We Tried It — I Got An Intuitive Tattoo

This is a part of our ongoing ‘We Tried It’ series where we test out weird and wonderful things to do or see in Colorado. Go here to see what else we’ve tried. Comment below and let us know what we should do next. 

To open up a wound is an agonizing experience. However, to know pain is to know pleasure in the most intimate of ways. One cannot exist without the other and therefore, they survive symbiotically. A tattoo straddles the divide between hurt and healing. An intentional scar, one must open up a wound before reaping the benefits and, ultimately, scarring into something truly lovely. It stands to reason then that in healing trauma, one must first feel the pain, no matter how uncomfortable. In these traumatic reconciliations, some seek out the visceral mimicry of a tattoo.

Ash Mills is a Denver-based tattoo artist providing an incredibly unique, vulnerable experience for the clients who seek her intuitive tattooing services. The ceremony and symbolism held in intuitive tattooing make the experience unlike any other tattoo I have received. But that is all by design.

“I definitely believe the intention is everything,” Mills said. “And it can absolutely be used as a healing process. I think the intuitive part is to just be able to hold space for somebody and what they express and share… being able to almost hold those words and put it into symbols so that their heart resonates with [the tattoo.]”

What is an intuitive tattoo?

Simply, intuitive tattooing is the art of taking something as incredibly complex as a person’s life story and paring it down into symbols designed to heal. Then, setting said image on your body in ink. The symbols Mills employs do not derive from any culture or language she is aware of. She draws them from the gut, drawing inspiration from human emotion.

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Mills spoke on an assignment in grade school where she and her classmates privately drew shapes and lines to describe feelings. When comparing symbols, almost all the students gravitated toward similar ideas. For example, swirly lines were drawn for joy, and sharp, jagged lines were drawn for anger. The exercise opened Mills’ mind up to the idea of underlying human connection at a young age. She has carried those intentions with her for a long time and now channels them into her work. For Mills, a major part of the process involves cleansing the energy and making her clients comfortable in a non-traditional tattooing setting.

“I subscribe to the idea that everything is energy,” she said. “So I just never really liked the scene of tattoo shops. It’s very masculine energy, and I’m a very sensitive person. I’m not sure if you ever notice if you go into a tattoo shop, and the guy’s like, clearly angry, or he’s like drunk or hungover and you are sitting with him and his energy… It goes into your skin like that — [the tattooer’s] energy leaves an imprint.”

Mills began this process through a dear friend who asked for a tattoo. The friend relinquished all control of the design to Mills, who did not disappoint. “She’s a beautiful, wonderful person; I love this woman dearly,” she said. “So I didn’t want to give her a specific image. And I didn’t want to do a word. So I was like, what if I just like think about you, and your journey, as far as I’ve known it — which is quite a few years. I wanted to draw a set of symbols that embodies that.” Her passion for intuitive tattoos has only grown from that point on.

The Experience

I walked into this experience with an open mind — meaning, I cast no expectations or pressure onto myself. As someone working towards a body coated in mesmerizing adornments, I am no stranger to a needle and ink. However, this would be my first time walking in for a tattoo with zero idea of what it might look like. It’s a total mind fuck to be able to let go of that element of control, especially when it pertains to permanency and your very own body. As someone with a fraught relationship with their body, and who has been working towards healing traumas related to said body, this felt like a big but necessary step. Ever since certain events involving sexual trauma have transpired in my life, I have held a newfound appreciation but also protection for myself — and that extends to my skin. I know, it feels heavy. But all of these elements would play a part in my intuitive tattooing experience.

Stepping foot in the space, I was overcome with Mills’ innate ability to make her clients feel at home. Her space, though small and shared with a therapist, wreaked with small comforts. Greenery cascaded the walls, quartz crystals lined the shelves, earthy tones soothed the eye and no shortage of natural sunlight wrapped everything in its warm embrace. We jumped right into the session, beginning with breathwork and smoke cleansing to ground us in the space and moment. We even took our shoes off — better to feel the ground on our toes. Phones were turned on silent and Mills walked me through what was about to happen. Everything said in the space is completely confidential — whatever was said was my story and Mills would simply draw based on what I relinquished to her, channeling it into a tattoo. And there is no pressure to put it on your body at the end. As Mills put it, “I am very aware that this is a permanent medium, so if you need time to think about it, I’d rather you take that time than end up with something you’re unhappy with.” She would like you to feel like the tattoo “always should have been there,” as opposed to getting it because you feel pressured to like it. This sentiment was repeated at every point during the process. However, out of the 40-some she’s done, all but one has decided to get the tattoo at the end.

For two hours, Mills and I held an intimate conversation about all major facets of my life. I was worried going in — with close to nothing on my mind except a few questions for this story — that I would have nothing to talk about as I have a hard time opening up to most people. My fears were nullified immediately. I began talking and felt so instantly at ease; I didn’t even notice hours had passed. Over that period of time, tears surfaced, great laughter was had and a rare, genuine human connection reigned over the space. It was exhilarating and a completely harmonious experience I won’t soon forget. Mills, remarkably, held the conversation while simultaneously drawing the intuitive symbol on her iPad.

Though I have elected to keep most of the elements of my symbol to myself, as it was intensely personal, there are a few elements Mills added that showed how much care she took in listening to my traumatic ramblings. For example, a line ran through and out of the symbol, representing music’s constant presence in my life and its ancestral ties to my life. The line’s placement beginning at the bottom symbolizes my great grandmother, Shirley. There were lines representing such dichotomies as my family and friends who hold and ground me versus the traumas that have changed me, forcefully, one way or another. There were dots at the top indicating my open-minded nature to my future, as I shared that my primary goal in this life is to experience happiness with every ounce of my being when I encounter it. The entire symbol felt wholly, emphatically like me. Like my life story.

After a quick dragonfruit break where we discussed the merits of The Clash’s Sandinista! album, a decision waited patiently to be made. Whether to commemorate a truly lovely experience or a truly enthralling life, it did not matter — I knew I wanted the image inked on my body. So we proceeded on. Mills offers input as to where she thinks the tattoo would look and feel best, providing some education on heart lines and chakras. I felt a pull in my gut — home of my solar plexus chakra. Mills agreed with my reasoning, and a stencil was cut and placed. Mills set up and sanitized the work zone. We did another quick smoke cleanse and some regrounding work before the tattoo artist began her ritual.

“You ready, boo?” Mills asked gently. I nodded. After 20 minutes of listening to The Clash and feeling the pressure and pleasant sting of needle on skin, a new image decorated my body. I embraced my naked upper body, feeling every bit of the soreness and tenderness that goes along with a new scar. These are my favorite wounds — the ones that scream a story at the world in a language few understand. It felt as if the symbol, though not my typical style of tattoo, had risen from my skin. It was always there. I just didn’t see it before. I’m pleasantly surprised my body can still shock me in such ways.

At the end of the session, Mills provides her clients with everything they need: aftercare instructions for the tattoo, photos and a recording of her explaining each aspect, arch and line of the tattoo.

The Verdict

Despite the heavy nature of our conversation, there were many moments of levity and joy that transpired over the course of four hours. I do not doubt I will never have another experience such as this one. And that makes me feel even more tender towards it. Though fleeting in its occurrence, I will carry my symbol with me always as a token of those four hours (and my life thus far).

“I feel so lucky every day I get to do something like this,” Mills admitted. “I’ve been in service industry jobs for so long where I’d come home just like drained and exhausted. When I come home from these [tattoos], I’m overflowing with energy and love and, like, so excited, which is really, really nice.”

IntuitiveTattooAsh Mills and Ritual Healing Tattoo is privately located at 2949 Federal Blvd., Denver in Nurture Marketplace. To book with Ash, visit her website. Also, check her out on Instagram

All photography by Adrienne Thomas.