It’s about that time again. At inconsistent intervals, often randomly experienced out of nowhere, pops up my desire to get another tattoo. At last count, I think I’m up to 13, though none are overly impressive. Back when I could have afforded a large piece, I was apprehensive. Now that I want a nice sleeve or even a half-sleeve, I can’t really do it. Like my hobby of concert attendance, I’ve basically been priced out of the tattoo game. Now a couple of my friends probably make a better living as tattoo artists than I do in my government job. I just never could draw worth a damn.
Unlike today, when teenagers and their parents get tattoos together, I had to wait until I was 18 to get my first one. My parents wouldn’t let me get one before then, and believe it or not, their stance always seemed perfectly reasonable to me. But I wanted one, and after getting my nerve up actually had to borrow the $35 from my friend to follow through with it. I became the proud owner of a shamrock with some kind of wheat husks and line doodles, permanently etched on my right calf. My first real tattoo. I used to paint food coloring tatts on myself when I was a teenager, because I really wanted people to think I was, as they say now, “inked up.” But now I was in the club. After about a year, I got a red rose on my left shoulder for artistic balance. It was several years before I got my next one, but then they came in quick succession. I can’t remember the exact order in which I got the rest, but all have one thing in common: I wasn’t drunk for any of them. And I can say I thought them all out, at least to some degree.
Did you know tattooing dates back over 5,000 years? That’s ten times longer than some people think the Earth has been around (sometimes I can’t help a poke at Creationists). Anyway, the tattooed body of Otzi the Iceman, who was found in a cave among the Italian Alps, was dated to around 3,250 B.C. But the word tattoo is from the Polynesian tatau, which means “to write.” Still today, many tribes around the world, including Native American Indians, use tattoos to denote rank, importance or geographic origin. There is a darker side to tattoo history as well. Slaves and Roman workers were tattooed to allow identification of runaways. And of course, during World War II many Jews forced into concentrated labor camps were tattooed with a number. Their abusers, SS Nazi officers, often tattooed their arms with a symbol of their allegiance. Years later, many fired bullets into their tattoos to prevent being identified as war criminals.
But it’s not all bad history. In 1870s Britain, royalty took to the ink. After several decades of reputation damaged by sailors and their perceived ilk, the tattoo has made a remarkable comeback. Today, about 15 percent of U.S. adults are tattooed. The latest big thing is tattooed makeup, which I can’t seem to fathom, but okay. What I love, though, is the use of tattooing to cover, or in some cases “celebrate” the survival of patients with mastectomy scars. And mainstream art galleries now host full exhibitions of tattoos and their artists. The tattoo is cooler than it’s ever been. But to anyone out there finally thinking about it: really think it through, because removing a tattoo is more expensive and more painful than getting one.
So, about the pain. Well, some people can’t take it. Others find it nearly meditative. I’m in the middle. The best description I’ve heard is that it feels like a carpet burn. So, depending on the size of your tattoo, a several-minute or several-hour intermittent carpet burn. It’s your call! In my experience, women generally have the higher pain tolerance. Some parts of the body are more sensitive to pain. My most painful spot was the inside of the bicep. Or maybe the chest. My more experienced (so, more tattooed) friends have cited the foot, rib cage, throat, and palm as particularly painful. I don’t like pain that much. Some personal observations: I love the entire sleeve piece, which looks like a cool shirt; and tattoos that wrap around the torso. I personally do not like the look of stand-alone forearm tattoos on anyone, but more so on the fairer sex. The small ones make me think of Auschwitz, and the larger ones usually look like gangrene. Just my silly two cents.
My own tattoo history shows where my mind was throughout life, even if it was only for a minute. I’ve often felt like an alien, so a tattoo of such a figure from an album cover by a favorite band seemed right. Another of my pieces, a keyhole looking into outer space and etched on my upper thigh, fits me in ways I don’t even fully understand. And there are two Grateful Dead-related tattoos, since I love the whole GD vibe. My favorites are a killer whale on the upper left arm, and the last piece I got, a old man tree-of-life which spoke to me the second I saw it. Put them all together and it’s a disjointed bunch of small pieces with no cohesion. I’ve vaguely thought of how much better it would all look connected with a timeline or something. But that lack of drawing talent, or even an eye to see a potential design, has delayed my feeling of inked completeness. Like most of life, if I just choose to feel complete, things will work out for the best.
Tattoos were not a real factor in my family. One older cousin got an eagle on his arm and, well, that’s the real extent of it. But my love of art, which I inherited from my grandmother, has always kept me in the arena. When I’d get a new tattoo, one person always loved to see it — that same grandmother — and that kept me coming back for more.
Now many of my closest friends are canvasses for some of my other friends who are certified tattoo artists. Some of them sit for eight- or nine-hour appointments that involve more pain and much more cost than I’m willing to experience. And that likely won’t change. I want to travel more as I get older, and $1,000 for an arm sleeve piece may as well be $1 million. And the more I think about it, the less I’m concerned about it.