How a Tattoo Is Born

It begins with an idea. Maybe a loose strand of words woven together with sticky disparate thoughts, binding passion with expression to produce geometric cognitive harmony within a chaotic fantasy. Or maybe just slivers of an image swirling around in my thoughts, slicing pockets in my imagination to store mutated reflections and foment artistic competition among them. Whatever it is, my subconscious can only keep it contained until it becomes strong enough to annihilate its cage. Once it’s free, this rogue idea defibrillates a stagnant impulse and rides the current of the voltage into my conscious mind. I know what I want, and now I’m on a mission to get it.

As my feet carry me across the threshold of the tattoo shop, my pores hoist up the hairs on my neck. They stand rigidly at attention to salute my exhilaration. I seek out my artist to have him sketch my idea, and I describe it to him by parsing out relevant details from a concoction of origin stories. As he starts to draw, I watch my idea crawl from his pen onto a sheet of transfer paper, caressed by his mastery. He lulls it to sleep through slow, calculated strokes.

In its submissive state, the feisty idea can be stenciled on my canvas. Today, that’s on and under my collarbones. He stamps the stencil to be level and centered on my upper chest, and then I lie down on his chair. Now, I wait for a troupe of needles to begin tap dancing on one of the most sensitive areas of my body.

The snarling vibrations of the tattoo machine echo around the shop when the artist starts it up. A sustained buzzing hovers just above every other sound in the room, passively asserting its dominance. The needles lean in to kiss my skin, and I hold my breath waiting to gauge the intensity of their sting: light, intense or horrific. (I’ve experienced all three.) My emotional commitment to the artwork serves as both a tranquilizer and an anesthetic at this point, psychosomatically relaxing me into the pain like intravenously dripped tolerance.

I know that it’s going to hurt, but I don’t care. I’m not here for the pain; I’m here for everything that comes after it. And that makes it worth whatever pain it takes. (Unless it’s the skin over my ribs. Nothing I’ve ideated is worth pain that devastating.)

When the artist starts out, he’s not tattooing the paltry dermal armor covering my collarbones yet, so the sensation is nothing stronger than a pinch. As he progresses into the design though, his prickly platoon gradually sidles up to my bones and prepares for close-quarters combat.

The first nerve ending to get stabbed throws a grenade into my brain that blows my eyes wide open and sends a shockwave down my arms. My fingers implode, collapsing into knotted wads of flesh, fists cemented in place. I start playing my lungs like an instrument, constructing chords from carefully timed inhales and exhales to sedate the raucous twinges and drown out their war cry. I keep this up for about 40 minutes (nothing compared to sessions I’ve had lasting several hours), and then the buzzing from the machine ceases abruptly. “OK,” my artist tells me, “you’re all set.”

I leave the shop feeling like I’m bringing home an adopted kitten, a new pet to love and care for. And I feel mildly intoxicated. Not by the pain (which is still present, but easy to shut out now), but by the euphoria of having my precious new tattoo. What was once an ephemeral concept is now mine to keep forever. And another drop of who I am has been mixed into the paint slathered on my body’s mural.

I wonder what the next idea will be …

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