There’s an art to receiving a tattoo. People who get tattoos generally cope with the pain aspect in different ways. Some clench their teeth or pop pills. I saw a chick once lounging on her stomach and reading a book as the tattoo artist drilled into her calf with his needles. For all I knew she could have been on a beach in Madrid.
One of my tattoos was laid down on some touchy real estate, traveling from stomach to ribs, up my back and over the collarbone. It consists of four red-winged blackbirds – more for their beauty and the fact that I light up every time a see one than for any mythical reason. I’m all about aesthetics.
According to Vintage Tattoos: The Book of Old-School Skin Art, tattooing has been around for quite some time, the first evidence appearing around 10,000 B.C. Otzi the Iceman, frozen since 3,300 B.C in an Alpine glacier, had 57 tattoos which consisted of lines and dots. Circuses, fairgrounds and sailors helped spread the popularity in the West throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Advances in tattoo equipment over the years have helped more and more people decide to join in on the fun of being human art frames. Today it seems that almost everyone I know has one.
My first tattoo (fortunately or unfortunately, who knows) was made with Indian ink on my right ankle when I was a fifteen-year-old vagabond. I had appropriated the ink from an art store and was sitting on the curb in Boulder, Colorado poking it into my skin using a sewing needle and thread, when my friend’s older brother walked by and said, “You’re not doing it right.” He proceeded to poke my skin harder and faster with the needle until an eye and the nickname Cat were there for time and temporal eternity.
On the most recent tattoo, the tattoo artist started the outline of the four birds first. As he was doing the first bird, right above my left hip bone on my stomach, I could not wait for him to finish.
“The next bird won’t hurt so much,” I told myself.
When he got to the second bird, I couldn’t wait for him to get to the third bird.
“The third bird will hurt less than the one here on my ribs,” I surmised.
But the third bird hurt worse than the second. And the fourth, final bird was the most excruciating.
Often in life, I can’t wait for this thing to be done and over with so that the next thing can go ahead and happen, only to find that the next thing doesn’t live up to my expectations, or that I didn’t enjoy the first thing when I had the chance.
Had I known that each bird would increase in ouch factor, I wouldn’t have wished for a better moment in the future than the one I was currently having.
During the second tattoo session, as the artist was filling in the color on the first two birds, I worked hard on breathing. In and out; focused and slow. I imagined I was weightlifting and needed the breathing in order to heft a heavy steel ball over my head.
“You can handle it,” I told myself often.
I felt the pain as it was happening – reminding myself that the next bird had no guarantee of feeling any less painful than the current bird.
And it worked.
I felt everything in the moment, not focusing instead on something better in the future outside of the moment. Soon my body, realizing there was nowhere else my mind would let it go, kicked out some heavy opiate-like endorphins.
Accepting the pain and moving through it made being tattooed a strangely peaceful experience, a reality I imagine many others have already discovered. Towards the end of the session, some of my favorite music came on the radio a bit unexpectedly and I paid attention to the music, along with the sensation of needle on flesh. Every time the needle seemed to dig into a particularly sensitive bit of flesh over my ribs I thought of the end result and the reasons I was having this living art project etched on me to begin with.
Being in the moment, paying attention to my breath, not wanting anything to change and accepting what was ultimately taught me the zen of being tattooed, bird by bird.