‘The tattoo machine moves a solid needle up and down to puncture the skin between 50 and 3000 times per minute. The needle penetrates the skin by about a millimetre and deposits a drop of insoluble ink with each puncture’
I’d been asking around trying to find out what it felt like. Like when we were kids gathered round the one girl who admitted to having done it.
‘Does it hurt? What does it feel like?’
Interestingly we never talked about our own pleasure in these discussions. But that’s a story for a different day.
The things we hadn’t worked out yet, that we didn’t, couldn’t know, was that it was more a case of who and how and what was going on inside your own head.
Anyway. The answer that I got was that yes, yes it hurts, but in a strange way which was difficult to describe. ‘It hurts, but not so much you make it stop’. I don’t know how y’all could have made it more intriguing if you’d wanted to.
On the day I went to get my tattoo I was fucking scared. Because I wasn’t sure about my pain threshold, aware that I’d booked myself in for a hell of a lot of work and not sure what was going to happen if it turned out that I couldn’t actually handle it. I’d been in there for a flying visit to drop off my art and I felt safe, that was important.
It’s a weird reciprocal relationship becoming someone else’s canvas, a walking talking part of their portfolio. You know when someone is genuinely excited to be doing a piece and that no matter how much it feels to belong to you, to some extent it will always also belong to them.
Anyway I shook when Sandy transferred that drawing onto me. Which made both of us giggle. I know what I’m like, that the anticipation would be the worst. My brain has a tendency to build things up into a bigger deal than they actually are. Once I knew what to expect I’d relax into it. Probably… That would probably happen.
Everything gets wrapped in cling film. for safety, so you don’t bleed all over the place. There’s a sterile hospital vibe – gloves and plastic benches meet with some unholy juxtaposition of tattoo artwork, knitted daleks and comedy cocks; a combination which kinda screwed with my brain. Sandy hands me a leopard print cushion which I cling to as I sit straddled across the black office chair. Then realises, takes it off me and wraps it completely in clingfilm. I’m oddly touched.
I’d heard that the first ten minutes would be the worst, that and the last half hour, when your body sees the finish line in sight up on the horizon, and sort of just…gives up.
The first time the needle went in I held my breath. Despite wanting to, despite knowing objectively that this was the last thing I should be doing, that bracing and tightening my body would just make everything worse. But I did it anyway, because there are some reactions that you just can’t stop.
I let the breath out again when I realised it was a pain I could endure. Endorphin hit.
I wasn’t expecting to feel the needle vibrating so much. That coupled with how close it was to my spine, made it feel at first like my bones were being shook. That noise took me straight to the dentist.
As a description burning is probably the nearest sensation I can come up with. Like if you got real bad sun burn or if you took hot oil out of a pan without a glove and then someone was fucking around with that burn; inserting a pin into it. scraping it.
Although sometimes it didn’t feel like that at all. Sometimes when I relaxed into it I was barely aware of the needle beyond a mild irritant. Then the smell of freshly brewed coffee filling the studio and Neil Young’s After the Goldrush blaring out – as if the moment had been designed for me. Me and Sandy singing along. Me trying not to tap my foot. I can’t sit still for shit.
As the point moves across the contours of your body you feel changes in pain dependent on the sensitivity of the area. If its somewhere you like a lover to kiss, it’s going to hurt. If its somewhere you used to be tickled as a child, it’s going to hurt. When the skin is closest to bone, you feel it.
Then just when you think you’ve had enough, the soft coldness of the antiseptic gloop which is squeezed from the sort of bottles you get ketchup in in a take away. Your skin cools and smarts. Tissues wipe away pools of ink mixed in with your dark angry blood, they land in the biohazard bin. Little pieces of you.