If you didn’t know any better, you’d never guess that I have ten tattoos—six, self-inflicted—on my body. If you do know me better, you may say the following words to me: “I wish that you didn’t have a XYZ tattooed on your body.” To which, I would grunt an appropriate reply to quickly dismiss your half-brained idea. You see, each object that is inked on my body, is there for a specific reason—albeit, in varying degrees of logical sense and given forethought at the moment of inception.
My body is a journal in a way. It’s like what sailors used to do, where every tattoo meant something, a specific time in your life when you make a mark on yourself, whether you do it yourself with a knife or with a professional tattoo artist. ~ Johnny Depp
I recall seeing a page torn from a magazine, one edge ragged, hung in my cousin’s bedroom, with the above quote printed over a photograph of Johnny Depp. Not that Depp is my personal role model, but I’ve remembered his quote, since then, and respective perspective on tattoos.
In stating the obvious, I can remember each tattoo that I’ve received—it’s a bit difficult to blank out on an experience like that. Additionally, I can remember the circumstances in my life, during that period of time.
My father—a huge supporter of inked flesh—once asked me what I wanted, as a gift, for my high school graduation. I believe that my reply was meant to be taken as a joke: “I’d like a tattoo.”
To my surprise, he agreed.
I had just turned eighteen, yet I was still in my final months of school. I selected a logo from Georgia Tech’s basketball team, revised the design to include a capital ‘B’ on the hornet’s chest, and passed along the stencil to the tattoo artist, to be rendered in red and black ink on my right bicep.
Big Tony was his name. I say was because I have no idea if the man is still alive, and his nickname was well earned—the man was really huge. He was a friend of my father, who happened to tattoo out of his house, dressed in lounging pants, from the comfort of his kitchen table.
To you, dear reader, who has never received a tattoo in the flesh, and who is wondering about the pain level of it all: it hurt more than words can describe. As a matter of fact, they all hurt. I’d like to think that I held my composure, although I can’t fully make that claim.
That was my first tattoo experience. I was instantly hooked, and planning the second installment before I left that man’s kitchen table.
For my next tattoo, I returned to Big Tony again, but this time I took my own money, for a new piece. I selected the Disney character of Sebastian, from The Little Mermaid movie. I loved that movie, and it became the second permanent entry in my own Journal of Flesh and Blood. Would I choose to remove it, as an adult of 44? Not a chance. It defines a specific period in my life, one that I wouldn’t choose to erase, if given the opportunity.
Sometime after the first two tattoos, I decided that I wanted to try the artform for myself—literally, I wanted to learn how to tattoo. So, like other endeavors, I learned the skill on my own. It was a trial-and-error process, using myself and my father as blank canvases, and eventually I became confident (enough) to tattoo other people, for cash. From my dorm room, and later from my mother’s house, I ran a lucrative business of inking my friends. Some of those clients are friends or family; others I never saw again, after their sessions.
There was a distinctive point in my career where I knew—just knew it, with every single muscle fiber in my body—that this tattooing thing was going to be my future. While it is a ridiculous thought now, in retrospect, I want to preserve the clarity of that specific moment. And I wanted to do the same, all of those years ago. That’s when I tattooed the angry sun on my left wrist. That was my own Magnus Opus, my declaration to the world that I was all in for this thing.
Shortly after I was married, within two or three years, I received my last tattoo. It is a sunflower design, featuring my wife’s name, placed over my heart, on my chest. That piece hurt more than anything that I ever experienced. For the last twenty years, it has served as my final tattoo.
While I cannot recall the timing and circumstances of each tattoo, I can remember certain pieces more clearly. When I turned twenty-one, I inked a Chinese dragon on my left bicep—at least the outline, I never finished the color. At some point, my girlfriend (now wife) wanted a smallish piece of ink, placed on her stomach, so I tattooed a lady bug. Within the same timeframe, my girlfriend (now wife) decided that she wanted to experience the act of tattooing someone. We selected a set of three Chinese characters that symbolize “I Love You,” and she tattooed me.
I can’t say that I pursued the occupation with all of my attention. While I did once inquire about an apprenticeship, and was denied the opportunity to learn, from someone who didn’t want to be a teacher, and I soon gave up on the option. Eventually, I grew tired of drawing on people, and wiping away the blood from their skin. Before I had my own children, I decided to sell the equipment and hang up my tattooing hat—yes, I had an official cap that I would wear. One successful eBay listing, and the hobby was all but a faint memory. Equipment sold, no regrets.
There have been many other moments that I wished to immortalize in my flesh—such as the birth of each of my children, my official adoption of Christianity, or even the monumental last twelve month of my life—although I never got around to committing to the process of receiving another tattoo.
Perhaps another year, next year. Or maybe not, I don’t really know.