“My clients are either masochists or pussies,” says Tat Tito. His green-and-white trucker hat bobs behind his customer’s belly. The gun purrs. I roll around a bit on my chair. The pause is filled with bass-heavy music: Sade, 112, Montell Jordan. Medical smells—soap, alcohol, bleach—singe my nostrils. Buzzbuzz, buzz, buzz. “Which one are you?” I ask the man on the black salon recliner. “I’m a masochist,” he says. He turns his face to mine, baring his teeth, grinning somewhat.
Tito’s tapered fingers, gloved, matte-black, clasp the sport-taped tattoo gun. It’s small and translucent like a supersized Nanoflash HexBug. There’s a rustle of thin plastics, a blue film over everything: the work surface, the iPad, the chair. He finishes a line and pivots to his station. The clustered needle-tip (disposable) dips into the thimble-shaped ink cap (disposable), one of five, each filled with a black ink of crescendoing opacity (20, 40, 60, 80, 100).
Tito turns back to the arm of the client and glances at me, over the belly. His eyes are like a cow’s, brown, heavy-lashed and heavy-lidded, sleepy. His cheeks are round like a toddler’s. He smiles, his two front teeth criss-crossing each other. He’s tatted from head to toe. A spider leg tickles his chin from below and wiggles when he laughs. The blue lightning-bolt on the left side of his nose reminds me of Saint Nick, laying his finger there, a right jolly old elf.
Showoff Ink & Artistry is a tattoo shop on southern State Street in New Haven, Connecticut. There are five artists here. Ash is Tito’s fiancée. She owns the place and was featured on the TV show Spike’s InkMaster in 2016. They have a baby, Brooks, the youngest of Tito’s three children. Scott is Tito’s best buddy, his “brother.” Together, they are the “Three Musketeers,” having worked together in one shop or another for over a decade. Beck is the newcomer, a “tatter tat” (like tater tot). She learned to ink in-house, practicing on oranges and pigskin.
The needle jiggles across the client’s leathery skin. Skin, Tito tells me, is variable. A man’s skin may be rough, a woman’s soft. An old person might be papery, a young one juicy. The canvas is flesh, and the art is permanent. “It’s just like a paintbrush,” he says. “Yeah,” I respond, “a paintbrush that bleeds.”
Which am I, a masochist or a pussy?
Every time I get a vaccine, I cry. It’s an uncontrollable reflex. My mother tells the story. When she was a baby, she hated shots. She would writhe and flail and screech and claw. She was big for her age. We had to hold her down on the table, with the help of two nurses. Jesus Christ, that haunts me.
I was a saturnine child. My mother used to braid my hair in two halves. She twisted and yanked; I shrieked and moaned. Once she’d finished, I’d march to the mirror, assess the damage, and come back wailing about there was one bigger than the other, one loop out of place, one strand of hair left out. The premise of wearing something unalterable and not-quite-right sowed the seeds of my particularity. An intolerance for the imperfect permanent.
I’m a pincher and a picker. I pinch the podgy parts of me, between my thighs, on my hips, below my chin. I do it until I bruise, as if the assault would force the fat to dissolve. I pick my nails, pimples, and scabs (and my nose, in private, I’ll admit it here. If you’ve read this far, congratulations). I pick at peeling paint in public places. I hate the idea of a permanent body tracker, something that warps when you gain weight and fades when you neglect it. Something that itches and peels.
Lots of things can ruin a tattoo. Water, sun, salt. Anatomy is fickle, and as things stand, I’m skittish around my own body. So, pussy, I guess. Pussy until proven otherwise.
The Ancient Egyptians took things literally. Mummy—here’s some food for your coffin so you can eat when you’re dead. Gods—have some wine, throw a party or something. They approached tattoos with the same matter-of-factness. Pregnant women received blue dots on their bellies, matrices of permanent pockmarks. The navy nets protected the fetus during growth and saved the mother during childbirth. Today, the mummified tattoos are warped and blurry. They’ve almost removed themselves, five millenia postmortem.
This style of tattoo was achieved by “tapping,” an incredibly painful process. The needles were thick and blunt. They were attached to a wooden club, part hairbrush, part nail bat. The tattooist dipped the prongs in a soot-saliva solution. Then, the tattooist tapped the club with a mallet, lodging the ink knock by knock, puncturing rather than piercing.
Nowadays, tattoo needles resemble fountain pen nibs. The well beneath the needle feeds the ink, slowly, to the tip. The needle penetrates the skin, and the ink is deposited, not injected. Capillary action, the force which makes water creep up the xylem of a tree, sucks the ink below the epidermis, to the dermis. If the ink enters the underlying subcutaneous fatty tissue, it disperses, “blowing out” the sharp line of a well-placed tattoo. The tattooist walks a tightrope between the surface and undersurface. During a tattoo session, this process happens anywhere from 500 to 3,000 times per minute.
This assault provokes an inflammatory immune response. White blood cells charge to the site of the break-in. Macrophages are search-and-destroy blood cells, globular in appearance. They eat foreign matter for breakfast. When they find the ink, they swallow it. They try to digest the ink with enzymes intended for organic material (bacteria and viruses), but the enzymes can’t handle the ink’s many plastics, salts, and metals. The macrophage waits, keeping the ink in place.
Once in a while, a macrophage dies and disintegrates. For a moment, the pigment is free. The lymphatic system carries trace amounts away. Then, a new macrophage comes along. It slurps up the loose ink and lives its life in much the same way as its predecessor. Through this system of capture-release-recapture, the tattoo is frozen, slowly fading.
Tito coats the canvas with “glide” (vaseline) to smooth out his line. The needle bounces on the surface of the skin. He’s using a 7M cartridge (7 needles, Magnum formation) to shade the white of an eye. He drowns the outline with ink, buffing the needle head in shallow circles. He takes a perforated sheet of paper towel from a stack on the corner of the plexiglass cart-top, and folds it once, twice, thrice, into a square pad. He squirts the corner with a wash bottle, then wipes the white ink down and away. The skin he leaves behind is slightly lighter and puffier than before. Blood floods the vacancy.
There’s theater here. I play the role of a repressed art student. I’m certainly dressed for it, my backpack lying inconsiderately in the aisle, my prairie skirts swishing and getting stuck in the wheels of my chair. Black-and-white Puerto Rican resistance flags flutter over sparkly boxes of needles. The tattooists crouch like gargoyles on their swiveling stools. “Straight lines, crooked spines,” Scott says, half mantra, half abdication. Cackles bubble up organically.
“Stay calm, you’re stabbing my arm!”
Showoff is full of strange objects. I roll across the white tile floor on my chair. There’s a cluster of framed pyrographs above the street-facing window. They all have the same antecedent: “Tattoo removal kit.” The answer: a saw, a knife, a gun. Permanent, then. I see two identical porcelain busts with traditional tattoo script across the cranium: “blood sweat tears” below the right eye, “see no evil” above the left, and across its chest in full-banner brilliance, “PHRENOLOGY.”
Tito completes the piece, a heavily shaded Angel of Death on the client’s wrist, and walks him over to a pull-down passport backdrop. He holds a camera in one hand and a folded towel in the other. The seams of the tattoo are leaking. “Ruh, roh, we’ve got a bleeder!” Maribel, the receptionist, brings extra napkins.
Minimize pain. Minimize time. Maximize safety. At the end of the day, it’s medical. The memorabilia barely masks the atmosphere of the shop, which is that of a doctor’s office. It’s sterile, and it has to be. The open floor plan and bright overhead lights remind me of subdivided post-op rooms. Holding beds for the maimed.
I grew up in a tattooless household. Fifty years ago, this would have been standard. But now, half of Americans under 40 have tattoos. Do these proportions drop when Americans are cut down to Midwesterners, then to Wisconsinites, then to Milwaukeeans, then to Fox Point dwellers?
I remember snow on the lakefront, everyone wrapped up in sweaters, sweats, socks, stockings, mittens, muffs, and puffball hats. If our next-door neighbor Mr. Dugan had a tattoo on his head, I wouldn’t’ve known. He swaddled his bald noggin with a crocheted cap.
I drew on my skin with gel pens during math class (blue-green mermaids and crushes’ codenames), then skipped showers to see how long it would last. I gave henna to all my friends (rich sienna mandalas and wibbly spirals), then collected data on rates of fading. I got my ears pierced (four lobes, two helixes), then developed three major infections over a six-year period, twice requiring antibiotics. I’ve tested the taboo of permanence—how long can this last?
There was one outlier. Before I was born, an aqua-violet butterfly lit down on my grandma’s right shoulder blade. The butterfly melted through the prairie summers, drowned beneath sunspots and swatches of burnt skin. My grandma was a bit of a taboo-buster, piercing her lobes with a candle-fired sewing needle and a raw potato. But this complicated the premise of permanence—what if the marking seemed passé, or looked decrepit?
I knew, even as a child, that the butterfly was dated. Fads flash and burn right out. Barbed wire ‘round the bicep? Early nineties. Lace ‘neath the boob? 2018-19. Butterfly, o’er the shoulder, upon the rump? Late nineties. At the turn-of-the-century, tattoos had no moniker or type. They were just tattoos, found on the bodies of sailors, convicts, and circus freaks. These origins were class-based (lower, middle), gender-bound (male, most definitely), and wealth-poor (a flash tag wouldn’t set you back more than a few bucks).
But that was before the fad economy came to the fore. The subversive tattoo craze of the Victorian gentry trickled into the papers. Winston Churchill’s mother had a snake done around her wrist. Sailor Jerry started working on the backs and bellies of ‘Nam vets out of his Honolulu shop, riffing on Japanese motifs. Ed Hardy carried Jerry’s torch all the way to $1,500-per-hour sessions and a box-store clothing line.
I’ve seen people with perfectly symmetrical tattoos, reflected across the central axis of their spine. I’ve seen people with only blue-line work, their porcelain bodies turned into delftware vases. Surely, if they can be so intentional about their most sacred canvas, I can be as well. I can pick a style and stick to it.
On Showoff’s website, Tito proclaims: “My style is untouchable, my designs are unrepeatable, and I’m just a savage when it comes to my craft.” His specialties are “colorless photorealism” and “custom freehand lettering.” He creates dark-shaded sleeves, featuring lots of tongues and eyes. He builds up the tattoo slowly, with passes of gray, white, and black. He tattoos with a pen and adheres to the New School aesthetic.
He tells me tales of disaster. Each tale is predicated with a pointed “when I was just starting out” to emphasize that this would never happen now. Clients passing out, puking on their open wounds. Dick tattoos (one especially imaginative iteration replaced the head of the penis with an eyeball, the scrotum with a bag of nuts, and the pelvis with angel wings. The whole masterpiece sat under a banner reading “ONE-EYED WILLY”). Even a tattoo on the pubis of his own aunt (this was a technical endeavor—two iridescent wings emerging from the labia minora onto the majora, antennae shooting up from the clitoris, or “button” as he prefers to call it, which was pierced with a double-balled bar like the bulbous eyes of a butterfly).
There’s no such thing as black, we printmakers and painters know. Blacks are made of a deep blue color, touched with red and tinged with yellow. Reds and yellows are reabsorbed by the body much more quickly than blues. As the capture-release-recapture trundles on, black fades to blue. Blue persists.
Ink-mixing is one tool in a tattooist’s arsenal against this extended bodily breakdown. Large corporations control the market for cheap, well-wearing inks: World Famous Ink, Eternal Ink, Intenze Ink.
The tattooist’s other tool is the gun. The straighter the needle, the more precise the incision, the more persistent the poking, and the easier the repair, the more control the tattooist has over the quality of the resulting tattoo.
The original tattoo machine descended from Thomas Edison’s rotary operated stencil pen, patented in 1877. The patent used two electromagnetic coils to produce an oscillating magnetic field, which agitated a punching needle. Some guy named O’Neill saw that contraption and thought, gee, my skin needs that!
Modern coil machines are heavy and jittery, but strong and easy to fix yourself. To change the needle, however, you need to tear down the tattoo machine, re-fit the trappings, rebuild it, and re-tune it. To clean it, you need to spray disinfectant on a rag and rub around the knobs and springs. Alcohol applied directly to the frame will erode it. It’s clunky but easy to understand once you take it apart and put it back together a few times.
The rotary machine came around in the 70s. This machine was lighter, quieter, if not fully autoclavable (a ridiculous word which means that the machine is disinfectable by insertion into an autoclave machine). These advancements ushered in the epoch of the pen. Tattoo pens operate on a cartridge system—when you need a new type of needle, you can simply pop the one you’re using into the trash and push in a new one from the stockpile. They’re smooth to hold and easy to use. But they’re not very customizable, and if the machine breaks down, it needs to be shipped to the manufacturer like a cellphone.
Tito was born in Jayuya, Puerto Rico, an inland village. The jungle licked the back porch with rustling, wet leaves. He remembers getting lost back there. “What did you see?” Plantain trees, chickens, and iguanas, iguanas everywhere. “What did you hear?” Birds calling, men from the neighborhood strumming guitars in the kitchen, children clamoring for candy as a parade passed by.
His mother birthed him in a shack, completely alone. His father, an alcoholic policía, was out with his buddies. There were no phones back then. The medics found her sitting in the front yard, cradling little Tito in her arms. He laughed, “she tried to keep me inside because she thought her guts were coming out.”
They left Puerto Rico when Tito was five to join family in Connecticut. He lived “like a ping pong ball” between West Bridgeport and South Norwalk, in and out of foster homes. His mother followed him up with five more babies and postluded his father with two more partners. It took her a while to escape endless cycles of physical abuse, alcoholism, and pregnancy. “We grew up together,” he says, “I watched her grow up.”
Tito and I share Milwaukee. My tale is about suburbia, community theater, honor roll, and Friday night takeouts. His story is about a seven-year-old who made a habit of punching Tito in the face. One fine morning, the kid approached and absently went in for the daily blow. Tito caught his fist, turned it back, punched the bully’s face with it, “beat his ass,” and chased him off school property. This ended the cycle but hatched a bug that lay its eggs beneath Tito’s skin. He started picking fights, becoming the bully he’d beaten. This, Ash says, is the origin of “fighter” Tito. He’s reframed it now. He goes to Muay Thai on Thursdays and Sundays to learn to take more punches than he throws.
He returned to Connecticut. At the age of fifteen, he became an apprentice to a local tattooist. He met Scott over Facebook, courted him with compliments, and secured his partnership by forcing him to tattoo a Puerto Rican guitar on Tito’s wrist while Scott was “high out of his mind.” The guitar looks horrible now, totally blown out. They worked in the back of a barber shop and saved up enough to finance their first hole-in-the-wall, a baby monitor serving as a substitute for a security system. Then, they worked at another store named Forever Customs for less than a decade. Five years ago, they started Showoff.
Tito still worries about losing what he’s built. He goes to abandoned factories with Scott to look for ghosts. He mentions the deaths of previous clients (including the bearer of the ONE-EYED WILLY tattoo) without much sentimentality. He refers to his transgender sister with an irreverent smattering of “he” and “she” pronouns—I find out later that she committed suicide years ago.
I collect impressions of Tito’s home life through his Instagram stories. He drops his eldest daughter Jaida at middle school, blasting “Barbie Girl” by Aqua, the windows rolled down to embarrass her. His middle son Maddox films a 30-minute live stream of Tito’s Muay Thai class, his podgy finger hovering at the top of the frame, tracking Tito’s bouncing body, whispering, “That’s my dad. This is my dad. That’s my dad.” In the bathtub, Tito’s branded hands clutch baby Brooks high above his head, like Simba.
Once upon a time, tattooists fixed their own machines, mixed their own inks, and invented their own styles. Ye Olde Tattooist was a craftsman, his hands deep in the means of a tattoo’s production. Bold, black lines and saturated color: these were the keys to corporeal longevity. If the tattooist packed more ink into the skin, the body wouldn’t break the tattoo down as quickly. If the tattooist pulled a clean line encompassing the whole design, the tattoo bled and blurred less.
Nowadays, this approach is classified as American Traditional, or Old School. They look simple, but these designs have nowhere to hide. The dominant linework must be impeccable: any wiggles will draw focus.
Think: pirate tattoos. You’ve got your nautical charms: your anchors, sharks, and swallows, amulets to protect against the rough seas. You’ve got your pin-ups: your boobs, butts, and batted eyes, ladies left ashore, oft remembered, never forgotten. You’ve got your zoomorphic varieties: your snakes, dragons, and panthers, your wolves, foxes, and moths, your lions, tigers, and bears, oh my, oh my, oh my!
Stippling, the little dot-dot-dots, should be visible to the naked eye. The saturated colors should be about as far from the natural palette of earthly paradise as colors can be. The overall effect should be 2-D—no layering, hatching, or other funny business in the 3-D department. The resulting image should be legible on first glance. Gah! You should say. That’s a horse, all right!
I admire Traditional tats because they require no explanation. They’re part of a long tradition that hasn’t died yet. They sing themselves. They focus more on the body than the art.
Tito arrives thirty minutes after the 11am opening. He carries an army green rucksack and satchel. He’s sleepy and peaceful after his two-puff morning. The client comes in, and he shouts, with a voice like crackling gravel, “Heyyy!” or “My Man!” He makes physical contact before the gloves go on, shaking their hand, patting their shoulder.
As he works, he digresses: “The tattoo belongs to the customer, but sometimes, I don’t want it to walk out the door. You wish you could frame it and keep it… which is weird.” The shop is decorated with many empty frames, painted black to melt into the wall. Are they waiting for someone?
It doesn’t take long for our conversation to foray into client relations. His stance is firm: “An artist is only as valuable as they price their work.” By this metric, Tito is worth $180 hourly. Is this a lot? A little? He contextualizes it in market-speak, invoking housing prices, sales tax, inflation. It’s about “putting food on the table on my end.” It’s about “older artists charging way less than they should.”
If I wasn’t there, I’m sure he would put his airpods in immediately. I slowly realize that Tito is an introvert, and his career is, inherently, the bane of his existence. His perfect day would be spent at home, on the couch, hanging out with his kids and Ash, smoking weed, watching TV. The pandemic was a joyful time to him. He still wears his KN-95 in Walmart because he enjoys anonymity. In his public life, he is ogled. I am placing strain upon him.
He’s a flake. And he’s anxious. But aren’t we all? I certainly am, so I can’t comment.
Which am I, a masochist or a pussy?
I’ve lived the last few weeks of my life on the verge of trial by fire. Expecting blood, preparing for pain. Quite literally setting up for a war of the flesh. Thinking about it more. Thinking about it again. Denial feels like its own form of masochism.
I’ve studied my blank forearm, its startling paleness, its splattered moles and freckles. If nothing else, it will be a more interesting forearm than it is now.
I don’t care. I’ll let it speak for itself. I’ll let it be loud.
At this point, I need to get it off my mind. I need a tattoo.
After a few weeks of observing, I’m set up at my own station. I get a stack of paper towels, a pair of black gloves, a popsicle stick with a glob of petroleum jelly, and a blue gun in a blue baggie.
It’s unclear whether Tito will teach me, or if I’m meant to teach myself. I brought my orange from the Yale dining hall. I fondle it until I find the smoothest and flattest region. I pick a stencil from the flash folder. How am I supposed to transfer this? Should I get it wet? I abandon that project and attempt turn on the gun. There’s a small display, a USB-C charger pickup, and a single button. Like an early iPhone. This shouldn’t be hard. I press the button. Nothing.
Tito smells the stress hormones sublimating off my skin and appears beside me. In a flash, he squirts “STENCIL STUFF,” a creamy plasma, onto the orange, massages it, slaps it, presses the stencil onto it, and with his other hand, holds the button on the gun down until it buzzes to life. Then, he disappears.
The orange is a forgiving client. I draw tester lines on the surface, surprised at the skittishness of the gun, the unpredictability of the peel’s topography. I wobble and accidentally tip the ink cap over (three times). I try stabilizing my hand with the table, my other hand, even the orange itself. It’s no use. I gouge the skin. Citrus juice runs down my hands and sparkles in the air.
It’s important to forget the needle, I decide. Pretend that you are stroking the skin with your finger, imagine the direct connection of your body to the orange’s, that’s the only way to do it. Tito materializes again. “Uh, oh,” he cries. “Refund!”
Finally, I scrounge up the courage to progress to the next stage of my plan. “Tito, I’d love to schedule a tattoo with you.” Maribel calls from across the room, “He’s free on Friday.” “What time?” “11:30.” “That works for me.” “11:30, Friday…” Tito mumbles as he works. “Okay, okay.”
I send him Pinterest screenshots and a few of my own sketches. Days pass in silence, and my embarrassment grows. Does he think my idea is stupid? Does he wish I would leave him alone? I’m not sure I want a tattoo from him, anyways.
Friday rolls around. I show up two minutes late, fashionably. Maribel gives me a pitying look from behind the desk. “I think he forgot.” She walks me over to Tito, who hunches at the drawing table, sketching on his iPad. “Tito,” she says, “did you forget about her?” He’s drawing up a sleeve—someone else’s sleeve. “Shit, I did, can I text you this weekend? How’s Saturday? Sunday? Monday?” “Fine, fine,” I say, secretly stung. A week passes in silence. I shoot him another text, reiterating my deadline. He sends a screenshot of his iPhone dock, with 1,003 unopened messages. “My phone gives me anxiety,” he types. “My goal is to get you tattooed this week.” I offer him Thursday, Friday, Saturday.
Unintentionally final goodbyes echo. “Bye homie!” said Scott. “See you soon!” Maribel murmured. “Alright mama, take it easy!” hollered Tito.
What do I have now? A Google Drive folder full of old stories and corny jokes—slippery things that sail away when the thought of the needle returns.
And maybe I felt like we had a contract. A physical transaction, with insecurities all tied up in it. Yes, I felt ready to overcome the body with Tito by my side. I was prepared to overlook the stretch marks and smile through the scraping.
We never touched.
I overhear the man behind the big black counter. He tells a customer that “you really shouldn’t drink the night before getting tattooed.” Alcohol thins the blood, making you prone to bruising and poor healing. Shit. Too late.
I’m on the other side of town today, on a mission to get a Traditional tattoo. The hallway stretches back into darkness. Small chambers branch off on either side. There’s no music. There are only sounds of guns on flesh, grinding, gnawing, amplified by the fact that they’re hidden from view. The grunge aesthetic is more of a prerogative, see: the “CASH ONLY” sign. I flutter from fight to flight. The man comes out from behind the counter and gives me a chocolate chip cookie in a plastic bag. I wait two hours for an unnamed tattooist in an unmarked room.
My target emerges, tatted but hatless, spectacled, a mere parody of a friend I once knew. He grins with ink-blackened gums, inviting me to pick from a book of knives, boobs, and bombshells. I gave him one directive: “HORSE.” Why a horse? I like horses. He shows me a singular sketch: an equine head with flowing linework and a heart-shaped, flaring nostril.
The gun is an iron-spring monstrosity, a real coil machine. Heavy and rusted (or stained with orange ink), it hangs over the tatter’s hand like a claw. There’s a sort of multimeter on the table. It has a red-blinking calculator display and a set of toggles and cranks. He pauses to consider, nay, imagine, what wattage the ensuing violence shall require. He cranks it up to 120. I don’t know what that signifies, but it seems high. A fat, warped cord runs from the console. The cord has an alligator clip on the end with rubber finger pads. He pinches the clip and attaches it to two exposed metal bars exposed within the gun. It leaps to life, hissing, growling, droning, bombinating. The shorn hair-stubs on my forearm stand up in fright.
At that moment, that very moment, my phone buzzes in my lap. It’s Tito:
Hey! Are you around today by chance? If you want I can take you now
Sorry again it’s been slammed over here 😞
The stencil has been transferred, the inks mixed, the caps filled. There’s no turning back (a weak mental crutch of mine—whenever I get myself stuck in a commitment, I can’t use my voice to get out of it). I gape like a beached grouper and tell myself those infamous last words: it’s gonna be okay.
He looks me dead in the eye: “You ready?” I chirp my consent. First contact: a shock, served without restraints. If I leap, the line will go astray. I see the needle enter my skin, and I mean really enter it. Tito skated on the surface. This dude digs. It’s like the inner muscles of my forearm are being punched with teeny tiny fists. He pulls my skin taut with black acrylic nails and fights for control of the canvas which, to my surprise, is spasming without my consent. My body is jumping out of its skin! With shoulders hunched, elbows raised, he forces the tendons into submission. He keeps control of that long, wandering line until its terminus. My body fights back. It trembles and twitches.
At one point, I smell a fart. At another, his sweat dribbles onto my skin before he can catch the droplets with a rag. The whole ordeal is very… hardcore.
After he renders the outline, he starts to shade. Everything that happens after this point is unspoken, improvisatory, and because I have become mute with fear, out of my control. I watch as he fills ink caps with purple and yellow ink, my two least favorite colors, the colors of the Vikings football team, nemesis of the Green Bay Packers. He scrapes the needle across my skin. Once one hair is purple, the whole mane has to be. I watch in horror as my flesh transforms. He sucks up some red ink and renders the eye of the horse bloodshot, forever. He’s just making an image, whereas I am watching something permanent assemble itself upon me. Something I’ll live with for, his website guarantees, “99 years insured.”
Once he’s finished, he bundles me up in Saran Wrap, pats me on the shoulder, and says to come back in five minutes for a picture. Where am I meant to go? It’s night outside, I’m the only client left, and nobody wants to chat. I notice an ATM in the back. I forgot—this place is cash only! I’ve lost my debit card. I try my credit cards. My PIN guesses are I N C O R R E C T. I run across the street to the bank. It closed ten minutes ago. I call my mom. I call my dad. They transfer money onto my international currency card. The ATM rejects it. I’m out $300 to a man who’s just given me the most pain I’ve ever known. I begin to cry. I’m on the roadside after dark, snot-sobbing and wrapped in plastic like a piece of leftover meatloaf.
I hang my head and beg. We settle on a $240 Venmo transaction and $80 cash, a $20 overcharge to cover the cash-payout in the tattooist’s future. I take my horsey home, shaking in my Uber. In the morning, I shower, wash the tattoo with gold Dial soap, poke the swollen flesh, and thrice fail to achieve a bubble-less application of Tegaderm bandage.
The artist posts a photo of my horse on his Instagram. The caption reads:
My first tattoo of a horse. I colored it from memory. Thanks Amber [not my name]!
Which am I, a masochist or a pussy?
A review of my first time:
Painful, and I didn’t know the guy, but I don’t regret it, and I’m glad I got it over with.