Tattooing Away the Pain by Laura Jane Grace
The Against Me! frontwoman talks about blacking out the depression.
Welcome to Mandatory Happiness, where Against Me! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace answers some questions from readers, Dear Stabby-style. This week, Laura found common ground while answering two different questions and has answered them together.
Got a Q for LJG? Submit them at and she will answer some on Noisey. All questions are confidential and your name will not be included if you'd prefer.
I was wondering if you could address the role tattoos play in your life, and more specifically, why you chose to recently black your arm. Was that something you've planned for a while?
I'm currently in a position where I'm dropping out of college for a semester because my depression has gotten to a point where it has taken over. During the darkest times—the suicidal breakdowns, etc.—what is your advice for persevering? Thank you so much.
I remember the moment well, sitting on my living room couch, computer in lap. I had totally bottomed out, recovering from a suicidal nervous breakdown, sick with an infection in my intestines. My marriage was over. I started smoking cigarettes again. I was seeing a psychotherapist, she was in my head and I hated every second of it.
She recommended that I go on anti-depressants—hardcore stuff, the kind that you can't just stop when you feel better. I said no. So she gave me an alternative—get a gym membership, work out to the point of exhaustion every day, "keep those dopamine levels up."
I tried that. I put on muscle mass. I didn't like it.
I'd been getting tattooed for years—my first at age 14—a stick-and-poke band logo my best friend James gave me on my ankle. I kept on getting tattooed by different artists, but it was more the tattoos that I sort of happened into. They were tour tattoos, milage markers, or "celebrating a bad decision" tattoos, like the name of a soon-to-be ex-girlfriend. They weren't large-scale pieces I put much thought into.
So anyways, there I was sitting on the couch, new to Chicago, no friends, no direction to head in, bleeding internally. I needed something to distract me from suicide. I did a Google search: "Chicago tattoo" and started looking at tattoo shops and artists. I found a shop called Butterfat in Logan Square that had a couple of upcoming guest artists whose work I liked, Gakkin and Kenji A-Lucky, both from Japan.
They didn't use much color in their tattoos, mainly black. I like black. I emailed both of them asking for appointments. Kenji responded first so I booked two days with him. I wanted Kenji to tattoo my feet. I wanted mandalas. If I felt like I had no direction to head in and I wanted the universe to open up underneath my feet and tell me which way to go.
There was a language barrier between Kenji and I. He knew a limited amount of English and my Japanese was non-existent. I was thinking small, cute mandalas on the tops of my feet. He came back with a design that covered each foot entirely. Each session was ten hours long. We finished one foot, took a day off, and then finished the other foot. I walked home each night afterwards. It was fucking painful, especially when he was drilling on my heel. But the dopamine high afterwards was unreal. I felt better, wanting to kill myself less, and wanting tattoo sessions more.
I want to be realistic about the future I'm facing. Electrolysis hurts. Sticking a huge fucking needle into my leg week after week hurts. Plastic surgery hurts. I know that gender reassignment surgery (doesn't that sound so cold and clinical?) will hurt. I want to control pain and not let it control me (did I just slip into a transsexual Macho Man Randy Savage?). Tattooing hurts. I have to focus to get through the experience, and when I do get through it, I feel better. All the other bullshit in my life doesn't seem so loud. It's a self-created juxtaposition. In comparison to this physical pain, all these other emotional traumas are totally tame and manageable.
After my feet healed, I booked a session with Gakkin, this time traveling to Kyoto, where he lives. I went there twice in 2014. He tattooed my neck. Again, each session was around ten hours long. The dopamine high from tattooing, coupled with the body shock of jet lag was even better. I booked more time and more time and more time. I’m a fiend, I'll do anything for a high.
I started on a back piece with both Kenji and Gakkin this year. This last time, we did four consecutive days in a row, for a total of about 25 hours straight of tattooing. At points, both of them were tattooing me at the same time. So much dopamine. So, so much dopamine. Those were some of the best days and nights of my life and the high from it has sustained me since. I leave again in a week for my next sessions with the two of them.
I know that this coping mechanism I've developed isn't for everyone. I'm not saying, "Are you depressed? Go tattoo your face, you'll feel better!"
I'm saying that when I had given up on living, I chose a direction to head in, and that direction gives my body a physical shock that creates dopamine. Find something that does the same for you.
For me, there's a physical marker that I have to remember the experience by. I look at my body and see the black and it reminds me. I want to be a shapeshifter. I don't want to remain the same. I don't want to die. I want to live.