Some Thoughts About Tattoos

Published in Personal / Art - 7 mins to read

Yesterday I got tattoo number 9, my biggest so far. It covers my left leg from knee to ankle, 360 degrees (sorry Mum) and I am absolutely in love with it. I am in particular excited about this piece as I think it puts me in the next category of tattooed person - first you get the people that just have one, and it is something very meaningful to them, and then you get the people that have several, having clearly enjoyed the first one, but nothing especially big or on any overly painful spots, and then you have the next category, which I would now put myself in; people who have “ambitious” tattoos, big, and painful. I guess the next stage would be to be fairly heavily tattooed - all four limbs more covered than not, for example. But who knows if I’ll ever get there. Another thing I enjoyed about this piece in particular was it was my first freehand tattoo - at the start of my appointment, I sat down with the artist, talked about what I wanted, and then he whipped out some sharpies and started drawing all over my freshly shaved calf and shin. Et voil√†, the design was completed.

I love the entire process of getting tattooed, not just the end result. Perhaps I’ve been lucky, but all the artists I’ve met have been exceptionally patient, kind and humble, as well as remarkably talented. I love the atmosphere in the shop, walls splayed with art, homages to tattooing history mingled with the latest and greatest trends and techniques, 80s & 90s post hardcore and grunge filling the airwaves. Perhaps most enjoyable is the curious, collaborative nature of all the artists (and sometimes customers) - while working, all the artists will get up, look over at the work of others, nod approvingly and offer some words of praise. As a customer this is especially reassuring to know that other artists and de facto experts in the field also think highly or your new ink.

Having gotten the majority of my tattoos post-pandemic, talking to the artists is very humbling. All of them have struggled massively over the past two years, and it gave me a much-needed reminder that I am incredibly fortunate to be in the position that I’m in - not only to have not struggled to find work, but even to have enough surplus income to be able to afford several new tattoos. And of course, it’s impossible to talk about the humbling experience of getting tattooed, without talking about the pain of it. For me, there are three distinct kinds of pain associated with getting a tattoo: the acute, scratching of the actual needle going in in the moment, then the attritional, constant pain of the same piece of skin being worked over and over again for hours, and then the lingering, sleep-depriving pain of your skin trying to recover in the hours and days after the needle has stopped. For the first kind of pain, everyone knows that there are some spots that will hurt significantly more than others. All of the tattoos on my arm were relatively easy placements, and I didn’t have any issues with them at all, so much so I would say they were uncomfortable rather than painful. My thigh was also pretty straightforward. When I got my first tattoo on my right calf, some words which only took 20 minutes, it hurt a lot more than my arm, and I remember at the time being glad it was such a short process, and feeling like I wouldn’t have been able to continue for very much longer. Five months later I got a decent sized traditional, block colour tattoo on the same calf that took four hours and caused me a pretty decent amount of pain, and again I wasn’t sure I could’ve sat for very much longer. But yesterday I experienced what it is like to get tattooed close to your knee and your ankle. It was a whole new level of pain in tattooing that I have never experienced before. The aforementioned, attritional pain that I’d struggled with on my other calf was absolutely nothing compared to the needle in those spots. And now I am still in the throes of the after-pain, where my calf has swollen to the extent I no longer possess a left ankle, and can’t really walk properly.

Having a glimpse of what it is like to get a truly painful spot tattooed gave me a whole new level of respect for those that have more significant tattoos in difficult places, like an entire knee or, and I wince even typing it, their palms. I think that is another reason I like tattoo artists so much - they are invariably covered in tattoos themselves, and many of them will have hurt a great deal. They have put their body on the line for their art, and that makes it seem a lot fairer when they ask you to put your body on the line for it as well. At the expense of sounding like a raging masochist, I think the pain is an important part of the process, and I think if getting a tattoo was effortless, something valuable would be lost. For starters, the pain will make you really sure that you want the tattoo, even more so than the prospect of having it indelibly inked into your skin forever will. Secondly, I still struggle not to romanticise the idea of suffering for your art, as described above, and to have the opportunity to suffer for art that is on my body and so my own in that sense, appeals greatly. You have to earn tattoos as well as pay for them. The last reason I have is that, much like ultrarunning, it is a challenge to overcome, where on some level you know that the only thing in your way is your own mind. Pain is all in your head, it’s a sensory input just like the taste of chocolate or the smell of lavender, and it is possible to control your reaction to it, but it’s not easy. Lying on your back, staring into a fluorescent bulb while a group of needles flutter in and out of your knee a few times a second, you will understand more of your true nature than in most other moments of your life.

With all that being said, tattoos don’t have to be painful, just like the spots I mentioned above, there are placements that I think anyone would be able to sit through if they wanted something. I would recommend that anyone and everyone gets a tattoo, to have the whole experience, and to maybe feel some of what I do whenever I get one, and it doesn’t have to be a big or scary piece - although I also think that everyone is capable of physically enduring a lot more than most realise. I hope that they can shake of the last of their reputation as part of undesirable underground culture and fully permeate the mainstream, so that everyone can see how beautiful it is to use your body as a canvas. I am obviously planning on getting more (again, sorry Mum), and have various ideas floating around my head. The short term plan is to get a few more smaller, fun pieces to fill my right arm up, especially as I need some time to forget the pain of yesterday (another important part of the whole process - no matter how bad it hurts, how many times you say you will never get a tattoo, in a week you will forget and book another one), and then I would like to work on getting comfortable with the idea of getting tattoos on my torso, one way or the other. I have a fairly ambitious idea for my right leg, but that likely won’t materialise until nearer the end of the year, if in 2022 at all. And I still have a completely free left arm and back, ample space to fulfill any future ambitious projects once inspiration and financial surplus strike simultaneously.