Personal Art Work Perceptions

December 6, 2009

Recently, a woman in her seventh decade, watching physical therapy patients exercising in a swimming pool, commented on how so many folks of every age seem to wear tattoos these days. We spoke a bit of how much the acceptability of the practice had changed in recent decades. Not so very long ago, mostly sailors, prisoners, and bikers sported them.

I remember the first article I ever sold–for a pittance to a small, community newspaper–featured a tattoo artist who had covered his own body in ink. I shot the photo that appeared with my words using a mirror so the reader could see both his back and his chest. The newspaper purchased the article and photo because at the time, the man had an unusual amount of ink and his shop was unique. Today, he would get lost in the crowd.

I found myself intrigued at the time (decades ago), but I had no interest in a needle touching my own skin. That changed over time although I’m not sure when I decided I might want art on my own body. I do recall desiring a tattoo for several years, but hesitating for a number of reasons. As a diabetic, I worried about medical consequences. I learned that the stringent regulation of tattoo artists in Oregon make the possibility of infection or contracting HIV or hepatitis remote. I also had to balance perceived stereotypes about people with tattoos against my own self image.

When I divorced, that self image went through some drastic realignment and I selected three roses on a thorny stem to celebrate a new life that included reclaiming my health, returning to my first love of writing fiction, and a better understanding of who I am as a woman. Although I had spent some time talking to the artist and scrutinizing photographs of her work, I arrived for my appointment with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.

When the needle first attacked the skin on my hip, I thought the discomfort minuscule. As the hour and a half dragged on, keeping still became more onerous than the increasingly painful application of bright red and green ink. But I loved the results and everyone who saw it raved about the detail, the color, the beauty of my roses.

I started to notice ink on others more. I would see the edge of a tattoo peeking out from someone’s shirt and look for an opportunity to get them to show me the rest. I became aware of how common and pervasive wearing ink had become among people of all ages.

I decided I wanted another tattoo and knew I wanted it on my breast. I had no idea what should go there, so I found excuses to frequent tattoo parlors and look at the flash art. On one of those excursions, I saw a stylized hummingbird. However, I knew no one at this tattoo parlor and did not feel comfortable putting my skin under just anyone’s needle. With a picture from the Internet of a hummingbird in the position I wanted and a tattoo in the style I had seen, an artist delivered the perfect sketch. By the time I was ready for ink, however, the woman who had done my first tattoo had decided to stay home with her baby.

I sought a new woman because I did not feel comfortable having a man putting a needle on my breast. That narrowed my choices of artist significantly. Although body mod studios had become almost as ubiquitous as coffee shops, finding women in the tattoo business then was still difficult. Finding a woman with experience who someone else would recommend presented quite a challenge. Again, that has changed. More and more women have worked as tattoo artists long enough to develop portfolios and earn recommendations.

Although I had spent years reaching a point where I had ink applied to my skin the first time and nine months to decide I needed a second tattoo, I knew where and what I wanted for my third piece of art on the drive home from my second. Not only did this third tattoo take longer and cost more my other two combined, but I learned too late that the place I had chosen–above my shoulder blade–apparently is more sensitive to pain than my hip or my breast. I captured my experienced in a poem I call “Art Work.”

Still, pain, cost, and the need to sit still aside, I do not think that the one tattoo I suffered for will be my last. And, I now understand people who mourn when they run out of skin to ink.