‘I hate that the world values beauty, when it is not important’

From the swallows swooping around her neck, to the delicate branch trailing over her left shoulder holding a caged nightingale, Gordana Willesee’s body is a spectacular needlepoint canvas.

Each tattoo tells a different story. They include the name of her ailing ex-husband (television journalist Mike Willesee) on one ankle, the Holy Mother on an arm, her favourite saint on the back of her neck, and a self-portrait as a rounded younger woman, gazing into a mirror above her left breast.

“I was making a statement there about vanity," says the 48-year-old makeup artist and cosmetic tattooist, adding that, if she’s told she’s beautiful, she immediately wants another tattoo or to have her hair cut shorter.

"I hate that the world values beauty when it’s not important,” she says. “The outside is so irrelevant … it’s what’s on the inside that counts.”

Willessee's tattoos fit in with what Dr Adam Geczy,  a senior lecturer in visual art at the University of Sydney, sees as a way of asserting identity and kinship.

“It’s a way of belonging for people who feel increasingly isolated and alienated for one reason or another," he says.

“Branding makes them feel more unique."

I’m not sure whether it’s attention seeking, rebellious or whether I’m just self-destructive.

This branding has come at a cost for Willesee. Two years ago she was turned away from entering the upstairs area at Sydney's Coogee Pavilion where a friend was having a birthday party, an incident that made the gossip pages.

"They thought I was gangster related,” she says of the double standard she encountered in a place known for attracting heavily tattooed footballers. (The venue's owner, Justin Hemmes, has since sent her an apology.)

While the experience heralded a shift in how she was received in public, Willesee acknowledges she may have lost some of her identity during her 20 years married to a very famous man.

"I’ve always loved tattoos,” she says. “I had just a few small ones when I married Mike and I wanted to get more but I didn’t because he’s 28 years older than me and I knew that he didn’t like them. It wasn’t appropriate then."

When the couple separated in 2010 after nine years of marriage, Willesee headed straight for her favourite tattoo parlour.

“I’m not sure whether it’s attention seeking, rebellious or whether I’m just self-destructive," she says.

Cutting hair and tattooing are both visual ways of expressing the pain that a person has suffered.

She's not alone in making an impulse, and drastic, decision about her appearance.

Life coach Tikki Merrillees says making extreme changes to your appearance can be a way of coping and also of communicating journeying through a major life moment.

“Cutting hair and tattooing are both visual ways of expressing the pain that a person has suffered,” she says.

"It’s a way of communicating to the self and to others that they’ve experienced something intense and have moved through it or are in the process of doing so. “

For Willessee, moving through has meant balancing the demands of a new career chapter with spending time with her former husband, who was diagnosed two years ago with throat cancer.

“We have become best friends and our relationship is deeper now than it was when we were married because we talk to each other a lot more,” she says.

"There’s a new level of respect and consideration for each other and I wonder now why we ever separated." And he barely notices her tattoos at all.

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