Ariana Grande’s Tattoo Artist on Self-Care and Why Losing Her Leg “Wasn’t a Tragedy, but a Gift”

Mira Mariah—aka @GirlKnewYork—is stronger than you think.

Updated 10/14/19
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girl knew york
 Mira Mariah

When I sit down to interview Mira Mariah—aka @GirlKnewYork—at her bite-sized office space in Bushwick, I don’t have any questions about Ariana Grande on the brain. Cueing up my recorder with a shaky hand, it briefly occurs to me that this could be a bad move as a beauty journalist; that maybe I should just give people what they want/expect. But then the moment passes, Mariah shoots me a reassuring smile, and I remember why I’m there: not to discuss her relationship with the pop princess—or what it was like tattooing her former fiancé, Pete Davidson, for that matter—but to find out more about her world and how she navigates life as a disabled artist, mother, and influencer. Because the fact is, while the “Sweetener” singer might be partially responsible for her ascent to Insta-stardom, Mariah’s mesmerizing work and infectious personality are all her own, and the sole reasons people stick around—not to mention why her 175K follower count continues to skyrocket.

Over the next 40 minutes, I listen intently as Mariah gives me a glimpse into her universe and reflects on how she got to where she is today: the highs, the lows, and the learning curves. We also discuss some lighter subjects, like the beauty products she swears by (obviously), and her fab new collaboration with L.A.-based jewelry brand, Amarilo. Keep scrolling to learn more about Mariah—plus, what happened when I got inked by GirlKnewYork herself for the first time. 

On losing her leg:

Mariah was born with a birth defect that damaged her left leg to the point where it was no longer salvageable by the time she turned 17. “At that time, my options for mobility were really low and chronic pain was consuming my life,” she recalls. “It was crippling.” Eventually, something had to change. “I was needing an exceptional amount of rest, and I felt this looming demon of drug addiction coming over me that I wasn’t indulging in, but that almost felt inevitable if things stayed how they were because I was prescribed so many narcotics for the pain,” she tells me; her mouth scrunched into a frown. “It’s a really complicated thing to talk about, but I didn’t want that to become a reality. I had dreams of making clothes and this vision of a really glamorous life for myself. I wasn’t gonna let this take that away from me.”

For this reason, 17-year-old Mariah made the decision to have her leg amputated. Believe it or not, though, it wasn’t a tragic time for Mariah—instead, it felt like a fresh start. “I lost my leg on June 24th, got my prosthetic on August 22nd, and by September 25th, I went to homecoming and could dance with all my friends,” Mariah muses, smiling now. “For some it might’ve felt like a tragedy, but to me, it was a gift.”

On the profile-gone-wrong:

While Mariah is more than down to discuss her disability now, this wasn’t the case just a few years ago. She became guarded—and rightfully so—after the New York Post twisted her words in a deeply insensitive profile, which was published in 2013 when she was still going by her given name, Mariah Serrano. “I was really excited about the interview at first because it felt like a way to say, ‘Look, you can be disabled and still be fashionable and funny and slutty or whatever you want,’ because I wasn’t seeing that image anywhere. But I made a joke and they took it totally out of context,” Mariah says. “Basically, I said I removed my leg to wear better shoes, which I thought was such an obvious joke because my foot was so deformed I could barely wear shoes. I was simply trying to angle it on the bright side of an otherwise complicated situation.”

After the article came out, she received a slew of backlash. “It was a really dark period for me,” she says. “I didn’t even want to use my real first and last name anymore, and anytime I would go into an interview for a fashion job, they’d be like, ‘So let’s talk about this article.’ It was really hard.” 

It’s been roughly six years since then, and Mariah says she’s finally come to terms with it. Even better, she now believes it was part of her path all along. “I used to feel really bitter about it, but it’s just another part of my story and something that led me to GirlKnewYork, so it’s okay.”

On acceptance:

Mariah has been on some spectrum of disabled for her entire life, though she says she only recently started identifying as such. 

“I really only started using the terminology in the last two years. I think when I was a little younger, I avoided the idea—I was always like, ‘I’m not actually disabled, I'm just a little different.’ But as I've gotten older, I’ve started to understand that it’s an important part of my identity and the relationship I’ll always have with my body. So it’s not that I’m newly disabled, it’s just that I’m newly open about it.”

After reflecting, she adds: “My life then, now, and forever will always be a process of learning and re-learning how to walk. Accepting that took like the last ten years, but it’s a big part of me and what I go through every day.” As for body image, Mariah says she takes it day by day. “Visually, I’m still getting there. I think this happens to all of us though—we all have something we’re self-conscious about. Some days it’s all I can see and others I won’t notice a thing.” 


On work and getting it all done: 

GIRLKNEWYORK
 Mira Mariah

Mariah came to the conclusion that she wanted to be a tattoo artist while pregnant with her daughter. “I realized that drawing and talking to women were what I loved most, so after I had Gogo, I went all in. At the time, tattooing wasn’t as feminized as it is now, and I had friends who wanted these tiny tattoos but didn’t know where to go because they felt kind of shamed by other artists, so my initial goal was to try and fill that void, and then I really fell in love with it.”

The tattoo industry might still be male-dominated, but that hasn’t been Mariah’s experience at Brooklyn-based tattoo parlor, Fleur Noire. “I work with amazing supportive women and all of my male coworkers believe in me and support my way of art, too. I feel really loved and happy, and never feel marginalized.” Mariah pauses before adding: “But I also work for a very special tattoo shop that is extremely diverse. I think we speak 11 languages in total and we’re 40 percent women.” 

Still, the fact of the matter is, working with any physical impairment is going to make things more trying. “The truth is, everything is late and everything is harder,” says Mariah. “Even getting from point A to point B is a thing, but I surround myself with people who understand my situation, and I’m incredibly privileged to say, ‘I can’t walk today, I’m taking an Uber,’ and to be able to show up in a sweatshirt. These are privileges based on money and access, and I’m very aware of that. I hope to make these things more accessible to others someday.” 

On self-care:

“I think that disability needs to be the center of the self-care conversation,” Mariah says matter-of-factly when I inquire about the ever-trendy topic. “It’s a huge part of a disabled person’s experience, and it needs to look different for different people—that, and we need to be aware of where we’re enforcing rules or visuals of it that aren’t accessible to others.”

Moreover, Mariah believes there are two types of self-care: things you do out of necessity, and what you do purely for pleasure. “Self-care can be something like, paying your bills, and it can also be, like, nail polish and glitter. At the end of the day, both of them are equally valid.” 

So what does self-care look like for her? “I’ll ice my face, drink a ton of lemon water, and cozy up in my Buffy blanket, which by the way, I think is such a cornerstone for disabled people. It’s one of my biggest comfort items.” Speaking of comfort, Mariah tells me that over the last year or so, it’s become increasingly important for her to make room for herself to feel more comfortable. “It’s one of the reasons I make sweatshirts and encourage people to wear them super oversized, and why I’ve been wearing sneakers nonstop lately. Comfort is just critical to my existence now.” 

On being a mom:

Some might not know that Mariah is a mother, and yet, it’s another key aspect of her identity. Her daughter Margot (affectionately called Gogo) is five years old and one of the brightest lights in her life. “From a self-care standpoint, she’s a pleasure—sure, she can be a lot sometimes, but, truthfully, it feels indulgent to have her,” she says, really grinning for first time in our conversation. “She loves makeup and very much understands pleasure. The three of us—me, my sister Issa, and Gogo—will all sit on the floor while we do our makeup together, and it’s one of my all-time favorite things.” 

On her beauty must-haves and collabs:

When I ask Mariah about her favorite beauty products, she lights up and doesn’t skip a beat before responding. “I really love the Milk Kush Mascara, the Anastasia Norvina Palette, and the Glossier Skin Tint and Leo Lipstick are my favorites. I’ve also been wearing glitter since I was like, 13,” she says. 

Speaking of sparkly things, Mariah recently collabed with L.A.-based jewelry brand, Amarilo, on her very own collection. “I’m so happy with how it turned out. We took this drawing I did and turned it into a solid gold necklace, and then we made a ring and Saturn earrings, too.”

On her Instagram community:

As our conversation comes to a close, I ask about her goals for @GirlKnewYork, and more specifically: what she hopes people get out of following her. After giving it a good think, she comes back with this: “Creating community can be really hard, but I figure that if I’m going through something, then other people must be too, so it’s like, why not do it together so we can all feel seen? Ultimately, I want people to know they’re not alone, and that I’m on their side.”

My @GirlKnewYork experience:

girl knew york
 Kaleigh Fasanella

A few weeks later, I’m sitting across from Mariah at her Williamsburg tattoo studio, shaking again. This time, though, it’s because I’m minutes away from getting the largest and most ~dramatique tattoo of my life: a vintage-style handheld mirror with a tearful woman’s reflection in it. Due to the level of intricate detail, Mariah says the piece has to be around five inches, and even though I’m secretly a little nervous, I refuse to be lame and back out. 

A few minutes pass and I feel infinitely calmer, comforted by Mariah’s chill presence and how she chats me up like I’m a close friend, not just a client. We talk about everything from lipstick (I’m wearing Glossier’s Leo, which she notices) to dating apps, to skin ailments and living with chronic illnesses. By the time I’m actually about to get tatted, I’m not nervous anymore. 

The whole process takes approximately 30 minutes and proves way less painful than I expected. More importantly: I’m in awe of my new tattoo, which spans the majority of my upper right arm and is exactly what I had been imagining in my head for months. On my walk home, I’m on Cloud 9, trying to pinpoint what it is about Mariah that makes people so drawn to her. As melodramatic as it might sound, the word I keep coming back to is: magic.

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