So, for the first time since St. Patty’s Day ’05, last Saturday was tattoo time for yours truly. This marks time number 5. The fifth time I scraped together money, the fifth time the stars were aligned just right and the fifth time the slow drone of that needle put that ‘what the hell am I doing?’ feeling in my gut.
I have to admit that I did not always like tattoos. To be more accurate, I didn’t really think anything of them. From what I saw, most tattooing consisted of scantily clad pin-up girls or various forms of demonism and goblinry. Not to mention that said adornment was usually found on ZZ Top’s roadies from the ’88 tour and their tangential sub-species. Again, not the kind of Kool-Aid I was drinking. Besides, as far as I knew, Black folks didn’t get tattoos.
That all changed when the barbed wire tattoo phase rocked the countryside around 1996. Suddenly, body art seemed hip and chic and, as a level-headed preteen, I knew that I was going to get that treacherous battlefield equipment wrapped about one of my pythons just as soon as I was able. Then, as the barbed wire fad wound down, I naturally transitioned away from popular culture and refocused my tattoo ambitions.
Whatever I got, I knew it needed to make a statement. My tattoo had to be edgy, original and, most importantly, timeless. After much soul-searching, I came to the conclusion that it would only be fitting for me to have the Oakley “O” permanently etched into my dermis. Unfortunately, the laws of the Ocean State, in conjunction with the more pertinent laws set down by my parents, were dead-set against stopping my shine. Thus, my date with an Oakley O’d destiny had to wait.
Oddly enough, by about the 10th grade, I’d lost all desire to have the Oakley “O” needle-sharpie’d on me, and there was little more than a passing interest in such a procedure. But that year, I met my buddy D Hy. Quick description of D: A street connoisseur and smarter than you. Tatted up and Uptowned down, he had an intellect as sharp as his wardrobe. Background-wise, we couldn’t have been more different. He was from the bricks and I was from the sticks but somehow, that worked to our advantage. He helped me dress better and talked to me about the realities of the hood — a reality BET and the six o’clock news do no justice to. I tried to help him navigate the whole prep school thing; blowing things up from the inside out while showing him that Black folks outside the hood are, in fact, not from another planet entirely.
In an environment that extols the virtues of Virgil, Benedictine life and Brooks Brothers collar poppers, it can be hard to find a niche, especially if you’re a young black kid. Black or white, bricks or sticks, prep school is an experience that can be altogether unreal. Looking back, despite the wealth of knowledge and opportunity I was exposed to on a daily basis, I think talks with D had the single greatest impact on me and my perspectives. Sitting in the dorm, we rapped about everything under the sun. Hours of casual youth allowed us to see a slightly different version of ourselves in another person, the differences decided, it seemed, by a simple roll of the dice.
Through our conversation, explicit and implicit, the idea of tattooing was transformed for me. I don’t know if it was his being a trill fella who was a good buddy that made tattooing seem more compelling or what, but his presence made me see tattooing differently. On his arms were his beliefs and love and sorrowful memorials. For a person that loved history as much as I did, the connection with moments and memories was something I could easily vibe with. He taught me about getting tattoos; not as the result of a fleeting moment of courage or stupidity, but as armor for life. Tattoos were for the tough times, so that in times of struggle or solitude, people need only look to themselves. For D, it was simple. You only got something that really mattered. That resonated with me. It’s really because of him that, from the first to the fifth, no tattoo has been meaningless to me. Tattooing runs the gamut of emotions that feed into the human condition. Some are gotten as a pick-me-up; some are forget-me-nots; others revel in the simple joy of youth and love.
There’s something ceremonial about tattooing that is perhaps as important as the tattoo itself. The mood, the music, the people … it all matters. From excitement at seeing the outline come out of the printer to foreboding as the executioner prepares his tools (Trust me. At the moment of truth, you always get a little, tiny “What am I thinking?” right before it all starts), there is something so vital about the whole process. There is no conjecture and little pontificating. There is only you and the tattooist, the needle and the pain; the pain that, at that very moment, reminds you of the armor you are earning and why you wished to earn it. Pink once said she likes to get tattoos because, during and after the process, she is reminded she’s alive. That’s pretty accurate. In some ways, tattoos are “Season’s Greetings” cards for the skin.
Every time I walk into a parlor, I’m forced to remember. Every time I sit in that chair and the artist shines his light on my shoulders, or arms, or wrist, the past starts rolodexing through my mind: Sneaking off campus to get McDonald’s. Blue Old Navy sweater. Dyckman projects. Dinner at my house. Shawn. Pizza Hollywood Two-fer Tuesdays. Buffalo chicken pizza, no bacon. And every time I leave, saran wrapped and A&D ointment in hand, I feel on top of the world, as if I just accomplished something. Still, a small part of me can’t help but feel a little sad. Sad because the person who is largely responsible for the work couldn’t be there to share the experience with me. Sad because of the letter I would have to write instead. Peace to DeVon Hyman.
Jon Pitts-Wiley is a senior looking for a job. But he’s not going to let that stand in the way of his tattooed destiny. Why can’t those suits just chill out? A little skin ink is nothing compared to the ink spilled over Enron.