Wednesday, October 20, 2010


It's been nearly three years since I closed my tattoo studio. All my equipment has been sold. Tonight, I can not sleep. I feel the desire to tattoo. Drawing or painting won't satisfy that desire, and if I explained it, it would probably sound bizarre.

I used to have school groups come up to my shop on field trips. How funny, in retrospect. Once, a kid asked, "Are you a sadist?" The teacher told him it was an inappropriate question, but I said I thought it was fair. After all, I spent my working hours hurting people. I could have painted or drawn on paper or canvas, but I plied by trade in blood and skin. I do not remember what I said in answer to this young man, but now I think that I probably am a sadist, in the strict sense of the word, even though I did what I could to lessen the pain of being tattooed (yes, folks, one can do that).

I have often said getting tattooed can become an addiction, but now I think tattooing itself is, too.

I miss the whole bloody mess.

The first time I tattooed someone other than myself, I was scared. I was also excited. Hmm. Does it sound like I'm talking about sex? Perhaps, though I don't remember thinking "I hope I don't scar this person for life" when I lost my virginity.

So, what's the difference between tattooing and painting? For me, it's the struggle. Painting and drawing came easily to me. Tattooing was hard. There was always this crazy tension, and I got a rush out of it most days. Some days it would drain me completely. In the end, I didn't want to go to "work", when once I happily worked six days a week, sometimes twelve hours a day in a street shop, drawing flash or making needles on my so-called days off. The guy I did an apprenticeship with told me he wouldn't take me unless I was willing to "eat, sleep, and shit tattoos" and I did.

I'm skirting the question of sadism, I know. Did I enjoy hurting people? In a way, I must have. I was (and still am) opposed to the use of topical anesthetics. Take the pain out of the equation, and something ineffable is lost. I enjoyed the act of tattooing when tattoos were seen as rites of passage, rites of feeling, of memory, of bonding, acts of manhood (and womanhood), marks of internal pain, and of triumph. I, as tattooist, felt, at times, shaman-like, and this is a powerful feeling. Is a shaman a sadist? Is a doctor a sadist? Sometimes yes. Sometimes no.

Now I"m not so sure of my original thought about my answering "yes" to the question.

I do not know.

Like a painter loves his rags, I loved the paper towels covered with pigment and blood. Though some people challenged me, (fish factory workers at the end of a work day), I loved the smell of the work - bodies, sweat, sometimes the scent of shampoo or perfume, green soap, betadine, and again, blood.

I loved working with music cranked up loud. I'd be high on it, tapping out rhythms with my left foot while my right foot was on the pedal to the power supply. It was like driving over 100 miles per hour without any fear (and no cops).

And yeah, sometimes I enjoyed what can only be called the fight. No one calls a midwife a sadist, do they? Some tattoo sessions felt like helping someone birth a child. One guy I remember so well - a big tat on his concave stomach, from hips to under his nipples. I'd tattooed him before, and he had no problem with it. But on his tender belly (like many), well, that was another story. Every minute of that six hours was excruciating. He would not give in, get up, or give up. He'd see it through. Sweating in pain, I by turns encouraged him, teased him, told him totally inappropriate jokes, made him push through longer spells without a cigarette break. . .and yeah, I enjoyed myself.

Maybe it's only about power. How often does a five foot tall woman feel stronger than a man over six feet?

I can see I'm going to go off on a huge tangent, and I'm getting quite sleepy, so I'll just let this entry peter out. . .there'll be no neat bow tying this one up, nor any fancy catchphrase to end it.

Image note: I don't know who to attribute this photo to. I found it on the web. I imagine these folks worked in the circus. When I became a tattooist, my father said to me, "You're going to become a circus side show freak." My, times have changed, though, damned if I don't yearn just a little bit for the days when tattooing and being tattooed were rare and freakish enough to gain one entry into the world of the true outsider.


Dick Fischbeck said...

No one is commenting??

Julie H. Rose said...

Is that a comment? ;-)