I can’t say I remember it like it was yesterday, though I do remember a lot of it. In my head, it seems like I went from not thinking about it at all to sitting in the tattoo artist’s chair in less time than it took to type this sentence. But I also can recall thinking about it for quite a long time. At least in Young Man Time (that’s like dog years, but goofier).
I’d been tattooed twice by the time I hit 21, and oddly they both marked very different times in my life (did I mention Young Man Time?). The first was done before I got kicked out of college, the second was after. The first was not rebellious, or angry. It was exploratory, a statement of being. I’d drawn an elaborate version of my initials, complete with a knight’s helmet and swords (what can I say, I was 15 when I drew it). The sketch was still in a notebook, and when I was 18 I took it down to a tattoo shop run by a guy who called himself Spyder (no lie, he called himself Spyder). Spyder was a nice enough guy, and talked me through the process.
I remember a kid coming into the shop while I was in the chair. He wanted his nipple pierced. He was a cocky, loudmouthed braggart, and I instantly disliked him. We were all chatting, the kid, Spyder, his coworker doing the piercing, and me. I think we all quickly grew tired of this kid. While we were talking, the guy doing the piercing, wearing a pair of latex gloves, was rubbing an ice cube on the kid’s left nipple. He asked the kid if he was ready. The kid made a gesture indicating both irritation and impatience, obviously meaning to convey that he was always ready to rock & roll. The guy put down the ice, picked up a large needle in his right hand, a bit of nipple in his left, and skewered this kid’s chest.
The kid shrieked and passed out.
That first tattoo is a little silly to me, and it’s not really well done. But I don’t regret it, never have. It’s an artifact, a little bit of history. From a time in my life when I was clueless and hopeful. All potential, no experience. It’s an anecdote about a kid who sought out The New but had no idea what that meant.
The second is darker, and is more weighted by fear and purpose. I’d just gotten kicked out of college. During my “exit interview”, while loudly and frantically voicing my concerns, my advisor told me everything would be all right, that not everyone is made for college. Though she was trying to be soothing and helpful, that just cut deeper. Of course I could do this, this wasn’t beyond my abilities. It couldn’t be. I left the University of Wyoming that day feeling ashamed and embarrassed. I was…adrift. I spent the next semester working, trying to save money, trying to grow up a little.
It was during that semester that I got tattooed for the second time. I’d made a rough sketch of an anchor, and had driven down to Fort Collins to get it done. This artist was much more skilled. She did her own sketch from mine, adding a chain to the anchor. During the course of my time with her, I discovered that her eyeliner was actually tattooed on. And that she had tattooed it herself.
Sometimes I think that if I were able to, I’d do the anchor and chain differently. In a different style, and with more detail. But that’s the point, isn’t it? You can’t change it, it is as it is. It’s another little bit of my history. And I don’t regret this one either. Never have.
I’ve been asked that question a lot. Some people in my life think tattoos are stupid, or silly, or pointless. Or destructive. Some want to know what would motivate someone to do such a thing. “Was it just because you thought it was cool?” Some want to know what the tattoo means, or why The Tattooed choose what they do. I’ve been asked if it’s because of the pain (“Are you addicted to the pain?”). I’ll answer that one right now. Getting tattooed hurts. Sometimes more than a little, and sometimes way more than a lot. I’m not addicted to it. But… I do think the pain is a gate. You’ve got to REALLY want to get tattooed.
If you ask 1,000 people why they get tattooed, you’ll get close to 1,000 answers. Some of those answers will be rambling, or ridiculous. But some will be sincere, authentic and cogent. And I can only answer for myself.
First, they’re snapshots, visualizations of my story. They paint a true picture. They don’t lie, they don’t exaggerate. Second, they’re touchstones. When I see them, I can recall with greater clarity the person that wanted them done. I can’t really lie to myself. I was once a kid who drew skulls and fire and knight’s helmets with swords. Getting kicked out of college was terrible, but ultimately crucial. And third, they’ll only exist as long as I do. They’re ephemeral. I find that comforting.
I was the first person my age that I knew to get a tattoo. It wasn’t trendy, or even cool. Only old guys and veterans had them. My buddies responded the only way buddies could. I was roasted, mercilessly. But I knew that I wanted to mark a moment. It was a line in the sand, a promise to myself. It didn’t matter to me what anyone else thought. With that first tattoo I felt I was signing a contract with my future self. To do something big. I didn’t know what that would be, but I was unafraid of the unknown.
The second one was an addendum to the contract. I’d taken a hit, a big one. I’d cost myself time, money, and confidence. I’d managed to deconstruct the person I thought I was, the person I thought I was going to be. I wanted another line in the sand. Something to remind me to keep my feet on the ground and work the problem. My dad was in the Navy during Vietnam, and had an anchor tattooed on his shoulder. He always told me to work the problem, little by little, and that the next time I’d look up, I’d be past all that shit. I don’t know what his anchor tattoo meant to him, but putting one on my calf reminded me to work the problem and get past all that shit.
And now, there’s a third one. Well, a third of a third one. I’ve begun the process of defacing myself again. This time, my left arm.
And what line is this one drawing? What contract am I making now? To never wear out an armchair. I’ll be reminded everyday that at some point, I was the guy who wanted to see, to do. To smell, taste, touch, and see everything he could. I’ll never be able to fool myself, to say that I didn’t really mean it.
Because it really hurt getting this tattoo.