aNewDomain — I got my first tattoo in graduate school. Just a small piece: a compass rose on one shoulder. It took about two hours. I don’t talk about it much. Nobody can see it, usually. It never comes up in conversation.
I just got my second one done. My sister is an artist in Philadelphia at Evolution studio. As we get older, we’re growing closer and closer together. I wanted to have something from her. These days, if you want to be a patron of the arts, tat shops are where it’s at.
This is a bigger piece. It covers my left forearm and it’s really visible.
It is a gray-scale rendering of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, as inspired by a song of Dion. Here’s what happened when I got it …
People only rarely asked about the process of getting the smaller piece, and I didn’t think much about it. It took a couple of hours. It hurt a little. More annoying than painful. I imagined the second bit of work would be in the same experiential vein.
But this one took nearly six hours.
A lot happens over six hours.
Initially it was, as expected, no big deal. An annoyance. I detached from the feeling. Made small talk, loomed around the shop – some neat art to look at, a fish swimming in a bowl. Time wore on. By two hours, the needle was recrossing already inked areas for touch-ups and high lights.
That was more than annoying and I was challenged to let go of the pain. My body wanted to tense up. I had to keep making myself relax.
We took a short break when Martin was done. That just over the two-hour mark. I wasn’t watching the progress, so it was disheartening to see just how little two hours had accomplished.
I thought about calling it quits. There were still two more portraits to go, as well as scenery. Could I take it? But I live in Colorado and my sister, the tattooist, is in Philly. I’m in her shop. There was no coming back later to finish up. Now or never.
And I saddled back up.
Coming back to the pain after a break was even worse. I had to adjust again to the experience, to get right with this being my reality for the next few hours. But, too, my arm had time to react to the abuse. It was tender and swelling up. The pain got more intense, a test of my coping skills.
The next portrait went faster, then some scenery. By now, my chair was getting uncomfortable.
The skin was more tender than ever. I had looked at all the art in the room like 80 times. There was little left to do but just bear up.
Relax into it. Run through good memories, take stock of life and let the pain be.
The owner came to chat for a while. That was a welcome distraction and he was an able conversationalist. Ten minutes later, though, I was left in my own head again.
A shot of bourbon and a bite of food. The cold outside set me shaking – a mild case of shock. It felt great to not be getting tattooed for 20 minutes. But there was still one more portrait to do.
Back in the chair.
Swelling, tenderness. My sister offered a numbing gel and I said yes, knowing where I was with tolerance and coping skills and knowing this would be the worst of it.
The numbing agent made it worse. I had a paradoxical reaction. The needle was near my elbow now. It shook the nerves leading into my hands, setting my fingers on fire, and I imagined the needle heating and heating as we worked through hour six. My sister tried for small talk but I didn’t have it. By now, my body was tensing up and I couldn’t shunt out the pain or the tension. There was no relaxing into this.
Going back over previously injured skin, out of reserves, with a pain amplifier.
Then suddenly, it was over.
“I think that about does it,” my sister said. I
t did. She washed the site, took a photo, and wrapped the arm in cling-film to protect it.
The torture was over. I was on the other side of pain.
There’s a rebound effect. When the pain stops, you can feel really great. Superhuman. People get addicted to that feeling. It’s also instructive. I remember the first time I took an antidepressant. It lifted a load off my psyche I had no idea I had been carrying. I knew I was depressed only when someone took the depression away for a second. Until then, I thought everyone felt that way all the time: sad and angry and exhausted.
I’m here again on the other side of pain. It’s stingy and achy now, no big deal. It means something to me, this little bit of art, those hours in the chair.
Sometimes you need to suffer. Sometimes what you want is on the other side of pain. Sometimes you go through something and it teaches you that you are capable of suffering for something.
What will you suffer for today?