Six months after she was raped in early 2015, Mandi Gray got a tattoo of a bird breaking free from a cage.
It represents freedom, Gray told VICE, not just from sexual assault but from the medical and criminal justice systems that she endured after being raped.
"Tattooing hurts, and at the time I just needed to feel something because I was so numb all the time," she said.
While Gray was working as a research assistant for The Tattoo Project, a crowdsourced archive, at York University, she met many people who commemorated dead loved ones with body art. But she also began to run into people who, like her, had commemorated sexual violence with one or several tattoos.
"After a sexual assault, it is common to feel numb, a loss of agency and that our bodies are no longer ours," she said. "Tattoos provide a mechanism to reclaim the body—to make it our own."
VICE reached out to several sex assault survivors to ask about the significance of their tattoos and how they've helped with the healing process.
Hannah Schiller, 24, Chicago
VICE: Can you talk a bit about what happened when you were assaulted?
Hannah Schiller: There was one back in 2010 and it was a preview weekend for the college I was planning on attending and another potential freshman coerced me and really pressured me into doing things I wasn't comfortable with. We didn't have sex but still sexual activities I wasn't comfortable with. And then in 2015 one of my best friends got me black out drunk and raped me.
What was the aftermath like for you?
I tried to ignore them at first and move on and still be nice to both guys and try to be friendly but that got really hard because obviously I was still reflecting on what had happened in both situations. And there was a feeling of loss and a lack of ownership of my body.
At that time did you have any tattoos?
I did not.
So what made you decide to get tattoos relating to these traumatic experiences you'd had?
I felt loss of myself and a loss of sense of ownership and so getting tattoos felt like reclaiming my body and putting something on my body that made it different, that these men hadn't touched. And being able to say, "this is mine" felt really powerful to me. And having imagery that related to the assaults and my dedication to helping other survivors now has been a nice guiding light and to have that on my body is really meaningful.
What did you have tattooed?
I have a big one down my side, it's a framed piece of Artemis who is the goddess of the hunt in Greek mythology. She's known for being the goddess of the hunt in the wilderness but she's also really associated with chastity and virginity. There's this one story that she caught this man spying on her and her followers while they were bathing and she turned him into a deer and had his own hunting dogs hunt him down and tear him to pieces. It's a little graphic but I like that story and I really liked Artemis growing up and so having something that's connecting my childhood to who I want to be, being able to protect others and serve others who have been assaulted.
I have another big one down my thigh. It's just a floral piece, it's lots of flowers that represent five of my favourite female characters in books that were really strong and persisted through any sort of obstacle.
Who are they?
Ella from Ella Enchanted
Alanna the Lioness from The Song of the Lioness series
Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series
Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice
Lisbeth Salander from the Millennium series ( Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
Do you have any others?
I have one other small one. After the Oscars performance last year of "Til It Happens To You," the song that Lady Gaga wrote for The Hunting Ground, there were 50 survivors onstage with her and I was one of them. And so the 50 of us I think almost all of us got matching tattoos that another one of the survivors had designed and Lady Gaga ended up getting it as well, which is super exciting. It's small and on my ribcage under my heart, it kind of looks like a Celtic knot. It's a graphic design meant to represent a rose on fire.
Roslyn Talusan, 25, Toronto
VICE: When were you sexually assaulted?
Roslyn Talusan: I was assaulted by a coworker in February 2015. It was a coworker from my first office job and I ended up going through all the legal processes and criminal charges and a harassment complaint through work. Literally the day after I reported that assault to my managers I went and got my first tattoo. That was the jumping off point for me realizing how getting tattoos helped me reclaim my body.
What was the first one?
The first tattoo was 22 in Roman numerals, so it was XXII. And I went and got it with my cousin who I've known forever. We're both born on April 22 so that's kind of symbolic and I was also 22 at the time. We had the day planned for a couple of months, it was just a coincidence that I ended up reporting the rape to management the night before we were supposed to go. So XXII ended up meaning a lot since so much happened when I was 22. I finished my undergrad, my boyfriend of eight years had just broken up with me that December, the rape happened.
What other ones do you have?
My name is Roslyn and it means "beautiful rose" in Spanish. I wanted to get something that kind of symbolized me. The imagery of a rose how it's all thorny and stuff and how it blooms so beautifully and it's a symbol of love, that just really spoke to me because after the assault I was just obviously traumatized and didn't know what to do with myself. But kind of turning inwards and realizing I'm not going to let this affect who I am, I'm not going to let the assault turn me into a cold person I'm going to act out of love. I turned it from a really awful, negative traumatic experience into something positive.
That ties into my third tattoo. I got daisies on the second anniversary of my assault. That's the April birth flower and I'm born in April and they're a symbol of transformation and rebirth and renewal. And that really spoke to me. Like I said, the assault was a negative thing and I turned it into a very positive thing where I advocate for sexual violence survivors, I advocate for myself as one. I'm really dedicated and passionate in my activism and stuff.
And then there's another tattoo. It's script, they're lyrics from the song called 'Gemini Feed' by Banks. She's one of my favourite songwriters. So it says "If you would have let me grow you could have kept my love" which just really spoke to me at the time. I had just been sexually assaulted by my best friend when I got that tattoo and when that song came out. The lyrics really spoke to my experience as a woman and a lover. A lot of men I've dated have been awful. The lyrics kind of spoke to how men kind of expect women to fit into this box and they don't let us be brilliant and shiny and stuff. My best friend
knew about the first assault and then he still did what he did and I was really emotionally affected by that obviously.
Why would you want something that reminds you of a traumatic experience?
Just because it's something traumatic, doesn't mean I just wanna forget it. It's always going to be a part of me, it's a huge part of who I am. I can't ever erase that from my memory, I might as well honour it by getting it permanently etched onto my body. I remember calling tattoos kind of like my battle scars. Scars don't really ever go away. These tattoos are a more aesthetic reminder or commemoration of the things that I've been through and survived.
Glen Canning, 54, Toronto
Canning's daughter Rehtaeh Parsons died by suicide in April 2013, at the age of 17, about a year and a half after she was allegedly gang raped. Canning spoke to VICE about his daughter's tattoos and his own in her memory.
VICE: Tell me about Rehtaeh's tattoos.
Glen Canning: The first tattoo Rehtaeh got was Asian letters (pictured above). She did that just a couple months after she was assaulted, she was 16 at the time. Strength and courage were the words it translated to and Reh kind of felt that was a reflection of her and her battle. She was in a way reclaiming herself; this was her body, it belonged to her, nobody else. She made the decisions for it. She was very happy after she got it. It just seemed like a massive confidence boost for her.
Did you or your wife have concerns about her getting tattooed as a teenager?
Me and her mom talked about it and under the circumstances, we wanted Reh to make a decision for herself. She knew this was for life, she put a lot of research into it. It wasn't even a second thought whether or not this would be something good for her, we knew that it would be.
What were her other tattoos?
She had another tattoo of a feather where the top is blowing off into birds flying away. It's a beautiful tattoo, really, it was very pretty. With the birds flying away, after Rehtaeh died, some of her friends had tattoos like that as well. It had a lot of meaning and symbolism too, like you're free. It was a very touching tattoo. It meant a lot to Reh.
She also had a crow done on her arm. The crow was kind of a spiritual bird for Reh. She really kind of started to get tattooed once the door was open but every time she did it was just something inside her that it triggered. It freed her, you know.
Reh's final tattoo, it was on her finger. It was "fuck you." I didn't like that one. Following her death I've seen pictures of her showing it almost like it was a salute. I don't know, as her dad looking at it, in some ways you're like "Oh, that's my daughter," but in other ways it's like 'That's a resistance fighter." She was fighting a fight and to hell with people. After a while Reh tried to focus on herself and people who mattered instead of this, right. It didn't go too well but she tried.
Do you have any tattoos about Rehtaeh?
I have a tattoo of a crow with Rehtaeh and when I tattooed Rehtaeh's name I had it done off a Father's Day card that she'd sent me, I took her signature and used that. And I got another one for Reh, it's a robot. Before she died she actually penciled in some robot thing and I'm a sci-fi person and I know Reh was very much interested in astronomy and space and the sci-fi side of things too. I guess I found something in it to remember her by and carry it with me.
Hillary Di Menna, 31, Toronto
VICE: Tell me about your tattoos
Hillary Di Menna: I have a million tattoos but a lot of them are just from experiences together. I was raped when I was 14 at a high school party. I was passed out and I woke up with someone on top of me and there was a dresser pushed in front of the door. I didn't do anything because I was 14 and confused and I had been drinking. The next morning, the guy was gone and a girl had come up to me and said "If you tell anyone I'm gonna beat you up." I stayed quiet for a very long time. All my best friends encouraged me to stay quiet. I went to a doctor and they told me "We don't use the word rape here." And I had a history of domestic violence. I left a very, very abusive relationship. That was what inspired to me become a journalist. With that one what was the most traumatic was the court system and just this culture of silence.
What did you have done?
There is one it's a Hello Kitty with a pencil and glasses and I got that when I decided that I was going to speak out about the violence that I had experienced. But also going through the system and finding out I'm not as unique as I had been made to think. Writing has always been my skill so I decided that what I what I was gonna do.
The word 'Fuck' is on my ankle and I just got that because it is so bold and I got that surrounded by flowers because I'm really into femininity and power. It is a very literal 'fuck you' to my abusers and our system that fosters and perpetuates this abuse.
Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
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