The voice of James Hughes was friendly but authoritative. The authority stemmed from the buzzing, whirring device he held in his latex-gloved hand. Either I could hold still and my flesh would beam with artistry, the voice said, or I would wind up with an erratic scribble that would look like a losing entry in a third-grade art contest.
I held still.
I was a baby boomer getting my first tattoo.
The world is awash in ink—body ink. My barista has ink. My Whole Foods cashier has ink. Trainers at my gym have lots of ink. Celebrity chefs compete with each other for the best food-themed ink. Even some librarians—librarians!—have ink (literary, of course). Let’s face it: Herman Melville’s Queequeg started something, even if he didn’t understand what was written on his skin.
The average human person has approximately 22 square feet of skin, roughly equivalent to the area of a twin mattress. Surely I could spare a corner of my personal mattress for a work of art. But what part of my 65-year-old prospective canvas deserved a masterpiece? More to the point, as many of you are wondering, why surrender one’s tattoo virginity when the canvas is starting to ripple a bit? For me, I just decided it was an interesting life experience—cheaper than buying a Ferrari, less scary than bungee jumping.
Motivations vary. Hughes, the skilled proprietor of Bethesda Tattoo Company, had a client in her mid-80s who asked for a rose tattoo on her shoulder—the same as her daughter and granddaughter. At another studio, a woman promised herself a tattoo if she reached a certain age. A man in his 60s, a dedicated gardener, decided he wanted to mark his passion with a flower. Another artist told me of a man in his 80s who asked for a portrait of his granddaughter on his forearm. “I really connect with this girl,” the octogenarian explained of his late-life impulse. Fortysomethings are big first tatters. “They feel their youth slipping away,” an artist named Fatty told me. “They’re economically stable and, frankly, some of them just want to say, ‘Chuck you. This is what I want to do.’ ”
Of course, tattooing today is hardly perceived as an act of rebellion. The last five years have seen an acceleration of acceptance in so-called polite society. Artists point to the proliferation of tattoo reality shows on TV such as Black Ink Crew and Best Ink and even America’s Worst Tattoos as the key to a kind of mainstream acceptability. Before the shows took tattooing into America’s family rooms, four or five customers a month were passing out while Hughes was inking them. “Fear of the unknown,” he explained. Now he might get a similar number of faintings in a year. “They’ve watched people on TV be calm and OK with it, so the rate of freak-out has dropped drastically.”
So, I didn’t freak out. I was semi-prepared for it, having asked some illustrated friends what to expect. But when Hughes started in on me with the electric tattoo machine, which emitted a loud buzzing noise like an apoplectic beehive, I wondered if I should be biting on a leather belt.
Does it hurt? Yep. Anyone who says it doesn’t is either a) lying or b) a Navy SEAL. But it is more annoyance than agony.
Hughes assured me that the tools of his trade had been sterilized in an autoclave and sealed until use. A tattoo machine is a hand-held electric instrument that uses a tubes and needle system. On one end is a sterilized needle, which is attached to tubes that contain ink. A foot switch is used to turn on the machine, which moves the needle in and out—at speeds ranging up to 190 hits per second—while driving the ink one-sixteenth of an inch into the skin.
Tattoo needles come in different arrangements for different tasks. The inks are suspensions of extremely fine pigment powders in a carrier, which usually includes water and either alcohol, propylene glycol or glycerin. The pigments are made from various chemicals and are etched into the dermis, the layer of tissue underlying the epidermis. Because the dermis is deeper and more stable, tattoos are long-lasting.
I lay stretched out on my stomach on a faux-leather table, my right calf shaved and washed, a surface deemed ink-worthy. I’d been told it might tickle. It didn’t tickle. It was a sensation more like deep stinging nettles or being etched by a dull paring knife. The outlining of my design hurt a bit more than the coloring, during which the machine is applied at a faster pace and is not so sting-y. Hughes explained that pain increases in areas of the body with more nerve endings, and also near bones and joints, the extremities and around your face and neck. Calf muscles tend to be less sensitive.
Apparently I “sat well,” which is parlor parlance for being relatively relaxed and holding still. I know I chatted away like a magpie on meth, perhaps trying to deflect my mind from registering anything around my nerve endings. After about 75 minutes of actual drilling, er, tattooing, Hughes pronounced me finished. I got my marching orders for aftercare.
I contemplated wearing shorts until Christmas.
Several days later I was shopping at Whole Foods. As I strode down the aisle, a clerk quickly caught up with me. “Man, that is a cool tattoo,” he enthused. “Sweet!”
They say the first time is the best.
Steve Goldstein (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer and editor and recovering journalist, most recently as Washington bureau chief of The Philadelphia Inquirer.