Beth Gilstrap

How to Tattoo a Disordered Woman


Session One: The Lovers, The Dreamers, and Me
Artist: Conan
Location: Inside left wrist

  1. Ignore what she tells you about the Muppets helping her survive childhood.
  2. Turn her slender wrist in your gloved hands while you remark on her good veins.
  3. Ask her thoughts on size while you make the stencil as big as you want.
  4. Tell her you’ll smudge the letters like you were using a typewriter.
  5. Never look her in the eye.


Session Two: Writing These Poems from Inside a Lion
Artist: Robert
Location: Upper right shoulder blade

  1. Tell her you love working on animals; since you moved here from LA, you’ve done too many crosses to count.
  2. Tell her to straddle the chair and fold her arms like she’s hugging the leather.
  3. Brush her right shoulder blade with your bare palm; clean it with alcohol.
  4. Use your smallest needle for the mane.
  5. Ask her what the lion means and tell her you think creative people are always more troubled.
  6. Wipe the blood away with a touch more tender than most.
  7. Tell her you got your portrait of Johnny Cash after your dad died from lung cancer and you hope her grandmother recovers soon though you both know she won’t.


Session Three: A Poppy for Mourning
Artist: Robert
Location: Inside right arm, below the elbow

  1. Show your teeth when you smile and tell her you like working on her.
  2. Have nothing prepared but go print five versions of watercolor red poppies and say you’d like to combine them all.
  3. Leave her to take a pill, drink a glass-bottle Coke, and watch reruns of LA Ink while you draw.
  4. Use seven different colors over five hours, but let her take a break three hours in because the blood has drained from her face.
  5. Ask her if she’s eaten.
  6. Give her a protein bar.
  7. Tell her she’s beautiful, to lie back down—it’s almost over.
  8. Don’t return her calls when the flower gets infected.


Session Four: Semicolon
Artist: Robert
Location: Upper left ball of shoulder

  1. Tell her you won’t do a semicolon because it’s a fad.
  2. Dismiss her attempt to mark herself a survivor.
  3. Lose her as a client.


Session Four: Peonies and Herbs Gone to Seed
Artist: Kerry
Location: Upper left shoulder blade, wrapping

  1. Email her a few weeks ahead of time and tell her you can’t wait to work on the piece.
  2. Tell her to send you pictures of her other ink and left arm.
  3. Draw a piece for the ball of her shoulder.
  4. Rework it when she points out the constellation freckles she doesn’t want to lose.
  5. Come back with a piece where the oregano blooms over her collarbone.
  6. Talk about art and pain, bad men and mothers while you work a thousand lines into her skin.
  7. Climb on the table at one point so you can get the right angle.
  8. Ask if her neck is okay.
  9. Tell her she’s a fucking badass for sitting this long at one time.
  10. Tell her you understand while twirling the identical studs just under your bottom lip.


Session Five: Survival
Artist: Kerry
Location: Inner left and right bicep

  1. Ask her if she’s sure she wants it in your childlike handwriting.
  2. Tell her you’ll freehand the starbursts but stencil the lettering.
  3. Tell her you admire her for being willing to put these words on her body.
  4. Ask what’s wrong and respond with recognition that sometimes a life disintegrating makes the best art.
  5. Tattoo I’m going to write fire until it comes out of my ears on the inside of her right arm.
  6. Tattoo I’m going to go out like a fucking meteor on the left.
  7. Talk about Audre Lorde and poets and activism, terror and legacy, and how sweet Maggie Smith was when you put violets for her daughter on her arm.
  8. Hug her with more strength than a five-foot, hundred-and-ten-pound woman should have.





Beth Gilstrap is the author of I Am Barbarella: Stories (2015) from Twelve Winters Press and No Man’s Wild Laura (2016) from Hyacinth Girl Press. She serves as Fiction Editor at Little Fiction | Big Truths and a reader at Creative Nonfiction. Her work has been selected as’s Fiction Pick of the Week, nominated for storySouth’s Million Writers Award, Best of the Net, and The Pushcart Prize. She was a finalist for both The Doris Betts Fiction Prize and Best Small Fictions 2018. Her work has appeared in Re:ALQueen Mob’s TeahouseThe Minnesota ReviewHot Metal Bridge, and Little Patuxent Review, among others. In the spring, she’ll join Queens University of Charlotte as adjunct faculty.