I got my first tattoo when I was 23 going on 24. I knew exactly what I wanted – a sketched horse head on my lower right leg – but it took me four years to find the right image and the right artist.
It would be another decade before I would get my second: an esoteric compass on my upper left arm. A place on my body a decade earlier I couldn't imagine getting tattooed. The artist who did my horse – Danny Williams from the Bridgeport Tattoo Shop in Bridgeport, CT - said at the time that he would never tattoo a woman's upper arm – “too butch” was the implication, although I don't believe that's exactly what he said. And at the time I recall thinking that would be one of the last places I would ever consider getting tattooed.
I don't mean for this article to be social commentary on the tattooing industry, but I suppose it's worth noting how much attitudes have changed in a decade about women and tattoos. Enough so that I feel free to get almost any part of my body tattooed. Almost.
I am now in the process of getting my third tattoo: a full back-piece which will end up being a mural of trees and wildlife done in black and gray. The project – started in January of this year, and likely to be completed by summer's end – didn't start out with that vision. I wanted the two trees that my sons are named after on my back, done with enough detail that the leaves could be identified (by me, at least). The vision slowly evolved with my tattooist's input into what is now a much more complex and very stunning piece of art. The length of this project has given me ample time to reflect on my fascination with the tattooing industry and getting my own tattoos, and discovering exactly what this all means to me.
The article “Why I Ink”, is really what got me started with the 'why' questions. Why am I so drawn to tattoos? Why on earth am I getting my entire back inked? Why do I, and most of the inked people I talk to, want to constantly get more tattoos once we've gotten our first? What's the draw (no pun intended)? Clearly I'm far from being in the minority these days – what makes tattooing so fascinating for so many people?
There are books and books and books written on tattoos, tattooing, and it's history, imagery and culture. I really only wanted to answer the questions for myself. I think that that's really all I'm qualified to do.
Somewhere along the way I read a book called “Pagan Fleshworks: The Alchemy of Body Modification”. One of the concepts brought up in that book is the transcendent experience many people have when getting tattooed or pierced (for the record, piercing really isn't my thing. I have a nose ring, an upper cartilage piercing in my left ear, and a conch piercing in my right ear and two lobe piercings in both ears... and no current desire to go any further down that road). So when I first sat down with Joe to work on my back-piece, I gave that some thought as he was working on me. Nope, didn't seem to be transcendent at all. Just really painful. That lack of spiritual awareness nagged at me for my first three sittings with Joe. I wondered why this wasn't a more powerful experience. Until several months later the realization hit me. But it took some weird twists along the way for me finally figure out what – for me – was the takeaway from these sessions and all the pain and discomfort I was experiencing.
I wondered about the clarity of each of these sessions, and the two tattoos I had done earlier. I have a really terrible memory, but even 15 years after getting my first tattoo and 4 years after getting my second, those hours are crystal clear. I've spent enough time with Joe that some of those sessions blend into each other, but there are many points that stick out with that same sharp prominence. Why is that?
I think it's because we spend so much of our adult lives stuck in our heads. Our brains are constantly going, regardless of what our bodies are doing. We're often thinking ahead, worrying about what we have to do next, or what's happening next week, next month, or what's going on with our loved ones... we're rarely present at what we're physically doing. It takes a real force of will (for me, anyway) to focus on the here and now, and to stay that way. Meditating helps (which I don't do nearly as often as I'd like) but I only spend minutes that way; most of my day-to-day routines are carried out with my brain two (or three, or four) steps ahead of my body.
But when I'm getting tattooed, I've very present. Pain has that affect – it keeps you in your body. And for many people that's powerful, and too often, rare. That sense of total body awareness may be what draws us back to the experience of getting tattooed again and again. There's a corollary here between tattooing and sex. I'll let you come to that one on your own.
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