Strangers Like to Touch Me

When tattoos are interpreted as an invitation

Nicole Carpenter
Gay Mag
Published in
11 min readOct 18, 2019


Illustration by Louisa Bertman

SStrangers like to touch me. It happens most in summer — a curious commuter lifting my skirt above my knee to look at the flowers on my thigh, a half-drunk man twisting my arm to get the perfect look at the bird on my wrist. It’s very rare that a person asks before reaching out, and it’s often in moments I’m otherwise distracted. When the person is satisfied with their view, typically they’ll roll up their sleeve or lift their shirts to show me the ink scratched onto the surface of their own bodies.

Tattooed skin mostly feels like normal skin. Most of the time it’s smooth and soft with moisturizer that I dutifully apply each day. But sometimes it’s rough and dry, like when I forget to drink water for an entire day. When I’m dehydrated, my skin contracts and dries out, leaving behind the scar tissue that’s formed around the edges of my tattoos.

I like when this happens. I like being able to feel where one tattoo ends and another begins. Black ink is carbon-based and acts as a border to keep pigment-based colors from flooding and spilling out. But all tattoos will eventually blur and fade, with becoming fuzzy with age. But even in my oldest tattoos, the black lines still raise and create a precise, raised rendering of the original piece. I like being able to see without seeing.

AA white-haired woman on a train under Taipei touched my arm. It was a light touch, one to get my attention and not to feel the outlines on my skin. The lines by her eyes crinkled when she smiled at me. She was holding a portfolio case the size of her body and her clothes were splattered with paint. She greeted me and my boyfriend in English, said she was smiling because she liked my tattoos and wanted to get one herself. But she said she was too old, her skin too wrinkled and dry.

We met Mabel because we boarded a train going in the wrong direction. She was on the train we caught when we realized our mistake, after we got off at a random station to head back in the opposite direction. We had a few extra stops to talk to Mabel. She told us about her life is Taipei: she’s an architect, retired now, and on her way to a painting class.