“I am a sweet, law-abiding citizen — with bad-ass tendencies,” Tue says matter-of-factly in the cab on the way to New Haven Tattoo. “My parents told me they would never speak to me again if I got a tattoo.”
Meet Hoang-Tuoc Le ’03. Friends call her “Tue.” Tue is the daughter of traditional Vietnamese parents, for whom two ear piercings at the age of 12 was hard to abide. Tue is terrified of needles and detests pain. In the course of a 10-minute cab ride, my job is to find out why Tue is letting the Yale Daily News tattoo her.
It’s April 22 and Tue hasn’t started her senior essay. Her plans to work in either France or Vietnam after graduation recently disintegrated due to the uncannily synchronized outbreaks of the war in Iraq and SARS in Asia. It seemed like a good time to get a tattoo.
7:09 p.m. — A photographer, Tue, her best friend Daryl McAdoo ’05, and I have made the drive out to 1713 State St. to a tattoo parlor we’re told is worth the cab fair, New Haven Tattoo. We’re fashionably late, but I’m pretty sure no one inside sees it that way.
7:11 p.m. — Tue is flipping out about what to design to get. Looking over the tattoos featured on the walls, “flash” as we insiders call it, I make comments like “think minimalist” and “Do you have anything Toulouse-Lautrec-ish?” which go unanswered. Sublime is blasting in the background, which is so stereotypical that I wonder if it’s my imagination. I meet Dominic, the owner. He goes by “Boss”. He’s very funny, but not the kind of guy you want to laugh at unless you know he’s kidding. Christian Perez, the Boss’s 20 year-old protege, is tattooing a dragon up the length of someone’s forearm. Yikes, not very minimalist.
7:35 p.m. — Tue has settled on a tat: two ancient Vietnamese characters meaning “golden sparrow” on her right shoulder, and a “II” on her lower back. The guy currently getting a dragon stabbed into his flesh asks me what I would get if I could, and I answer a tiny Lacoste alligator on my hip, in green. In retrospect, I realize saying a Technicolor tiger leaping across my torso would have gone over better.
7:39 p.m. — Tue is in the chair and Dominic has started the process: he shaves the area clean, transferring an ink drawing of the Vietnamese characters onto her shoulder then letting it dry. Tue yanks Daryl’s arm into her hands and asks the Boss if it hurts. He shrugs: “It’s like eating a hot pepper.” Tue looks confused.
7:48 p.m. — So many sterilization steps occur, Dominic could be performing open-heart surgery. Finally, a tube and needle are loaded onto the tattoo machine, which starts to hum and vibrate like a dentist’s drill. Tue looks oddly calm for someone who is inches away from a tattooing needle and days away from her senior essay deadline.
7:52 p.m. — The needle hits. Perez, who has been in the business for four years, tells me that the most painful places to get a tattoo are the stomach, chest, and anyplace where a bone is close to the surface — so the shoulder blade ranks up there. Dominic pretends to sneeze and mess up the tattoo, which is met with mixed reviews.
8:07 p.m. — The first character is completed, and I’ve got to admit it looks pretty amazing. Tue tells me that it “feels like getting her ass whipped a billion times in the same place and not getting to hit back.” I agree that I would not hit Dominic back, either.
8:11 p.m. — Watching tattooing is exciting at first, but after a while if you’re not the one in the chair it gets boring. I ask Dominic for his life story. It turns out Dom was an artist when he was younger and learned to tattoo when he was still in high school. For 20 years he worked in sales — teaching, among other things, a clinic for the Yale Daily News business staff on how to sell ads. Last November he gave it all up and opened New Haven Tattoo. “I should have done it 10 years ago,” Dominic says while starting in on the second character.
8:25 p.m. — As Dominic lays gauze over Tue’s newly finished design, Tue tells me “she feels like her shoulder just got raped.” However, she seems ready for her lower back to get raped next.
8:33 p.m. — I had had enough ink for one night. While Tue eagerly awaited the second design I called a cab to whisk me back to campus. When I left, Dragon Guy was stepping out for some air and Tue was debating whether or not her back would be too crusty to wear a strappy dress on Saturday night.