I have a shaved head, I am completely tattooed, I am dressed in black, as usual, wearing a men’s shirt, a skirt, and platform boots. I shaved my beard this morning but it’s 7pm and way past my 4'oclock shadow. I insert a bill and enter the dark hallway. There are various dark rooms and booths. I enter a booth and lock it. The dark booth offers a sense of complete invisibility. There are two holes on each side of the cubicle equipped with hinges and lockable flaps. I unlock one – a cock appears.
It has been almost 20 years since I’ve touched a cock, my last cock belonged to a former partner who I left after admitting that I am indeed a lesbian. With slight hesitance, I wrap my fingers around it. It stands up almost immediately. Excitement takes over. Here is a man on the other side of the wall who has absolutely no idea who I am and which gender signals my aesthetic modifications were sending. I continue stroking his cock, thinking how much I’ve been feeling almost as if I am a gay man lately. I wonder if, because, aesthetically and hormonally I feel more male, my gay genes are redirecting my attention towards men. Before I manage to draw a conclusion, there’s an explosion of cum shooting out of his cock and onto my fingers.
I have always wondered what a gloryhole cinema would be like and now, appearing as “male”, I finally had my chance.
I leave the cinema and walk into the cold winter night, feeling happy to be unique.
Born in Iran in 1972, Touka’s experimentation with cross dressing began after the Islamic revolution where she would pretend to be a boy to avoid wearing state enforced hijabs. Since then, he has actively used aesthetic body art and biological modifications to transcend the notion of binaries and exist as his own category, a self-identified hybrid human. His body is scarred and tattooed, modified and adjusted, embellished and clothed in ways that challenge the norms governing the appearance of “real” humanness.
“I find it quite absurd that, as humans we are introduced to this world inside of a Body which we've had absolutely no part in its design. Why not use body art and modification to adjust the default design so that it can become more us?”
His extreme aesthetic modifications were carved alongside biological modifications such as hormone therapy and mastectomy, both enabling him to achieve a body that perfectly suits his spirit.
“My dream was to one day recreate myself and become a different kind of human. One who broke all the gender rules and one which would not fit into those frames.”
By exercising bodily autonomy and transitioning between and betwixt genders Touka’s body has licked the cultural contours of masculinity and femininity, both concepts hard at work in the public dimension, a place embedded with certain social and political boundaries – buttressed by ontological ‘truths’.
But by adorning his face and body in heavy black tattoo he has become, using Judith Butler’s phrase, that for which there is no place within the given regime of truth. The gloryhole vignette is pertinent because, cloaked in darkness, Touka experienced the ‘absolute reverse’ of his life-long obsession with aesthetic and gender modification, and in doing so revealed a complex and often absurd world of the paradoxes inherent in the gendered and tattooed order of things.
But his tryst with invisibility was transient.
Our conversation is about a visible life of moving across different bodies and witnessing the drastic changes in human interactions, and the limits and possibilities that come with each shift.
Hi Touka. There’s a sentence in Judith Butler’s Undoing Gender that goes, “there is a certain departure from the human that takes place to start the process of remaking the human. I may feel that without some recognisability I cannot live. But I may also feel that the terms by which I am recognized make life unliveable.”
Does that resonate with your experience?
It is such an amazing time for us humans who are interested in exploring alternative bodies through body modification. I am interested in transforming the body to reach its most powerful form. I believe that through suitable tattooing we can achieve the visual expression which our spirit wishes to demonstrate. Through this positive transformation we will be able to feel better both emotionally and psychologically and become happier people.
I was born with a complete female body once, today I am a Hybrid human. An androgyne. My body has been modified to be neither male nor female. I am heavily tattooed and psychologically I am happier than I have ever been. When one takes that step to fully tattoo the body, head and face, one enters a very liberating and empowering realm. Liberating because you have been powerful enough to take this step regardless of dogmas within the intransigent mainstream society.
A tentative person who is easily affected by others opinion will simply not manage this accomplishment. Yet the concept of such complete modification of the body is still fairly new for our time and this means that within that sense of inner happiness lies an almost melancholic realisation that one now belongs to another dimension which can at times be difficult to grasp by the conventional majority.
Now before you belonged to that different dimension you were born in Iran, which can at times appear to be a whole other dimension itself. Can you tell me about that and how you ended up in Sweden?
Of course. My name, Touka (meaning Toucan), was given to me by my parents. They are both wonderful Artists and so my family life from birth has always been surrounded by the magical worlds of theatre and film. I did not have a name for a whole month after birth as they could not agree on a name. Then one day a friend came to visit with a book called, “A Toucan in Cage” by Nima Youshij. A story about Freedom.
As a child in Iran, surrounded by war, revolution, constant fear and chaos, I realised that without fantasy the so called "real world" was something dry, harsh, unjust and full of despair. Ideologies were enforced and individuality highly discouraged. There were boxes and frames premade and by law, you were doomed to live your entire life trapped inside of them.
In 1986 me and my mother left Iran and moved to Sweden. I grew up and continued my passion and education in art, textile and design, I often had disagreements with professors and teachers who would not allow much artistic freedom, but rather preferred that everyone followed the same safe formula and created similar good results. Controlled mediocre lifelessness... it felt as if I was trapped again. I worked successfully within the entertainment industry until it was time for me to close that chapter too and so I moved to London at the end of the 90s.
So, what sparked your interest in tattooing?
It was 2002 and the pioneer of geometric dotwork tattooing, Mr Xed Lehead worked at the legendary Into You tattoo studio in north London. Immediately from the very moment I met Xed I became utterly captivated by his energy and approach to tattooing. Until then tattoo studios were intimidating dentist like places where you booked a tattoo and sat in the waiting room and was met by a very grumpy tattooist who would not even bother to say hello. This was a complete different approach.
This was like meeting a holy man who looked right into your soul. What sacred art, what magic, what dynamic. It was far more intimate than sex and far more spiritual than any religious ceremony, and at the end of it all, there was Rebirth! And so, I began to visit Xed on numerous occasions and a few years later I began self-tattooing extensively. At this point in time, I was a radical "femme" lesbian. I had long hair, wore high heels and worked as an exotic dancer.
Tell me about self-tattooing and how that worked during your time as an exotic dancer.
I had a fully disposable set-up to tattoo at home and with the guidance of "Bryan", a tattooist friend from Hong Kong who was amazing at doing large scale tribal blackwork (but at the time spoke no English), I began tattooing myself.
But there was a no-tattoo rule for dancers at most strip clubs back then. The tattoos started on my lower leg which I could easily hide under my knee-high socks, they continued to my hand and arms which I could easily hide under long gloves, onto the throat where I could hide under various collars and then one day I gave myself my first facial tattoo (today all my facial tattoos have been made by myself in the mirror). This first facial tattoo marked the end of my cycle as a female exotic dancer and the beginning of a new cycle as a male tattoo artist. I then began my apprenticeship at London Tattoo in North London which continued to a full-time position.
In 2009 Xeds plan of opening a magical tattoo studio took shape and together with the great fetish King of London, Mad Alan, they gave birth to Divine Canvas. I left London Tattoo and became one of the first members of the tattoo club of Divine Canvas. There were many factors which made Divine Canvas a one of a kind studio. Firstly, you were expected to spend at least 12 hours of your day at the studio. The artists were chosen very carefully with great attention to the quality of artistic work, energy, morals and a will to be kind and compassionate. Extreme obsession with tattooing was very highly encouraged.
Not only the artist but also the clientele belonged to the world’s finest extreme body modificationists and avant-garde experimentalists. Everyone worked with powerful mining head torches and we had more neon lights than a Las Vegas Christmas party. Clients felt at home and were offered Milk Oolong tea, incense and occasional chanting. We aimed to reinvent the atmosphere of an ancient tattoo ceremony as we wanted to remind the client and ourselves that a very long time ago, tattoos were magical markings of protection and strength and that the event of getting tattooed is as spiritually significant as it is aesthetically.
A few years went by and I finally had my mastectomy. I then lived as a super manly man, I had a beautiful new girlfriend and a really good beard. I was on the other side. What bizarre feeling to be on the "other" side as a radical feminist lesbian!
What was that like, to be a radical feminist lesbian inside the body of a heavily tattooed male?
I learned that men don’t have it as easy as I had thought. That life as a heavily tattooed man entails unexpected features. The polite friendly people who held the doors and tried to help when heavy objects needed lifting suddenly completely disappeared. The same guys on the street corners with unimaginative chat up lines were now looking at me in a sort of challenging manner.
I learned that men do not smile at each other much, that now I was expected to handle any tough situation without breaking down, carry all the grocery bags without any display of discomfort, that I had to get the bill when out on a date and that my lesbian girlfriend would leave the relationship as I began to feel less and less like a woman and more and more like a man.
That’s quite a shift of occupations too, from female exotic dancer to a male tattooist. They seem like worlds apart.
The dynamic between an Erotic Dancer and the Seduced and a Tattoo Artist and her Client is quite similar in a sense that in both scenarios, the key to a perfect accomplishment is to be able to "connect" with the client’s deepest inner "self". Without connecting to the client’s unspoken desires one cannot possibly find the perfect design which will be in tune with the way the client likes to be perceived. This must be done naturally and without the need for very long discussions. It must be felt almost immediately at the consultation. The same way a great Erotic Dancer can almost immediately after meeting you have a pretty good idea of your kinks and the type of seduction which would suit you best.
I never thought of it that way, I appreciate that insight. How does the process of acquiring highly visible tattoos differ in its effect on your identity, and the way people respond to you, to the process of say, acquiring gendered traits through surgery / hormonal treatment?
After my initial transition, I spent many years living as a "He" getting a chance to closely observe the way men and women interact with me once they assume that I am male. Then after about 7 years I began a new personal experiment where I avoided sexual relations with others for 3 full years to be able to find my true inner desires without the risk of indirect or direct influences of a partner. I then began to think more profoundly about the subject of gender. Is gender based on which sexual roles we like to play? What our interests are? If we play with dolls or cars and action men? Is it based on having breasts? No breasts? Is it based on genitalia? Is it based on facial hair? No facial hair? What is a man? What is a woman?
So, if I go out on a date before injecting testosterone hormones would the other person get the bill? What about after an injection of testosterone? Am I then expected to get the bill, carry the bags? Be hard? Do I make them nervous when they look at me and cannot guess my gender? Do I make them nervous when I shave my beard and wear high heels?
When a man wears women’s clothing he can be called a sissy, he is assumed to be weak and unable to handle difficulties while when a woman wears manly clothing, people automatically assume that she is butch, strong and may "even" be able to "battle" well.
Here lies very strong evidence that the old tired patriarchal system of believe which was once created solely for reproduction and economic dominance is still quite surprisingly in full effect.
It’s one thing to challenge gender norms, but then you’re also challenging the idea of ‘gendered tattoo’ norms.
Yes, there is a very dangerous cage made specifically for women which is introduced already when you are a little girl. This cage is called, "cute" when you are born, "pretty" when you are about 5 years old, "beautiful" once you pass 16, and "Feminine" from then on. During her entire life she is to do her absolute best to stay within the borders of this cage, for as long as she possibly can. The choices she makes in life are highly affected by this rule and the choices she will make for her tattoos are no exception.
The biggest fear for such an institutionalised female client is that her tattoos will make her appear "less feminine". The question to ask is, what is femininity? We must never confuse femininity with a sense of vulnerability or weakness. A heavily tattooed woman is obviously one who has been strong and determined enough to acquire her sacred tattoo markings. This is why a heavily tattooed woman is making a great revolutionary and political statement.
This is why a heavily tattooed woman is a sacred breath-taking display of the purest form of femininity.