On tattoos and personal symbolism – I’d like a sunflower, please

On tattoos and personal symbolism - I'd like a sunflower, please

Every tattoo tells a story, and Charley’s connection to sunflowers runs more than ink-deep.


I know this man only by his Instagram handle and his artwork. I’ve seen pieces he’s done before and I trust him to do this right, but he’s a man of few words and it adds to my nerves. He looks this way and that, assessing angles and outlines before smoothing the second skin across my ankle bone, with stray leaves stretching up the front of my leg. This is how a canvas must feel, I think, passive and to some degree uninvolved with the work it’s about to receive – but somehow also completely braced for it.

Needle hasn’t hit skin yet, but this work is already my favourite thing I have on my body. A wasp hums – a bloated tattoo gun shaking off excess ink – and the man says, ‘Okay, are we ready?’

‘As I’ll ever be,’ I answer.

And this is where it started.


In June 2019, I won the competition to be Worcestershire Poet Laureate for a 12-month period. This makes me the poetry representative for the county, which involves performances, workshops and, currently, a collaborative poetry project that I’ve put together with a number of Poet Laureates from around the UK, too.

This competition runs every year and each year the poets who enter must write to a different theme – as well as performing in front of a live audience at the competition’s final round, and answering questions put to you by a panel of judges. Poets submit a themed poem and a poem of their choosing from their own catalogue of works as part of this process. The theme for the year I entered was ‘Pathways’.

Entering was a rushed experience. I clicked back and forth from the entry page to the payment page (there is an entry fee) and then to something else entirely, only to ultimately arrive at the same entry page again. In the end, I resorted to premature self-sabotage in the form of telling myself I never stood a chance of being short-listed anyway, so there was nothing at stake by entering, not really. This at least allowed me to put together a statement of interest, select an older and comfortable poem, and then write an entirely new one to theme – not that I stood a chance, I reminded myself like a mantra all the way through to entry submission.

My poem of choice? Biology, a short poem about a woman with a literal biological clock in her abdomen.

My poem written to the theme? Helianthus Forest, a poem of appreciation to the millions of seeds that make up the average sunflower forest.

Sunflowers then – among other things – won me that competition.


Given the sunflower’s historical medicinal purposes – the juice from their stems once treated wounds; the plant itself infused with water to treat kidney and chest discomfort – I never know whether to paint them on myself, plaster them around my house, or furiously chew through them in the hopes of easing ailments. Nevertheless, their sunny disposition is what sunflowers are now best-known for. Their myths have faded somewhat, as myths often do. That said, there was a time when sunflowers brought with them stories as well as health cures.

Clytie, who was transformed into a sun-flower after her failed love with Helios – or Apollo, depending on your myth – was destined to watch her love for the rest of her life. Sun-gazing, in her adoration she would watch Helios move from one side of the sky to the other for the rest of her days. Meanwhile, the Incas also considered the sunflower as something God-like and brought these flowers to temples to decorate their shows of worship. In the same era, priestesses were also known to adorn themselves and their clothing with sunflowers.

Beyond medicine and myth, sunflowers also bring with them associations, symbolism and beliefs that are worth borrowing from. Their colour – the traditional yellow that is, although let’s not forget their burnt oranges and fierce reds – connotate friendship and happiness. To be more specific, sunflower-yellow is inextricably bound up with intelligence, vitality and loyalty; qualities that have bled through from the myth stance of the flower. Furthermore, the Incas were not the only ones to attribute the sunflower with a kind of religious status; the flower’s resemblance to the sun has secured them in many places of worship over their years.

Their worth has been known throughout history then, but now they have been transformed into a flower celebrated during the summer months but largely shaded in the winter. A habit that, with a weather-sensitive health condition, I feel especially appreciative of. See, it’s been a year of writing successes. My own sunflower poem reached further than I expected it to, with another author-editor reaching out with her own sunflower poem shortly after the competition. Polly Stretton – poet, author, editor, wonder-woman – shared her sunflower piece with me and I said, ‘Polly, we should get together a whole book of these.’ – and that’s exactly what we did. We liaised with over a dozen poets and invited them to write to the theme of ‘Pressed Flowers’, and from that the Pressed Flowers anthology was born (you can find out more about the collection through the publisher’s website just here).

From sunflower seeds grew more poems and more writing than I could have imagined, and that’s one of many beautiful things that’s happened this year. However, it’s been a year of peaks and dips like I haven’t known before thanks to the odd case of ill health – to be more specific, it’s been a year of Fibromyalgia flare ups as well sunny achievements. Perhaps it isn’t a complete coincidence that I find myself drawn more and more to things that remind me of the sun now – or rather, of its warmth. Like sunflowers themselves, I too have learnt the beauty of tracking the sun and basking, face up-turned and smile wide; a kind of phototropism for humans, if you will.

In 2019 more so than ever I’ve felt an affinity with flowers. Their beauty, their determination, and how many persist in flowering, wilting and starting again on an annual basis. If feels infantile to say, ‘I want to be a flower when I grow up,’ but perhaps, ‘I want to borrow from flowers,’ isn’t a great departure from the truth. When you tattoo something on your body, of all the questions you are asked there’s one that reappears time and again – ‘Don’t you think you’ll regret that when you’re older?’ – to question our life decision of being tattooed at all. Reader, there has never been a firmer no than when people ask this of the sunflower because no matter the weather, the day or the pain level, I carry sunshine with me – and I’d wish that on anyone.