Disability Ink Goes Mainstream

Erika Bogan by BAW Photography

Mine is innocuous enough. It’s a little gecko on my lower abdomen that I got while attending the University of Florida’s homecoming in my freshman year of college. There is no particular meaning attached to it other than I was having a really good time with great friends. Subsequent tattoos, however, are a different story. Deeper meanings and intense memories became prerequisites for any new ink, including reflections of my children, being an active-duty Air Force officer on 9/11, and my passion for travel.

Once relegated in Western culture largely to rock stars, sailors, gang members and prisoners, tattoos now are as common as pierced ears. But tattoos have been a significant part of many cultures for centuries, including the Maori in New Zealand and numerous tribes across Africa. In addition to serving as a rite of passage into adulthood or memorializing family ties, tattoos have a unifying effect. For example, many U.S. Marines have tattoos of the “EGA,” or the eagle, globe and anchor, which is a primary symbol of the service. Tattoos can symbolize membership in a club, whether it’s a motorcycle gang or fans of a football team.

Another such “club” is the disability community. We get tattoos, like everyone else, but because of our various physical conditions and disabilities, getting one as a wheelchair user can present unique challenges. Still, many disabled enthusiasts will tell you: Tattoos are a great way to celebrate and commemorate your life on wheels.

Owning It with Ink

Side view of woman sitting sideways on chair naked displaying tattoos under her arm and on her ankles
Jesi Stracham

Jesi Stracham is an athlete, model and disability rights advocate who began using a wheelchair after a motorcycle accident in 2015. She got her first post-injury tattoo shortly afterward, at age 22. It reads, “Feed me to the wolves and I’ll lead the pack,” a philosophy she’s followed ever since. “I got into this crazy accident where I died twice and came back, and I was leading the pack,” she says. She describes her other tattoos as images of things or concepts that are near and dear to her heart.

People with tattoos often have interesting stories related to them, and Stracham is no exception. “I broke my foot waterskiing a year into my injury and went to the same hospital I was taken to after my accident,” she says. “That was when I met the emergency-room nurse who was on duty the night I was resuscitated, and she remembered me from my (pre-injury) tattoos.” Stracham believes that tattoos give the disability community a sense of being in this together. “Many of us have tattoos of wheelchairs, and it’s typically our way of saying, ‘I’m owning this, I’m living it, and I’m using it to my advantage.’”

Erika Bogan is an athlete, travel consultant and former Ms. Wheelchair America. Like Stracham, she uses a wheelchair because of a spinal cord injury and enjoys having multiple tattoos. She says, “My tattoos represent chapters in my life, and are all very symbolic of things that have happened to me as part of my journey.” As a victim of domestic violence, Bogan is particular when selecting who does her ink. “I’m weird about who touches me,” she says. “This is why I’ve had only two tattoo artists, because they’re people I’ve built relationships with and trusted.”

Finding an artist you trust is essential, and finding one who can comfortably accommodate you can be tricky as well. “My friend who does my tattoos had a shop, and because the place wasn’t accessible, I would have to go through the back door just to get inside,” says Spencer Blomquist, a vacation consultant who has used a wheelchair for 14 years due to an SCI from a bullet wound. “And none of the rooms inside the shop were accessible, either.” The solution? His friend would let him in on Sundays when the shop was closed and set up everything for him to get tattooed in the lobby.

Accommodations often go beyond simply getting in the door. Bogan’s hip flexors have major muscle contractures that shorten her leg muscles and prevent her legs from fully extending. She can’t lie on her stomach, so for her back tattoo, she had to sit in her wheelchair with the brakes on and lean over for the tattoo artist. Cory Lee, an accessible travel blogger, has spinal muscular atrophy and uses a large power wheelchair. “It’s difficult for me to easily transfer over to a table, so that’s why most of my tattoos are on my arms,” he says. He only has one tattoo on his right ankle because he’s limited in how he can position his legs.

SCI Issues

People with higher-level spinal cord injuries also must be aware of potential issues with autonomic dysreflexia, as the stimulation of the needle below your level of injury can cause discomfort that triggers an abnormal overreaction of the involuntary nervous system. Symptoms range from goose bumps to excessive sweating and high blood pressure. Left unchecked, high blood pressure combined with a very low heart rate can lead to a stroke, seizure or cardiac arrest.

Close up of man's arm showing sleeve of colorful tattoos including a subway train and a bridge
Spencer Blonquist

Blomquist makes sure his tattoo artist is aware of the potential for AD and is careful to sit up and let his blood pressure go down if he starts feeling any symptoms. For Greg Traynor, a quadriplegic who has used a wheelchair since 1999, relieving AD can be as simple as reclining in his wheelchair. If symptoms do not go away after taking a break or making adjustments, you should consider stopping the session. There are also drugs like nifedipine and topical nitroglycerin paste that can quickly lower your blood pressure in case of an emergency, but you should consult with your doctor before considering them.

One tattoo enthusiast who is uniquely aware of all these considerations is Nathan Galman, one of a handful of wheelchair users working as tattoo artists. Galman, who lives in Chicago, started out as a body piercer, but the people he was working with saw his artistic talent and asked if he wanted to try his hand at tattooing. Galman has autism, which he credits for making him a quick learner, and has been a successful tattoo artist now for nine years — eight of them as a part-time wheelchair user who has also experienced AD.

“Autonomic dysreflexia can be a really big situation for us because, obviously, you have extended periods of sitting, and being in one position too long can be make or break,” he says. “AD can hit randomly, so I can be in the middle of a tattoo session, and my leg will feel like there’s fire running through it.” He has also had a client with AD. To prevent any issues, she would stay in her power wheelchair so she could recline during the tattooing session if needed.

Man in powerchair smiling at camera while woman tattoos his arm
Cory Lee

Instead of trying to make a standard tattoo parlor meet his accessibility needs, Galman retrofitted his home to create an accessible studio where everything he needs is within easy reach. When he was still using a wheelchair full time, he used a raised massage table for clients to lie on so he could roll underneath. Tattooing in his chair made him mindful of pressure points on his body when leaning over for long periods of time.

He acquires all of his clients through his website and Instagram, and they know about his disability. “I’ve never had any clients show any kind of prejudice, but I’ve been to tattoo conventions in certain parts of the country where people have been more … closed-minded,” he says. “They might see me and expect lower quality work, but that ends up not being the case. If anything, that becomes interesting to them instead of being a reason to second-guess.”

To wheelchair users thinking about getting their first tattoo, Nathan says the most important thing is to communicate clearly with your tattoo artist about your expectations and what you want. He also says that if you have issues with spasticity or sensitivity in parts of your body where you want to get a tattoo, it’s best to choose a design that doesn’t require straight lines or fine detail.

Your Personal Billboard

Despite the wide range of disabilities, personal experiences and tattoo styles among the wheelchair users I interviewed, all of them agreed that tattoos are a great way to bring together the disability community, and serve as excellent conversation-starters. Galman believes that tattoos announce who you are. “Getting a tattoo is like a billboard,” he says. “People who don’t know your story can get a brief look.”

Bogan says, “Almost everyone in the (tattooed) wheelchair community (whom) I’ve met … has at least one that represents their disability. That’s absolutely beautiful because it puts more representation of our lives out there.” She says people without tattoos often approach her to ask what her tattoos mean. “I look at that as a great educational opportunity.”

In my 18 years of being part of the disability community, I have found that just starting a conversation can be the most challenging, rewarding and wonderful experience that people with and without a disability can have with each other. If that can be brought about by the simple act of inking some permanent art on our skin, then put me at the front of the line at a wheelchair-accessible tattoo studio so I can start working on number 15.

Reader Tats

Tattoo on a woman's arm in black ink that reads" Obstinate, headstrong girl" with a branch of flowers below

Sara Nurrenbern: “I have ALS. This is a favorite Jane Austen quote. Below is a sprig of heather which represents good luck and reversal of fortune. I have defied the odds and survived six years with ALS and am even suspected to be in the 1% experiencing a regression! This tattoo reminds me daily to keep fighting.”

James Lee: “The sign is super disarming and leads to laughs and new friends.”

Tattoo on the back of a man's hand in black ink that is a wooden sign hung by a nail that reads "Sorry, out of order"
Colorful tattoo of a woman dressed as pirate with eye mask and high black boots sitting on a wheelchair with flower background

Bethany Ventrone: “This is a female pirate in a wheelchair. I got it a couple of years ago after I had been doing adaptive CrossFit for 3 years. It just represents the strength and overcoming adversity I’ve learned from life and not giving up even when I feel like I can’t go on I’ve learned from CrossFit. The letters LND at the bottom of my tattoo stand for Leave No Doubt which is a CrossFit and life motto.””

Jennifer Wynveen: “My tattoo sums up my life. I have been paralyzed for 32 years. The pink ribbon signifies my being a 15 year breast cancer survivor. The banner says it all: ‘I keep rollin’.’ This design was also on my graduation cap when I graduated with my bachelors in psychology.”

Colorful tattoo of the wheelchair symbol flames coming off the wheel and a sign that reads "I keep rolling"  and a pink cancer ribbon in the wheel hub
Man showing tattoo on his back of a Labrador Retriever in scuba gear

Brian Elliott: “Had a diving accident in 2005 and a year or two afterwards got a Labrador Retriever that became my best friend and helped with my overall recovery. Always wanted a tattoo and thought my first should mean something special to me. Scuba diving Labrador welding my SCI scar is what I came up with, as it brings it all together for me.”