Ink Visible Temporary Tattoo Project Makes Invisible Illnesses Visible


It started with a performance art project. Arianna Warner was tired of having her experience as a person living with an invisible illness discredited because she didn’t look sick. To bring visibility to her condition, Warner, a Portland, Oregon-based artist, created a temporary tattoo of the international symbol of access – the symbol used on handicap placards and accessible bathroom signs – and placed it all over her body, marking every painful area with a temporary tattoo.

Ariana Warner covered in tattoos
Credit: Arianna Warner

Almost 10 years ago, when she was 17, Warner was diagnosed with reflex sympathetic dystrophy, a rare nerve disorder that causes chronic pain. Since then, she has had multiple surgeries, hospitalizations and painful procedures – none of which are visible from the outside. “I’ve needed to use a wheelchair full time for a year, been put in over 50 medically induced comas, had spinal surgeries, nerve injections, and hospitalized for over a month,” Warner told The Mighty. “It’s hard when people look at you and discredit my experiences because I ‘don’t look sick’ or I’m ‘too young to experience that.’”

Warner wore the temporary tattoos for two weeks. As the tattoos started fading, Warner’s condition faded from visible back to invisible. “Throughout TVDT [Temporary (Visible Disability) Tattoos – the name of Warner’s performance art], many of the people who spoke with me eventually would disclose their own experience with an invisible disability.” During that time, anyone who asked Warner about her tattoos was given a different tattoo with a pledge on the back that said, “By applying this tattoo to my skin, I pledge to talk to anyone who inquires about this tattoo about invisible disabilities.”

Once the performance ended, Warner realized she wanted to give others a space to share their experiences, as well as de-stigmatize what it means to be a person with a disability. That’s when Warner created Ink Visible, a line of temporary tattoos created by tattoo artists with invisible illnesses.

Self-Harm Tattoo
Credit: Kimber Teatro

“In the last few years, I no longer want to go down this path alone and wanted to reach out to other people who may have similar experience,” Warner said. “Ink Visible is not only important for me to do for myself to feel connected with others, but I think it’s important for others who have felt isolated or felt like they can’t talk about what they go through inside.”

For Ink Visible’s first installment, Warner paired with five tattoo artists in Portland to create temporary tattoos representing those artists’ invisible illnesses. Tattoos were created to represent depression, self-harm, anxiety, bruxism and diabetes. Ink Visible also hosts events sharing the stories behind the temporary tattoos and letting participants share their own experiences. The next host city and tattoo designs will be announced later this month. Warner also plans on releasing a book featuring all illustrations and stories shared at Ink Visible public events.

Anxiety tattoo
Credit: Lindsay Carter

Those interested in purchasing the temporary tattoos from the Portland event can do so on the Ink Visible website. Each tattoo is $7 and comes with a bookmark of the artist’s complete story. More tattoos and designs will be added as the project develops and tours additional cities.

Image header credit: Aubrey Hight 

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