Last night I passed by the friendly neighborhood tattoo parlor and heard that sound. Like a dental drill, only throatier, it was the buzz of an inked needle "sewing" a pattern into human flesh. And in the same way a smell can beam you back to another time, it transported me to the day of my tattoo.
After years of planning, I was sure of what I wanted: a piece of chocolate cake and a glass of milk (a combo that gives me so much happiness that it goes beyond food and approaches a life philosophy). And I was going to get it on my ribs just below my left breast.
I arrived at this location after long consideration of many factors: I wanted it near my tummy because that's where I always want cake and milk. Plus that seemed like a fairly private place that would remain covered unless I gave permission otherwise. I finally settled on the bare patch of "canvas" below my breast by rationalizing that when I was too old to want a tattoo anymore, the thing would be covered by inevitable sagging.
That decided, I picked a tattoo artist whose work I admired and brought him my design sketch. Using the sketch as a guide, he inked up a "blueprint," incorporating his own style and flair. And then we went back into the workroom, which, rather than the pin-up calendar/brimming-over-ash-tray scene I anticipated, was not unlike a doctor's examination room.
"OK, where do you want it?"
"Right HERE," I said, pointing to where I meant.
"Listen. You see me?" he asked, motioning to his multiple piercings and full-sleeve tattoos. "Even I don't have a tattoo there. It hurts too damn much."
But what was I to do? I couldn't scrap all that planning just because of a little extra pain, right? I held firm.
"Whatever," he shrugged and photocopied the drawing onto special temporary-tattoo paper, which he transferred to my skin to use as an outline. And then he dug in. Literally. And it hurt. A lot. For almost two hours it felt like someone was singeing my flesh with a cigarette while simultaneously administering a really amateurish shot over and over and over. I had no idea how much pain a tiny lil' needle could cause (the extra-small needle required for detailed work like mine reportedly hurts more than regular, garden-variety tattoo needles).
Despite the suffering, I haven't had one regret in the four years I've had that tattoo. In fact, I highly recommend getting one.
Wanna join me? Then here are some things to consider before, during, and after you become a perma-painted lady.
You want that?
A tattoo is like a haircut, only worse. Make a mistake shave your head or get a Dorothy Hamill and you're looking at a six-month sentence. But eradicating a tattoo is very painful, not to mention expensive, and doesn't always work. So look before you leap.
Think different. This may be a little "Free to Be You and Me," but tattoos express your individuality. So spend a few months (or even years) collecting images that you find meaningful. Look through tattoo artists' books and magazines to get an idea of what's possible. Then use your findings to inspire your own design for a tattoo. You don't have to be a Picasso a good tattoo artist should be able to draw exactly what you want based on a rough sketch or photo.
Will you still love it when you're 64? Don't give in to the siren call of fads. Band and beau names are obvious no-nos. So are certain colors. When my best friend got her room painted pistachio and lavender back in '82, I nearly passed out with envy. Had I then had the courage to get my dream tattoo, today I'd be sporting the Specials (the band) logo, done in green and pink. Which, 15 years later, somehow doesn't sound quite so cool.
So pick something you really love, and we're talking the kind of love that lasts forever. Hold out as long as it takes to make sure it's really you. I wanted that cake and milk tattoo when I was in high school, yet managed to wait until after college to actually get it. And even then I placed it strategically.
Stick it where?
Are you willing to be the source of raised eyebrows next Thanksgiving? Can you deal with strangers coming up to grill you about "that cool tat"? If not, don't get a tattoo on a hard-to-conceal area of your body. Nor a painful spot.
Some places hurt more than others. Fleshy bits like your ass, biceps, thighs, and calves take the pain much better than bonier areas like your collar, ankles, feet and (ahem) rib cage. Apparently the base of your spine is supremely painful since it's a hotbed of nerve endings. One friend, who sports a magnificent pair of crossed checkered flags on that very spot, says that the pain traveled all the way up her back and down her legs. So if you have a low pain threshold, that's not the place for you.
Stick it where the sun don't shine. The sun can cause a tattoo to fade and run much more quickly than it would otherwise. So unless you're willing to slap on sunblock whenever you go out, place it somewhere that's easy to cover.
You're going to let who do it?
If you admire someone's tattoo, find out who did it. Or thumb through tattoo magazines to see if you like the work of any featured artists. Then go to the "parlor" and CHECK OUT THE PORTFOLIO OF THE ARTIST IN QUESTION!!. You may even want to meet the person to make sure you like him or her. Getting a tattoo is an intimate experience, and you can get superior results if you and the artist are simpatico.
Is it too late to back out?
Don't get a tattoo under the influence of booze or drugs. Alcohol thins your blood and thus leads to "runny" tattoos, but some say that's a myth. In any case, it's always a bad idea to make irreversible decisions when you're not thinking clearly. Which means you should definitely avoid getting that tattoo when you're PMSing. Also don't do it while you have your period. Cramps and needling can be a harrowing combo.
Eat a balanced breakfast. Just like when you donate blood, it's a good idea to fill up on some good eats before you go in to do the deed.
WEAR COMFY CLOTHING!! Depending on where you're getting the thing, you may want to have stretchy clothes that allow for easy access with minimal exposure, and that don't bind or chafe after the fact. Also pick something that you don't mind getting stained with ink or (ugh) blood.
Is everything clean? There are some nasty things you can catch from an unclean tattoo needle (like hepatitis B or HIV). So make sure the tattoo artist uses a new needle and that all the tubing is clean. (Never be afraid to ask the artist about this, it's YOUR body! If the artist is clean and sterile he or she will provide you with a proffessional answer and be more than happy to give it.)
Once that needle starts a buzz-buzz-buzzing, you can't turn back. Unless you're willing to go through life with half a tattoo, you have to see it through. Some more elaborate tattoos take more than one sitting, which means you have to be really committed. Are you ready?
It's going to hurt like hell. It may even tickle, which can be almost worse than the pain. Some of my friends describe the experience as a "rush" referring to a drug-inspired high. But it felt like plain ol' pain to me, which I sublimated by talking a blue streak ("When did you start doing this?" "Did you do any of your own tattoos?" "Where were you when the shuttle exploded?"). Then again women, who are built to withstand the earthshaking pain of childbirth, tend to handle tattoos better than men do, or so my tattoo guy said.
Don't forget the tip. Ten percent should be enough to thank them for their artistry, skill and steady hand (I tipped 20 percent since I was ecstatic with mine). It's common courtesy and it's good insurance since you never know when you'll be back under the needle again.
Remember: Tattoos are like roller coasters. You'll scream all the way through it, and then when it's over, you'll want to get right back in line and go again.