I was fortunate enough to be able to get tattooed a few days ago. It had been three years since my last one. This is the longest I have ever gone since I first started getting tattooed at the age of 20 or 21. It is an experience that I cherish for a variety of reasons. I yearn for it and the desire to get in the chair again was getting to be too much to bear. After this recent tattooing experience, I felt that I was about time that I commit my thoughts on the topic to writing. So, here goes.
Being tattooed is a strange and beautiful experience for me at all stages of the process: planning an idea, being tattooed, assimilating the new tattoo into my body image, and interfacing with the world through tattooed skin.
I have known that I wanted tattoos since I was quite young. I consciously remember having the conversation with my parents at the age of 12 or so. However, I am sure the idea had been brewing in my pre-adolescent mind for years prior. Around that time I remember trying to cut a design into myself so that I could color it in with a blue pen. I am thankful that I didn't succeed and gave up. I am also thankful that I was unable to get tattooed at that time because both designs are ones that I would certainly regret.
When the time came that I was ready to commit, I spent several weeks drawing, painting, and editing the design that I was going to get. I already had the placement, dimensions, and basic contours of the shape in mind. I then sat on the idea for about 6 months. If you know me, you already know that I over think things. A decision like this was one that I felt particularly compelled to over think. I knew that I wanted to be tattooed. By this time, I knew that I wanted to be fairly heavily tattooed. However, I was concerned that getting the tattoo would change the way I thought about myself. I was concerned that I was doing it just because I thought it would be cool. I was also uncertain about what it would feel like to have my body change so suddenly. As I built up to the moment when I was going to get it done and actually went through with it, I noticed that for the past year, I had been picturing my body in this new way and with this new addition. The result was that once it was done, it didn't feel like a change so much as an uncovering of something that was already there. Integrating the new tattoo into my internal, body image required little to no adjustment. It just felt right.
While many find it profoundly unpleasant, I find the process of getting tattooed to be sublimely engaging and transformative. Consciously choosing to confront physical pain when my every instinct tells me to avoid it tests my will at first, but then, allows me to experience the contours of my body in new and illuminating ways.
First, the way the body processes this pain is fascinating. There have been moments while being tattooed when applying the machine to one part of the body produces sensation in a completely different one. For instance, once while Conan Lea was tattooing my shoulder, I felt a sensation (I remember it as a tickle) in my foot. These kinds of experiences helped me to construct a chaotic and indeterminate map of nerve connections that reveal how little I know about how my body processes sensations.
Second, the way the body copes with pain is strangely predictable and produces unexpected results. After a few years of being tattooed fairly regularly, I began to notice that the pain was only overwhelming for the first half hour of getting tattooed. I could predict, with a fair amount of accuracy, that at the half hour mark, the endorphins would kick in and the pain would become more manageable. Sitting as a participant observer of my own body's pain-management faculties made me intimately aware of the bodily processes that are out of my control. This experience is especially profound because we tend to think of our bodies as controlled by our minds unless some debilitating malfunction wrests the control away from our conscious mind. To experience that autonomous action of the body in a safe and non-threatening circumstance is thrilling. A result of that coping strategy is a fascinating mental and physical exhaustion that comes after the tattoo. I feel drained even after relatively short sessions. My most recent session was only about 3 hours, but I was wiped out. I couldn't imagine how I once sat for a 7 hour session and then drove 5 hours home, by myself, and in the middle of the night.
Third, the kind of pain that I experience when getting tattooed is unlike any other experience of pain that I have had. Certainly that is partly because it is consciously chosen. It is also different because it is so prolonged. It is also different in that, while most pain tells your conscious mind that damage is being done to the body or that a foreign object is transgressing the fragile boundary between your body and the outside world, I don't mentally interpret the pain of getting tattooed in that way. Even though my body is being damaged, I do not emotionally interpret the experience in that way. There is a strange cognitive break between the sensory stimulus and the way my conscious mind interprets that stimulus. The same cannot be said of the sensation of being pierced. Even though the pain is relatively minor and happens quickly, it feels more abject to me. Getting pierced feels like an invasion of my body: one that I want, but am equally repelled by. The sensation of being tattooed is also unique in that it is purely surface level pain. When I am tattooed over bones, they rattle and reverberate under my skin. When I am tattooed over tendons, they vibrate like the strings of a bass. But, these internal structures are not in danger of damage. they are just brought closer to the surface in a strange way.
After the tattoo is complete, there is an odd, but relatively predictable adjustment period. I mentioned before that the kind of forethought I put into each addition makes it feel like a design is being uncovered rather than something foreign applied. However, the healing process does have a sense of foreignness.
First, the tattoo feels fragile. As the mixture of blood and ink oozes for the first 12 hrs, it feels as though the design is not yet set. I fear that if I bump it, the ink will bleed or smear or if I touch it, I will transfer some infectious agent into the design that will ruin the healed product. In either case, I feel that I need to treat the area with the degree of care that I would when borrowing something precious from someone else. It is not yet mine to do with as I please.
Then, the skin begins to dry, crack, peel, and sometimes scab. Throughout both of these stages, I feel that my motion is impeded. At this stage, I feel that moving normally will cause the damaged skin to come off before it is fully healed leaving scars or pulling out the ink before it fully integrates into the skin. Again, the body part is not yet mine.
Afterward, the new skin that emerges from under the flaking old feels unnaturally smooth. It is like hyper-sensitive rice paper or cellophane that itches uncontrollably, that responds wildly to the slightest touch from wind or the fabric of my clothing, and is always in danger of tearing. The combination of these sensations makes my otherwise cohesive bodily border feel fragmented like one area has been annexed by some occupying force.
Finally, the piece heals and my skin boundary feels intact again. There is rarely any adjustment period in which I need to re-imagine what my body looks like save the narcissism involved in prolonged mirror-gazing. The only adjustment that takes place is in the new way that I interface with the rest of the world through my altered skin. As I have continued to get tattooed, I have been progressively moving into more and more visible territory. My first tattoo was on the back of my arm: visible in a short sleeved shirt but not from the front. The second one was on the inside of the arm. It subtly poked out into the front and could be seen when facing me, but could easily be missed. When I got the piece that wraps around from my elbow to the outside facing surface of my arm, something changed. I felt more exposed in short sleeved shirts. I wasn't worried about the judgment that this added exposure might bring. But, it was a strange and unexpected transition to take something that was previously relatively private and to move it out into the visual field of strangers. Moving through the world was now irreversibly transformed. I now think about if I am going to wear long sleeves or short taking into consideration more than the weather. This is not a change that I regret or resent. In fact, it is likely all in my head. But, becoming conscious of it was an interesting experience.
As I have said, I have the tendency to over think everything. The journey of getting tattooed has provided me with ample material for pointless contemplation. My worry early on in the process was that it would change the way I had previously viewed myself. It might have done so, but in an unexpected and welcomed way. As silly as this might sound, I have noticed an increased tendency in myself to think of my body as a piece of art constantly in progress. In some ways, that makes the need to get tattooed more pronounced. Having an incomplete work produces significant discomfort. However, the tattooed body as a time based art form, constantly shifting and changing, is an intellectually challenging and rewarding performance to live.