Thursday, 14 October 2021

Ink'stinction rebellion

Tattoos are addictive. There’s an indescribable sense of confidence and self-gratification with each one that quickly fades leaving you craving more. After waiting five months through a global pandemic, I was back in the chair, getting indelible ink pounded into my skin eighteen months after my last.

“So, your boyfriend got one too?”.

“Nope, this one’s just for me”. 

The problem with penguins is that society has created two distinct connotations - couples and Christmas. Excessively commercialised so that all anyone ever sees is a metaphor for soulmates or a caricature boasting a bobble hat and woolly scarf. It’s easy to forget that these are real animals, facing real survival threats. Ten out of the eighteen species are listed as threatened or endangered on the IUCN Redlist. I knew these were assumptions I’d face when I decided to get a penguin tattoo, but I also knew this was a chance for me to spread awareness about industrial fishing, climate change, habitat destruction and all the other environmental crises we face today.

Sitting in the chair, with the hum of the tattoo machine lulling me into a doze, I started thinking about just how ingrained penguins were in my life.



Maybe I was always destined to love penguins. You could say I entered this world in the same manner as them – spontaneously, three weeks earlier than my due date, and into one of the harshest winters the UK has ever seen. At just a few hours old, and clothed in a penguin one-piece, my dad took me to the hospital window to give me my first glimpse of snow. And I guess this set the tone as this analogy continued since mum had to return to work rather quickly, leaving dad to stay at home caring for me. In fact, now I think about it, I’ve always displayed the mannerisms of a penguin. As a toddler, my favourite game to play was standing on my parent’s feet as they walked along - the same way emperor penguins will incubate an egg or hatchling in the brood pouch by balancing them on their feet. Meanwhile, my own walk resembled a waddle, earning me the nickname “Pinga”. Just as Pinga trailed Pingu, I followed my sister around, desperate to be included in her games, and ran, crying, to my parents when she excluded me. Like Adélie penguins, I collected stones and proudly displayed them on any available surface so that my room resembled a rookery nest.

However, not all my penguin antics were as captivating as the bird that influenced them. A tale that my dad loves to regale everyone with is the family visit to London Zoo. On a scorching day mid-July, my parents treated my sister and I to a day out. All week all I could talk about was how I’d finally get to see a real-life penguin. The day arrived and with excitement akin to that of a child on Christmas morning, we embarked. Determined to make the day memorable, my parents decided we’d take the train instead of driving, adding an extra half-an-hour onto the journey. Standing on the platform, in a huddle of morning commuters my excitement faded, and I started flapping. “If you carry on, we’re going home, and you won’t see any penguins” dad scolded. An hour later, after being consigned to the buggy in an attempt to minimise the disruption to the other passengers, we arrived. Spotting a penguin poster, I instantly perked up and started squirming, and squawking against my restraints. Finally, I was released, and we started off around the Zoo. Unfortunately, this was not the fun family day out my parents had envisioned as I soon started to flap again when we failed to go straight to the penguin enclosure. In a tantrum my parents still describe as “possessed by Feathers McGraw”, I knocked chocolate ice cream all over myself. Forced to make a detour, we headed to the gift-shop. “She is not having the penguin one!” my dad trumpeted. “For one, they’ve only got a child’s large, and two, she’ll think it’s a reward for that sort of behaviour!”. Twenty-minutes later, swamped in my new t-shirt, I was strutting towards the penguin enclosure all previous rage forgotten.


“Mum, I don’t want to eat fish anymore! The penguins need them…”, was my response after seeing Happy Feet for my eleventh birthday when mum presented a plate of fish fingers for dinner. For a split second, stunned silence. “Andy, you’ve got fish finger sandwiches for lunch tomorrow”.

The excitement I’d felt going to the cinema that day, proudly sporting the infamous penguin t-shirt, that now fit perfectly, and begging mum to splurge a little and buy the corresponding cake, was replaced by a sense of helplessness. It provided so much more than just a feel-good tale about my favourite animal, tackling some rather serious, mature topics; industrial fishing, plastic pollution, disability discrimination, racism and religious persecution are just a few that jumped out when I re-watched it recently. For a children’s film, this is quite heavy content, but isn’t that how change happens? Look to the forthcoming generations and influence their thoughts before they’ve had a chance to make them? For me, Happy Feet was the catalyst for the ethics I now possess as an adult. I’m not claiming I became an environmentalist who condemns single-use plastic and actively tries to reduce my carbon-footprint at eleven years old but, giving up fish was the start.

As internet technology advanced, so too did my knowledge of penguins. With parental lock firmly in place, I spent my time either play the online multiplayer game ‘Club Penguin’ - where for a few hours in the evening, before getting kicked off so that my sister could use the phone, I became a penguin - or researching as much as I could about these wonderful birds and compiling my new-found knowledge into PowerPoint presentations. You know how some kids can recite the names of every dinosaur? That was me with penguins. I would then email these presentations to everyone on my mailing list using my first email address - This research did more than just kill a few hours though, it opened my eyes to issues threatening their habitat and survival. So, when my parents asked what I wanted for my twelfth birthday my answer was obvious – I wanted to adopt a penguin. Not in a ‘Mr Popper’s Penguins’ kind of way, but a WWF adoption - where you sponsor a penguin for a year in return for updates, merchandise and knowledge that you are doing your bit to help.

Around the same time, global warming rose to the forefront of global issues, and to demonstrate they were taking it seriously, my school organised an assembly. All they did was stream Al Gore’s, An Inconvenient Truth. While everyone else around me fidgeted, yawned, or giggled at their friends, my eyes were fixed on the screen. One particular scene caught my attention – the animated polar bear forced to keep swimming in search of land, because global warming had melted the ice, until it drowned of exhaustion. A symphony of “aww” erupted from my classmates and all I could think was “that could be a penguin...”. Afterwards I approached a teacher and asked what I could do to prevent the icecaps from melting. “Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that too much. They span 5.4 million square miles, it’s impossible that it’d all melt putting wildlife in danger”. As she walked off, throwing her evian bottle in the bin, I knew in my heart she was wrong. That evening I spent my computer time researching ways of combatting global warming to save the penguins.



“Ok, big smiles. 1, 2, 3…”.

Posing beside my first boyfriend at our prom - me, a ball of poufy organza netting and him, immaculately dressed in a black tuxedo, white shirt, and cravat – against an icy backdrop, I knew he was my soulmate. My penguin.

Two months later, the span of the incubation period, I was standing in front of the penguin enclosure after our breakup, my faith in them waning. For so long they had been my totem, how could I have been so wrong about him? Watching them glide through the water, though dejected, I felt at peace. Being teenagers, my parents had decided my sister and I could go off on our own. “Like the Antarctic winter, it won’t last forever. You’re resilient like a penguin; you’ll get through this!”. My sister’s attempt at comfort. I stayed like that; so completely lost in my reverie, that I didn’t notice the crowd gathering around us until a feedback shrill brought me back to the present. “Sorry about that folks! Right, it’s feeding time for these little guys. Weighing an average of two to five kilograms, they can dive as deep as thirty metres hunting sardines, krill, squid…”. Listening to the keeper recite penguin facts stirred up a feeling that had long been dormant – inquisitiveness.

“So, did you enjoy yourselves today?” mum quizzed on the drive home.

“Yes, actually. It’s been a great day” I replied.

“That’ll be because she’s seen penguins!” dad joked, producing a chorus of laughter from everyone. Little did he know, he was right. The penguins had saved me from my first broken heart, now it was my turn to save them. When my seventeenth birthday arrived a few months later, I asked everyone for money and donated it to Penguins International - a non-profit organisation committed to protecting penguins through conservation, education, and scientific research investigations. Through this simple act, I discovered this was more than just over-fishing and melting icecaps – this was a massive global crisis. The guano harvesting in South America that is threatening the Humboldt penguins led me to deforestation, which led me to palm oil and orangutans, which led me to cruelty-free, which led me to veganism. This in turn, led me back to industrial fishing, plastic pollution, greenhouse gasses and climate change. I realised; everything is connected. To save the penguins, I needed to care about all these issues.


In 2015, the 5p charge on plastic bags was introduced. I’d long been using canvas reusable ones, but seeing the horrifying footage of a beached whale with a stomach full of plastic bags was enough for the budding activist in me to burst through and start a tirade about single-use plastics. It started off as a request that my family and friends reuse their plastic bags and recycle more, but quickly escalated into encouraging them to ditch single-use bottles in favour of a reusable one and to opt for sustainable products. That same year, Christine Figgener’s video of her team removing a plastic straw from a turtle’s nose went viral and prompted a movement to ban plastic straws. Slowly, more and more businesses switched to paper staws and in October 2020, the sale and distribution of plastic straws was banned. In 2017, Justin Hofman made headlines when his photograph of a seahorse clinging to a plastic cotton swab was selected as a finalist for the Natural History Museum’s ‘Wildlife Photographer of the Year’ competition, forcing high-street chains to provide biodegradable alternatives.

All the while, I’d entered my twenties and the self-assured, adrenaline fuelled environmental activist in me grew beyond my close circle. While out shopping, I’d ask people if they were happy killing whales with that plastic bag, or why they felt bananas or oranges needed to be stored in plastic. Nature provides its own packaging - the peel! When dining out, I’d yell “save the turtles!” at anyone with a plastic straw in their drink. Yes, it made people uncomfortable and got me in a bit of trouble, but if a few minutes of unease was the price for saving the planet, then I would gladly pay. Of course, I lost friends along the way, accusing me of “jumping on a bandwagon” and “changing”. In reality, all I was doing was voicing the beliefs I’d always held. The ones that stayed started making the switch to sustainable products and altering their diets, until eventually I had my own colony of likeminded people who supported my passion for the environment and the penguins.



“Right, we’re done! Have a look”.

Preening in front of the floor-length mirror, I gazed at the most perfect penguin tattoo I could have imagined. Designed by my sister, it captured the essence of my style and love of penguins. “It’s p-p-p-perfect!” I squawked.

“Show me then!” my sister’s pixelated image on the screen demanded. “Oh Kel, it’s exquisite! So much better in the flesh!”.

“Gorgeous, isn’t she!”.


“Yes, her names Aurora”

“Okay… Why Aurora? You’re aware that the aurora borealis is in the Northern Hemisphere, right?”

“Yes, I know that! But, in Antarctica you have the aurora australis, and industrial fishing and climate change are threatening the Antarctic landscape…”.    

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