Julia Gnuse, who will be featured in the 2011 Guinness World Records, has spent more than £40,000 covering almost every inch of her 5ft 2 body with an array of brightly coloured tattoos.
From pictures of punk band the Sex Pistols to Disney characters, there’s hardly a slither of flesh that hasn’t been inked. Only her ears and feet remain their natural colour.
With 95 per cent of her skin covered and 400 tattoos in total, Julia has even earned a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s most tattooed woman and the nickname The Illustrated Lady. But she also admits her passion has turned into something of an addiction.
Bizarrely, Julia, 53, started having tattoos in an attempt to hide a rare skin condition, which left her with ugly blisters. Doctors suggested flesh-coloured tattoos would cover the red scars. But when they failed to fully disguise the marks, she opted for traditional-coloured body art instead.
While the tattoos have detracted attention from Julia’s scars, her skin still erupts in painful blisters. But she says her mission has been worth every penny.“My skin still blisters, but I feel happier and my tattoos have made me more confident,” she says. “They cover the scars and enable me to have a better life.
“Now people stare at me because I am a walking canvas, and not because of some ugly blister. I feel more confident. People want to get to know me. They are fascinated by the tattoos.”
The former singer’s love affair with tattoos began when she was 35 and diagnosed with a rare and incurable skin condition known as porphyria. It causes her to blister when exposed to direct sunlight, and makes her very sensitive to certain fabrics as well as chemicals found in washing detergents.
“I developed it overnight,” says Julia. “It wasn’t just sunlight that affected me. My skin became so sensitive I couldn’t wear a bra as the chafing from the strap caused blisters. They were the size of a 50p piece and I’d sometimes have up to 50 at a time. And they were excruciating. If I knocked a part of my body they’d burst.
“The blisters made me feel unclean and ugly, and living in California, where every other woman is stunning, just made me feel worse. I felt very depressed and unattractive, and stayed indoors all the time. I could have moved somewhere less sunny but I hate cold, dark weather.”A dermatologist suggested to Julia that flesh-coloured tattoos would cover up the scars left by the blisters. Julia followed his advice and, while the needle didn’t irritate her skin or worsen the condition, the tattoos failed to hide the scars. It was then that Julia decided to try colourful designs instead.
She recalls: “I’d always thought tattoos looked tarty, but I was prepared to try it because I hated my scars so much. When I had the first tattoo, a five-inch octopus on my right calf in 1988, I was so scared my hands were shaking. It was painful, but I soon got used to it. And I loved the result so much I decided to have more.”
It was the start of an addiction for Julia, and she began paying almost weekly visits to a tattoo parlour in Los Angeles, California, with each tattoo taking a couple of hours at a time.
“I grew to love the feeling of the needle on my body,” she admits. “I was in the tattoo parlour once a week, looking at Julia’s favorite TV actress and comedianfeatures prominently on her back, while from the ’60s TV series appears on her bottom.Peeking out from Julia’s breast is Bart Simpson, along with US comic . “Dangerfield can be rude and dirty, so being on my breast was quite appropriate,” she laughs.
“The only places I’ve kept bare are my feet and my eyes because I wanted to keep some places free of tattoos.”
Julia doesn’t work, so has funded her addiction using a generous family trust fund. But she says at first her family were shocked by her decision to get her body covered with tattoos.
“My parents and sister were pretty shocked, but they saw the tattoos as a creative outlet for me,” she says. “They have no worries about me spending the trust fund money on them. It is paid as an allowance and I can do what I want with it.”
And she insists she’s never encountered any prejudice because of how she looks. “Of course people stare and ask about the tattoos, that’s to be expected,” says Julia. “It’s something I’ve got used to. I don’t consider myself a freak, but a body of art.”
Julia’s currently dating, and says her boyfriend thinks her tattoos are great. “I’ve been with a guy called David for over a year, and we’re very happy. He doesn’t have any tattoos, but he does love the way I look.
“I like men who are interested in me as a person, and not what I look like. Some people will not go out with me because of what I look like, and it does take a strong man to be with me because I do attract attention. They have to be secure in themselves.”
Now Julia’s running out of space for tattoos, but if she does want to get a new design, she just has it over the top of an old one. But although Julia’s tattoos have helped her deal with the effect of her skin condition, they haven’t cured it. Sunlight still makes her blister, so when she ventures out she wears long-sleeved shirts and jeans and shields her face from the sun with a hat.
Bizarrely, having devoted so much time and money to her body art, Julia has now decided to have the bright blue tattoos on her face toned down.
Using a process known as dermabrasion, a specialist has removed the top layers of skin with a laser and in doing so has lightened the look.
“I just suddenly thought I might look a bit strange when I’m much older with a full face tattoo,” she says. “But I intend to keep the rest. They are my trademark after all – I’ll always be remembered for them.”
designs and deciding what I wanted on my body. I loved being stared at for my tattoos rather than my scars.”