Jess McCabe

I am a journalist and these are some of the stories I've been working on lately

Visible ink, the narrative of our lives, mechanical elephants, grief and joy


Tattooed people get used to telling the stories of our ink. Why did you pay an artist to inject pinpricks of ink into your epidermis? Aren’t you afraid you’ll get bored of it? What happens when you get old? Do you have any more, perhaps in locations concealed by your clothing?

And the hardest question to answer: What does your tattoo mean? It’s not surprising people want to know; as much as people gripe about hipster ink, in our temporary, fashionista culture, tattoos are surprisingly permanent. Something has to be damn significant to live with your entire life. (Yes, tattoo removal exists, but no-one goes into a studio planning to get their ink painfully erased a few years down the line.)

My elephant is the tattoo which draws the most remarks and questions. Sometimes I’ll feel like explaining, sometimes I won’t: it’s not a secret, but each of my tattoos are part of the story of my life and I won’t necessarily feel like sharing that at a particular time. Or it may depend on the person asking.

There are two explanations: one simple, one difficult.


Simply speaking, it is a tattoo of the mechanical, time-travelling elephant brought to London by a French theatre company, to my permanent delight. Saw it, loved it, got it drawn on my arm.

The longer story is that the Sultan’s Elephant walked into my life at an incredibly difficult and depressing time for me. My grandfather died a few months before, and my aunt Carol – who brought me up after my mum died – had also passed away fairly recently.

A 60 foot mechanical elephant was just what I needed to see at that time. It helped me tap into a childish joy at a horrible time. I got the tattoo to keep a handle on that moment of happiness.

I’m writing about this because on Friday I’m going to the Family Business tattoo shop in Angel and I’m getting my elephant recoloured; I’ve been meaning to do this since Tomas at the now-defunct Tusk studio (yes really) did the original. Because it is quite complex, some of the colours and detail never really took. It has taken me a while to work up to the experience again.

Tomas toughened my elephant up, and I think she is also a sort of protector who came into my life when I was feeling particularly vulnerable and unhappy (despite the many things that were still good and solid, particularly Mike, also my friends.)

I’ll be posting a photo again when it is (re)done, but I thought now is as good a time as any to tell this story.

3 comments for “Visible ink, the narrative of our lives, mechanical elephants, grief and joy

  1. April 12, 2011 at 10:00 pm

    Cracking story. Cracking elephant.

  2. April 12, 2011 at 11:20 pm

    Will always be to my eternal regret that I missed that wondrous visitation (I was out of London at the time and had no idea it was happening).

    When I later saw the footage my awe had never been more struck. Appealed on every level. Magic made manifest, beauty on the streets of the great metropolis. Of my three lucky wishes I now save one for the hope of the great pachyderm’s return.

    You’ve imbued your tattoo with magic – may all your handles on happiness be as gorgeous.

  3. admin
    April 13, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    Thanks @Croma, thanks @Chris!

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