For a long time, I vacillated on whether I should actually do it. My commitment issues are legendary, no one shies away from forever more than I. Fuck, I can’t deal with the concept of god because heaven is too intimidating (Who really wants to hang around with all the nice people in your life for eternity anyway?) It had been months thinking about it, excitedly anticipating it a one-day way, the same way you think about growing up when you’re eleven, or college your first year of high school. Undefined and impossibly far in the future.
I finally made the appointment after freaking out at my roommate via text for approximately forty minutes, which she dealt with kindly and patiently because she’s a sweetheart. On some level, I went through with it because I hate going back on my word. I had told so many people my idea about it that backing out now would make me feel like a coward.
Of course, pride is not a reason to do anything, but this wasn’t pride it was honor (or something. Whatever.) It was also that I knew myself. I’ve only ever regretted things I haven’t done (90 percent of the time. The other ten percent I deny ever happened.) If I push my boundaries, good things happen.
So I called. I went to Chameleon down in Harvard Square, where a couple of friends had gotten tattoos before. They’re a little pricey and have a reputation as “the place where all the freshman girls get their noses pierced,” but I’d had my cartilage done there and I’ve seen the premises and that place is spotless. The artists are also extremely skilled, and their customer care is excellent. They take care of you at Chameleon.
Mo accompanied me. We ate Bertucci’s and I was almost late because I suck and refuse to take the T for anything less than three stops (sorry Mo. That was a lot of walking). Thankfully, my pizza eating skills approach the speed of light so we ended up okay on time. I called when I thought I might be late.
On the way toward the Garage, a homeless man asked about the box containing half a pizza so we gave it to him. We arrived at the parlor.
My artist was a visiting artist. She lived in San Fransisco and is back in the Bay Area again, unfortunately. Unfortunately, because she is brilliant. I came in wanting a white ink tattoo. It seemed tame enough that my commitment issues could be quelled while still doing what I wanted. She told me that white ink would fade in just a couple months and look like a scar. White was a no-go.
So fuck it, full color. Swallows are usually black and red but that’s not my style. She drew them up extremely quickly, we decided on a blue and green. I picked the green of a tattoo on her forearm.
I must have changed the position of the stencil six million times. She was patient. “It’ll be on your body forever, it better be perfect,” she said. “Is this your first tattoo?”
“It’s a big one. That’s cool. Go big or go home.”
She described what she was doing, the steps in order. Line work, then shading then color. We would switch sides so it wouldn’t get too much. If I needed a break, just say so. “There are some pretty long lines in the wings. People say that the line work is the worst, but everyone is different.”
The line work is the worst.
A tiny blade stabs you an infinite number of times, pounding up and down and up and down, and moves horizontally as well. It feels like a tiny fire under your skin. After fifteen minutes, you attain almost a savasana-esque state. Shallow breathing, unfocussed relaxation. An endorphin-confused pain shooting up into your ribs from your navel. My toes were freaking out of their own accord.
Mo held my hand. Occasionally I looked over at her. Most of the time I focused on the art pinned to the walls. A virgin of Guadalupe, portraits of waifish girls, gnarled cartoons.
I didn’t watch the needle, though I glanced down at it a few times. It was too difficult a position and if I kept my eyes open and focused on regulating my breathing, I could achieve an almost out-of-body state so why would I pass that up.
She told me a few times how well I was doing, especially since it was my first tattoo and it was on my stomach. It was oddly comforting. She paused to mix the color inks and I got up to check out the unfinished fowl. The shading alone was beautiful. For half a second I was tempted to leave it as it was.
We decided to completely finish one side before starting the other. I’m a trooper like that. The color and shading, after the line work, are almost anticlimactic.
We were done in about an hour. I stood up and looked in the mirror again. Two bright, swooping swallows flanked my navel. They were shiny and new and they were perfect. Both the artist and I took photos of them and then she applied the large diaper like bandages. Mo bought me a pack of Dunhills.
“I bless this one for you,” she turned it tobacco-up in the pack, “that your tattoo will heal brilliantly and easily.
“And I bless this one for me. Smoke these two after all the others are gone. They have to be last.”
I thought about how much I love her and we took two, unblessed cigarettes. A man came up behind us. He was one of the homeless youths that sit on the sidewalks of Harvard Square. The city is disparate, that was Mo’s word. The ivory towers and the beggars and not a lot in between.
“Can I bum a smoke?”
I looked at Mo and shrugged and gave him one. He held it with both hands and looked at it, “Man, what kind of cigarette is this?” He had never seen a Dunhill before.
We walked until Central and then took the T because it looked like rain. I had dragged her around Cambridge enough today anyway. On the way home we talked about how nervous I had been. Mo, always wise, shrugged and answered, “Our bodies are disposable. We should decorate them any way we want.”
Immediately after she said it, I knew it was true and that was why I did it in the first place. It isn’t forever. It’s for far less than forever. So why not, you know. I adore them. And I will have them with me for the rest of my life.
What a terribly awkward picture of my stomach.
(images via moi, for once. title from Sylvia Plath in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams.)