Fresh ink

“You’ll tell me before you start putting the needles in, right?” I cast an anxious look over my shoulder at the tattoo artist poised above the back of my leg. He laughed and said, “This isn’t your first one, is it?” I confirmed enthusiastically that Yes! Yes it was! “Ahh, well that makes more sense,” he said, having pinpointed the cause of my sudden fear. He assured me that I would know before he began. So I laid down again, gripped my friend Audrey’s hand, and waited for it.

After the first moments of small, searing pain, the artist pulled the gun away and said, “See? That’s all it is.” I didn’t tell him that it had hurt more than I’d expected. There was nothing to do except hold my left leg still and explore different methods of coping with the pain. For a while I tried to distract myself by doing crossword puzzles with Audrey, but the mental strain just added to my agitation (it was a New York Times Sunday Crossword). I acutely felt the needle as it touched down for about five seconds at a time, then let up for another five seconds while the newly-inked spot was wiped off. Each time it came back, it bit me a little harder than it had before. I had thought the pain might lessen as I got used to it. Although it didn’t, I hid my discomfort well except for a few whimpers that only Audrey could hear.

Getting inked

During breaks, I hobbled around the studio and let Audrey take photos of the work in progress. Back at the table, I decided to relinquish my grip on her hand and squeeze the cushion I was lying on. To keep my left leg from twitching beneath the tattoo gun—flesh escaping the needle—I tried to compensate by flexing my right leg against the table. None of this helped much. I didn’t find an ideal coping strategy until the two-and-a-half-hour session was nearly over. That was, simply, closing my eyes and breathing deeply. If I ever get another tattoo, I will know to relax and rise above the pain rather than try to distract myself from it.

When he was done, the artist remarked that my skin didn’t look especially angry given the trauma it had just been through. He determined that all my worrying had just been evidence that I was being a baby. This reminded me of a time I’d gotten some blood drawn from my finger as a little girl. I wailed and cried at the pain of getting my finger stuck with a needle, and when my mom and doctor tried to tell me it wasn’t that bad, I shouted back, “You don’t know how it feels! You don’t know how much it hurts!” All I could say after the tattooing was that I wouldn’t be back for another one anytime soon.

The art on my leg is a lovely interpretation of the original sketches I brought to the tattoo artist. I hadn’t been able to picture just how it would turn out, but I’m very pleased. There is a branch of cherry blossoms curving up the side of my calf; the flowers and branchlets appear to be drifting in a breeze, with a few petals having been swept off and falling toward the earth. They stand out with a bold pink against my pale, Northwesterner’s skin. When I later posted some photos to Facebook, I got several comments about the size of it and how brave I was to go with something big for my first tattoo. I did feel pretty good about myself for withstanding the pain.

It’s been four weeks, now, and there are still bits of the tattoo that feel too rough to be fully part of my skin. Since I got it, I have looked at it mostly with a clinical eye: deciding when it needs to be moisturized, when it’s going to stop peeling, and so on. When the healing is finished, I wonder whether it’s going to serve as an emotional symbol or merely as a pretty decoration. I’m not sure what I really expect—that it will lift my spirits whenever I’m in a battle with ennui? That it will tell the world something about who I am? That it will remind me of my own strength at times when I need such a reminder?

It might do any, or all, or none of those things. At the very least, it’s a commemorative piece. Should some part of my life change for the worse, I like to think that I’ll be able to look at my tattoo and remember when I was flourishing. But I selected this particular design for its reminder that each of us has a limited window of time in which to flourish. Cherry blossoms are a Japanese symbol of life’s fragility and transience. Given the circumstances, I say that we’d better produce the biggest, brightest blossoms that we can manage.

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