist Kimber Teatro created this temporary tattoo for the Ink Visible project.

Silence is so bad

Warner, who cannot ever get a tattoo as it would aggravate her chronic pain condition, plans to print 5,000 copies of the temporary tattoos, 1,000 for each design. The tattoos will be given away for free on May 13 from 7 to 10 p.m. at the Lucky Lab Beer Hall on Northwest Quimby Street.

She is running a Kickstarter campaign to raise $6,000 needed to pay the artists, rent event space and print the tattoos. She hopes to replicate the project in other cities, too, with each project launching the next one.

Tattoo artist Aubrey Hight says her design of a woman’s head with stars escaping out the top is intended to represent how her depression can feel like an out-of-body experience.

Hight says she has learned to manage her mental illness — to go about her life in spite of it. She wishes she had had role models when she was younger who were open about mental illness.

“I feel like silence is so bad,” she says. “When we keep things a secret and hold it in, it’s just toxic.”

In addition to Teatro and Hight, who both work at Hawthorne Ink in Southeast Portland, there are three other artists featured in the project.

Lindsey Carter of Opal Ink created a surrealist design of a bird with a cage for a head to represent multiple mental illnesses. Tanya Magdalena of Above the Pearl Tattoo illustrated a tooth with a lightning bolt to symbolize bruxism, a jaw-clenching disorder. And Trevor Ward of Albatross Tattoo made a line drawing of a dark castle with a hypodermic needle to symbolize diabetes.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Four of the five tattoos created by artists for the Ink Visible project that seeks to illustrate disabling conditions to spread awareness.

One in five has a disability

Warner says the stereotypical accessibility symbol of a stick figure in a wheelchair is a poor representation of the broad spectrum of disability in the world.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all fix,” she says.

In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau says that in 2010 there were 56.7 million Americans living with a disability, about one in five people. Many disabilities may not be visible, such as pain, cancer, hearing loss, sensory integration disorders or many other chronic health conditions.

“I have managed my way to thinking about (my disability) that not everyone is going to know about what’s going on in my life,” Warner says. “This project, it’s about sharing that part of you that’s really personal and doing it on your own terms and doing it through your own expression.”

Warner — who also did a TEDx Talk on her art project, which had her wearing a dinosaur suit to relieve stress and spread happiness during a long hospital stay and during midterms at Stony Brook University — says she wants to spend her life connecting with people and using art to express who she really is.

“I don’t know what the future holds,” she says. “Through all of my experience, I have learned that life is too short to do something you don’t love or aren’t passionate about.

“That’s cheesy,” she adds.

“No,” Hight says, “that’s real.”

Shasta Kearns Moore
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