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I Love the Feeling of Getting Tattooed

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Photo: Mohammad Faruque via Unsplash

A bottle cap filled with Indian black ink. A sewing needle taped to a pen with blue masking tape. A couple of beers. Central Park in the springtime, the sun overhead casting down brilliant, easy-going sunlight. 

Ronan was giving me a tattoo as we laughed about our shared childhood obsession with Michael Jackson. It was the spring of 2021, and we were both 22 years old. Graduation loomed ahead. I was dreading it, worried about going out to the world on my own, and terrified by the fact that perhaps the world would not want me. 

Ronan took a sip. I first met him in freshman year during a creative writing class. Our professor was the wiry, sarcastic Alex Dimitrov who once said he wasn’t sure what to make of my work. 

After that, Ronan and I got close, frequenting our favorite diners and going to parties in the Bronx. He served me my first drink. And he sang me songs he’d written in various stairwells. 

Safe to say, I trusted Ronan. 

He was wonderful. And this wasn’t the first time he tattooed me. Before the pandemic, he used the same method (needle on a pen, Indian ink) to tattoo a butterfly on my middle finger and the word “lucky” on my wrist. But this time, it felt like the last time. 

After graduation, Ronan was moving to Michigan. I tried to commit the afternoon to memory– the hard black bench, my cat-eye sunglasses, the feeling of being poked again and again. I’ve always loved the feeling of getting tattooed. The painful rhythmic grooves seemed to soothe some part of me. 

Ronan was tattooing some Kanye West lyrics on my forearm. It was a line from the song “Hold My Liquor” on the album Yeezus

The line read, “Late Night Organ Donor.” 

A couple of months after this, my brothers laughed at me when they saw the tattoo. Don’t you know what that means? While they explained to me the apparent perverse meaning, I defended myself. I took the lyrics to represent someone who does things when nobody else is around… someone who holds their secrets very close to themselves. I resonated with the meaning. I had a lot of secretive, private experiences that I felt I couldn’t share with many people. 

When Ronan was finished, we walked through the park, not even bothering to wrap the tattoo up. I was naked against the elements with these new words on me. It felt great. 

The following year, my younger brother gave me my fourth tattoo with a tattoo gun he bought off of Amazon. I was spending the summer in Texas, and I was having a hard time. I’d gone off one of my medications and my brain felt rapid fire, a dashboard of lights pinging on and off. I was up and I was down. 

During one of my higher moments, I spontaneously asked him to tattoo a Pink Floyd lyric on my upper arm. He was nervous but agreed. He’d only ever done little pictures on his leg. A heart. A rabbit. But never words. Nonetheless, I didn’t care how it turned out. I felt I absolutely needed the words on me, perhaps as a means of protection. 

A guard against the world that seemed to not have wanted me after all. 

His girlfriend Malorie watched as he held my arm and, with gloved and shaking hands, tattooed the words, “Crazy Diamond.” 

Shine On You Crazy Diamond… an insane nine-part song that builds and crashes with the sound of tight, crying guitars and the strained voice of Roger Waters over the course of 30 minutes had always been one of my favorite songs. It touched the part of me that felt too incoherent, too neon wild for others.

“You’re sitting well,” Malorie said. 

Again, I loved the feeling of the gun rattling over my skin. It calmed my brain even if only for a few minutes. It also felt like an act of love. Intimate. As though my brother was seeing a part of me I preferred to keep hidden. It was as though I were confessing some sort of truth to him. 

When he finished, I looked at the tattoo in the bathroom mirror and gloated. It appeared as though my brother had scratched the words into my skin with a pen, some of the lines crooked and misshapen. It was perfect. 

Until I was 24 years old, all my tattoos had been done by friends or family–sticks and pokes, Internet guns. But in April of 2023, while visiting my best friend in Ohio, I went to a professional artist for the first time. 

It was the middle of the afternoon, and I simply walked into the shop and asked if anyone was available. Someone was. My artist was skilled and experienced. He used to work in Brooklyn. Once we finalized the details, I sat in his chair and gave him my arm. 

This was a more intense, close experience. I was putting my trust into a man I didn’t know much about. But, I wanted the tattoo more than I cared to question his abilities. While he worked, we talked about New York. He was doing my tattoo in an East Coast style, he claimed. That meant lots of curves, a beautiful kind of cursive. His gun was pleasurable against the skin. He pressed down hard. 

“I love this feeling,” I said. 

And then, gave him the truth.

 “I used to hurt myself so this is kind of the same thing but probably a better alternative,” I said.

He didn’t say much, simply hummed and nodded. I felt my face flush. Perhaps that was too foreign to admit. Though at the end, he hit my shoulder playfully. 

“All done. But you like that feeling don’t you?” 

I laughed and nodded. It felt nice to be known like that by a person who, although he had spent 30 minutes or so punching my skin, was otherwise a stranger. I looked in the mirror and ran my fingers across the plastic wrapping, the words raised and hot. I’d gotten the quote from a picture I saw on Pinterest. 

It read, “I suffer from the terrible clarity of my vision.”  

I couldn’t explain why I felt compelled toward those words. It was such a direct statement. Perhaps I wanted people to understand my visions, my way of seeing. Perhaps I picked it at random. The real fun was the act of getting poked by a machine. 

What would follow was the word “dog” I tattooed myself on my leg, a star stick poked on my wrist by a friend (her pseudonym for when she did sex work), and an ornate flower on my hand given to me on my 25th birthday. It was all the same intense, private experience. 

Getting tattooed is an inherently confidential experience, no matter the tools used. It is an act of trust between two people, a pact they make for 30 minutes, a couple of hours. I’d argue it’s similar to making out with a stranger behind a supermarket. A quick act of devotion. A cow asking to get branded. A person holding you so tight you get a bruise in the shape of their thumb. 

Upon reflecting on the willingness to get hurt to feel better, I’m reminded of a quote by the memoirist Maya Hornbacher that reads, “In truth, you like the pain. You like it because you believe you deserve it, and the fact that you’re putting yourself through pain means you are doing what you, by all rights, ought to do. You’re doing something right. Your ability to withstand pain is your claim to fame. It is ascetic, holy.” 

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