Lead illustration by Lia Kantrowitz
Anyone into kinky sex invariably ends up with "battle wounds," so to speak. Marks on your wrist if you're into restraint play, bruises if you're into flogging, flesh wounds if you and your partner are into more extreme BDSM acts such as branding, scarification, or other body modification. The vast majority of these injuries fade, but a few people want to get something a bit more permanent out of their sex lives—so they've turned to tattoos.
"It's a big turn-on to give my pet kitten tattoos," says Allan Crowder, a 33-year-old from Georgia who has given his 24-year-old wife, Virginia, multiple tattoos in the bedroom as part of their foreplay ritual. "It's something about her being helpless yet so strong at the same time, her breathing and moans of pain and pleasure… that get me in the mood." Virginia says that being tattooed by Allan brought them closer. "I feel that it strengthens my trust with him in our play. At the end of the day, my heart swells with happiness of the love we share," she explains.
Anyone with ink on their skin can attest to the sensuality of being tattooed. Being penetrated by a needle is an intense experience wrought with endorphins, where the "pain" or fear factor can be thrilling and even erotic. But in a dominant-submissive relationship, the arousal of being tattooed by a dominant goes beyond physical sensation. "They like the interaction," says Dulcinea Pitagora, a New York–based kink-friendly therapist. "They like the intimacy of that experience. Another reason could be the permanence of it, the bonding aspect in terms of making a long-term commitment." According to Pitagora, tattooing is the "most common" way for a domme to mark a sub today, with "scarification" as a close second.
"The person giving a tattoo hopefully is really into needle play or tattoo play, and the feeling of penetrating their partner's skin."
"There's nothing like having Daddy tattoo me," says Candie, a 38-year-old from New Jersey who identifies as a both a domme and a sub, also known as a "switch." Five years ago, a man she's been in a longterm kinky relationship with tattooed the back of her thighs with cherries and a banner that read "Daddy's Girl." Since then, "Daddy" has given her several other tattoos, including the word "slut" above her crotch.
That sort of ink play may be outside the mainstream, but it's maybe not as rare as you think. In D/S relationships, sometimes the submissive will identify as being "owned" by their partner. A tattoo, as well as non-permanent body modification, such as wearing a collar, can symbolize this agreed-upon ownership. "[The desire to] become a canvas for my domme came after a long, emotional journey of self-exploration," says Cynthia, a 24-year-old student in Colorado I emailed with. For her, the desire to be tattooed is intertwined with a desire to be owned in a relationship. She's currently searching for a female partner—a mistress—for whom she would act as a canvas.
Human canvas play is not a one-sided experience of arousal, either. "The person giving a tattoo hopefully is really into needle play or tattoo play, and the feeling of penetrating their partner's skin. You can feel the needle penetrate the skin, it gives a tiny little pop," says Pitagora. "Also there's probably blood… so these people could be excited by blood play."
Not everyone interested in ink play will have access to shop-quality tattoo guns or the skills to use the gear on a partner. Some may purchase cruder tattoo machines online, or use stick-and-poke equipment. Wolf is a 22-year-old from Detroit who was given a tattoo machine as a Christmas present and is currently teaching herself how to use it. "A friend showed me how to turn it on," she says. "Most of my practice is done on fruit, but I have given three tattoos to date. I have one girl that wants to come visit me all the way from Cali and has offered her whole body as a canvas."
That kind of devotion and submission isn't for everyone, of course. But with tattoos becoming more and more accepted—along with other mainstream forms of body modification, like plastic surgery—it's not hard to imagine it becoming more common. And of course, changing one's appearance for the sake of a sexual relationship is nothing new.
"People who receive body modification for their partner, like breast augmentation, [are] making a decision to permanently alter their body for a sexual or romantic reasons," says Pitagora. "Kink does tend to be more consciously and intentionally ritualistically… [but] the kink world is really not that different from the rest of the world."
But wait, what happens when kinky partners who tattoo each other break up?
"I wouldn't worry about any tattoo I received from a domme if we separated," says Chloe, a 41-year-old submissive. "I would either keep it as a memory, or just get it removed."
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