About Me (Sofia)

Sofia the WrenScarred, neuro-divergent, trans, queer, tattooed, survivor, some-time writer, electrologist, tattooist. I guess you could say it's complicated. I'm old now, older than I'd like to be at least, but still without wisdom, at least as most people would understand it. As a child I saw things no child should see, watched carers see things no parent should ever accept. It's hard to grow into adulthood carrying such weight, harbouring such memories so I stumbled, losing myself to substance abuse and self-annihilation. My trans-ness didn't help, it was a different era. There was no internet, no place to find community, no means amidst small northern towns by which I could even begin to understand myself. From the media, from my friends, from my family, I learned only to be ashamed. I listened so hard to what they said about people like me, felt so deeply their rejection, their disgust, their ridicule, remember so clearly their laughing at me as I sat beside them unseen. I thought myself quite mad, and realised they would not disagree.

So I bore this weight and fell, I wanted nothing so much as to stop this pain, to still my mind, quieten these memories, so every waking moment I took whatever I could to dull my thoughts, driving myself to oblivion. Until I realised I was dying, but worse in trying to escape what had been done I was making their long prophesied worthlessness true, and I thought of them vindicated, and happy. I could not allow that.

For a while I had been and would be homeless, but in time I found myself a room in a town where no one knew me, and living there on income support and housing benefit I started to draw, and read, and write, and draw more, all and everyday. Eventually I began a foundation course, but because had I officially enrolled I'd have lost the benefits that allowed me to survive, I never did. My course leader simply turned blind eye and allowed me to continue, no fees paid, no official record. I remember his name to this day, and likely owe him more than he could ever know. I applied for degrees then, but missed my interviews with glandular fever. It seemed a disaster at the time but fate would deem otherwise. At the end of the course, I was awarded an unofficial distinction with the highest aggregate marks in my year, and the following autumn I applied to The Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at the University of Oxford. I didn't really expect to get in, or even get an interview. My school record, blighted by teenage drug abuse certainly wasn't up to it, but I thought what the hell, it's worth a go right, maybe between my portfolio and personal statement I can convince them I'm at least worth a shot.

I guess in retrospect my application was naively fraudulent - I claimed a distinction in a course I was never officially awarded, and the same tutor who had turned a blind eye, wrote my reference and turned a blind eye once more. Regardless I was interviewed, somehow won a place, and the following autumn moved from the poverty of income support amidst the generational decline of a former mining town to the history and privilege of Oxford, where meals were provided, and scouts cleaned your rooms, and the buildings themselves were breathtaking in their beauty and grandeur. I had barely dreamed of such places, never mind lived amongst them and been granted access to their rarest halls. Everyday there was a gift, but still I felt alien, an interloper who dare not use the libraries, who was too ashamed of their past to allow it to be known, of the hunger they had known, of the days spent in darkness as they had no cash to feed the meter. Here I pretended to be one of them whilst I worked every last moment I had studying anatomy, life drawing, sculpture, painting, art history, and critical theory. It seems I failed in my middle class pretensions as I more than once was told people like me had no right to be at that university, yet at the end of my first year I won a scholarship and a prize as the most outstanding student amongst my peers, and eventually to be awarded a double first.

From there I moved to London and to Goldsmiths for a masters degree, before leaving academia to work for artists, making the work they could not make themselves, as well as prototyping and production developing furniture for designers like Zaha Hadid and Amanda Levete.

Life was pretty good, and my work interesting, but I began to think of transition, finally realising it could be a reality as I took my first steps self medicating hormones in 2002. It felt unbelievably right, like fog clearing from my mind, or someone finally turning off a tap that had been continuously running just a few feet behind my head for the entirety of my life. It felt like a kind of unexpected peace, or returning to a long missed home. That was when I knew who I was, it was also when I was almost immediately diagnosed with cancer.

Las results. A pencil drawing of a post operative reconstructed face At 16 I'd had my nose pierced. Badly. It never really healed, and at some point I suspect became infected with HPV. At about 21 I stopped wearing nose studs and it healed over. Unfortunately at some point in my late 20s a carcinoma began growing beneath the skin of my nose. I did see a dermatologist fairly early when I noticed a persistent weird looking pimple, but they told me I was too young, and by the time they'd realised I wasn't it had invaded most of the left side of my nose. Because I had to have two operations in a day - the excision and reconstruction - and they didn't want me to go under general anaesthetic twice, it was excised under local anaesthetic, an operation that took just under 3 hours, and left me with a two inch hole in the middle of my face. I lived a lifetime in those three hours, the horror I felt beyond words. My face was reconstructed, but still bares those skin grafts and scars. They are fading now, pale, less lumpen and angry, but also I have numbed myself to the stares and double takes, adapted myself to a life where a staring child, or an embarrassed glance away, can trigger memories so awful even today after 20 years I freeze and the world disappears into something like a dream. More things happened back then, my partner at the time, my family, the surgeons, even the lawyers who investigated potential negligence, all told me how lucky I was not to be a woman, how for a man such disfigurement was tough but not terrible, but for a woman would be unthinkably bleak. I know now how stupid they were, how obsessed with vanity, when vanity is nothing compared to otherness and trauma. None-the-less, I heard this as a not quite out trans woman, and thought my chance had forever gone. It seemed this is what was being said, at least this is what I was hearing. My chance was gone, and I tried to use the trauma, the pain, to 'cure' myself of my trans-ness.

Perhaps in some ways it was for the best, I had three operations in all, and in the years immediately following, my sense of self slowly dissolved. Not just from the pain and the events themselves, but because in becoming scarred everyone else reacts differently towards you. There person you were is no longer the person you are, and the difference is stark and shocking as you begin to realise how much our self of self is constructed by the way those around us react towards us, and if this changes as if in an instant it's very easy to lose sight of who we ourselves are. People treated me as someone else, someone other than myself, only I hadn't yet figured out who, or perhaps what, because for a time I came to think of myself as something other than human, something more like an object that had no right to fully engage with humanity. It took a long time to realise I was still human, that I could be desired, that I could allow myself to desire, that I could offer to and expect humanity from others. It was a long way back.

I also stopped the work I loved - making things - because the masks we had to wear to protect ourselves from the dust and vapour no longer sealed around my scars, or else had to be pulled so tight the pressure there became damaging and unbearable. I left London and with a partner opened a shop - Objects of Use. It was quite a hit, regularly featuring in design magazines, and listed amongst the 100 best shops worldwide. It was interesting at first, building everything, the shop, the website, the product list, the coding and the research, the design. It was hard too in those early years, forcing myself to face a public who would stare and sometimes joke at the expense of my still raw scars, or else drop cash onto the counter and accept change as if from a leper. It became exhausting even whilst slowly I healed, recovered my humanity, reconstructed my sense of self, and of worth. As I healed, I realised too that I was still trans, the pain had not 'cured' me as I had hoped, the dissolution of self I experienced hadn't changed the fundamentals of who I was, hadn't allowed myself to rewrite that internal code which would allow me to fit the expectations of others. The cancer simply delayed my transition. For twelve years.

Which is the time it took me to speak of what happened. To stop running from those memories and begin to describe them. First to write, then to speak, to draw, to have them inked into my flesh. I wanted people to know, I wanted too to reclaim the body that had caused so much hurt, I wanted people to see what I couldn't speak of, I wanted gargoyles to keep the demons at bay, and somehow through my tattoos I turned the trauma into a kind of strength, and rediscovered who I wanted to be.

One of my earliest tattoos carries the words 'They cut away the centre of my face as I lay awake and unmoving save the involuntary beat of my heart'. Which is true, but also reminds me now of the process of tattooing itself. For all my tattoos I lay awake and unmoving as they ofttimes hurt, and every time weeped blood, and ink, and tissue fluid. Yet we lie there through the pain and discomfort, we commit to the care whilst we heal, and I wonder now if I'm not in someway reliving what happened, but with a sense of control and of ownership whilst my skin is marked. I believe there can be a kind of therapy in tattooing, and there is without any any doubt a kind of ritual, even if we deny it, even if we hide it from ourselves, bury it in the trite vicissitudes of pop culture, there is a ritual marking, a kind of trial, a certain suffering, a slow healing, and a kind of rebirth as a quietly different version of ourselves.

Tattoos are always important, they exist not just as art, though they are they as well, but also as symbols of self transformation, and as tattooists that is and always will be our great responsibility.