“That’s the one; the one that says ‘woman’ underneath it. That’s the one I’m getting. I only need another ninety bucks and its mine,” I said to my not-yet-out-of-the-closet friend as we peered through the grimy window of Philadelphia Eddie’s Tattoo and Piercing Parlor on our way home from another night of playing goth on South St.
“What the hell is it?” he replied.
“It’s called ‘Black Art’ because the artist’s name is Scott Black. It’s kind of tribal, but not. Do you love it?”
“You still haven’t answered what the hell it’s supposed to be, so how the frig am I supposed to love it?”
“You’re an idiot. How can you not know what it is? It means woman. It’s clearly the torso of a woman, stooge. See the breasts and the waist and the arms? It’s obvious.”
“Um. I don’t really look at women’s breasts.”
“Fair point. Carry on.”
Three months later, just two months after my twenty-first birthday, I walked through the door of Eddie’s tattoo with that additional ninety bucks in hand, prepared to buy me a woman. Accompanying me on my first tattoo experience were my three best girlfriends: Vanessa, MarieElena, and Katrina. K’s tattoo cherry had already been popped but she came along to watch me go through the same pain because as I would find out later in our friendship, that’s the type of person she was. M was looking to get her first but was using this experience to make her final decision since she was too chickenshit to do it before someone else did, which as I would find out later in our friendship, was pretty much how she made every decision. But V… my beloved V… a mere 19 years old, she was there solely for moral support which as I would find out later in our friendship, was just what made V awesome, and that’s the reason why she is still my very best friend to this day and will be, always.
“What can I do for you ladies?” said a rather disgusting and surly, heavily tattood man with rubber bands in his beard a-la Lou Albano.
“I want to get that tattoo on my back. Right here (pointing to the empty area at the base of my spine, which in 1994, was still an unpopular area to get a tattoo) so that you can see it if I have a half-shirt on.”
“Step right up then. I’m Professor Ouch. First time?”
“Do you throw up easily?”
“Have you had any alcohol today?”
“Then let’s stick you with a bunch of needles, shall we?”
Prof. Ouch asked me to pull my pants down as low as comfortably possible and my shirt up using the same criteria. I was leaning over a table, kneeling on a chair with my three friends at my side when the first needle hit.
“Oh my fucking GOOOOOOHHHD that hurts. Holy GAAAAAAD. SHIT. Shitshitshitshitshit,” I mouthed to the girls who were watching in amazement as the tears of pain were streaming down my face. K was borderline laughing, the bitch, while V squeezed my hand as the needles scraped what felt like raw vertebrae. For the next thirty minutes I would fight off wails of agony, bile, foul language, and passing out until finally Prof. Ouch noticed that my skin was getting cold and my body weak.
“She’s clammy. I think she might pass out. Why don’t one of yous run over to that grocer and grab her an orange juice or something.”
“I’ll go” said M, and off she ran as I collapsed in the death chair of pain while Ouch changed out the needles and tried not to look annoyed by my general being.
“So, why’d you pick this tattoo?” he said, feigning interest in whatever potential response I might give him. “Oh, so, the whole woman thing really grabbed me. I’m all woman (said newly twenty-one year old I) and I’m a proud woman, too,” I replied half-consciously. “Yeah (eye roll). You know what this is, right?” he replied, the hint of a smile forming across his mouth. “Yeah, I know what it is. It’s a torso. It’s the breasts and upper torso. Right? Right? Wait, dude, RIGHT??”
It was as if time had stopped. All buzzing in the room came to a halt. All talking had ceased. All laughter, quieted. Smoke from cigarettes stood still. Doors stayed open. Expressions were frozen. And a fear came over me like none that my now old-enough-to-drink-legally body ever knew before.
“Nope. Man, this is great. It’s the female anatomy. The birth canal. See the ovaries? The fallopian tubes? Right there, that’s the clitoris. You didn’t know that? You mean you had me start this tattoo and you didn’t know that?”
I had wanted a tattoo for as long as I could remember. My dad had them, as did my brother. I spent three years visiting tattoo parlors around the city; perusing catalogs. Rumaging through magazines. Scouring books. I finally found it… what I thought was going to be a unique piece of art that would represent me and what I stood for and believed about myself; that I would wear proudly on my body and show off to the world until the day my skin deteriorated leaving nothing but my dead bones in the earth for generations until they were discovered by archeologists in the year 4,000.
A vagina. A goddamned motherfucking vagina was my tattoo of choice. Well done. Well done, indeed.
Time started again and not a moment too soon. The door to Eddie’s swung open and M giddily strolled in, orange juice in hand, and tall muscular bouncer in tow. “Look who I ran in to!” she yelped proudly. It was Scott – my then boyfriend – who was on his way to work at a nightclub not far from South Street. I mentioned earlier that I was getting my tattoo tonight, and he said he’d swing by if he had a minute before work to check in on me.
“How’s she doing?” he said to the girls in his deep, bouncery-type voice.
V and K both looked at me first to see if I would give them any sign of a reaction other than outright apeshitedness. But before I could even conjur a thought that would potentially translate to words, K spoke:
“She’s okay. She’s got a black pussy tattooed to her back, but overall, she’s okay.”
“When I wake up after passing out, Katrina, I swear to fucking Christ I’m going to knock your underbite back into place.”
“Barb, what are you going to DO?” said V as she watched both the anger and the panic move across my face.
“What am I going to do? What the ef can I do??? He finished the outline already. The fucking hard part is over. I’m screwed. I’m so fucking screwed. She’s right. I’ve got a black pussy tattooed to my back. Ovaries and all. Fuck it. It’s too late to do anything. Jesus Christ, what am I going to tell my mother?”
“Tell her its a spider” said Scott. “Seriously. It looks like a spider to me.”
“Scott, are you saying her pussy looks like a spi...”
But the words were interrupted by a half-empty orange juice carton smashing Katrina in the face. I may have been weak but I was strong enough to still have my own back. My now vagina-ridden tattoed back, but my back, nonetheless.
Professor Ouch finished the deed, accepted his payment and sent me on my way. It was an experience, for damn sure, and it makes for a great story now at the ripe old age of thirty-nine, but for years, as I walked across beaches, or wore a shirt that showed that small part of my back, I found myself having to explain what it was without ever actually explaining what it was until I finally became too old and too tired not to explain it any more, which at that point meant nothing more than this: It’s a spider, asshole.
Will I ever have it removed? No. I won’t. It’s as much a part of me now as the story that accompanies it. Was it a learning experience? Yes. It taught me about friendship. It taught me about naivety. And mostly, it taught me about just how strong I am, and just how much pain I can take to get what I want, even if what I wanted originally and what I would end up getting were two different things. Will I ever get another, now that I’m middle-aged? Maybe. But I promise you this: if I do, it won’t be of something that you’d find in a porn or in the movie “The Miracle of Life”... next time, if there is a next time, it will be some good old-fashioned rocker ink. Or maybe a quote. “Living well is the best revenge....” Yeah. I like that one.