I’d known for a long time that I wanted a tattoo.
What I didn’t know was that I’d wake up one morning thinking, “I’m getting a tattoo today.”
Each time someone asked whether I’d get one, I always answered with some variation of “Yeah, probably.”
I didn’t, and still don’t, see tattoos as that big of a deal. They’re a form of personal and artistic expression. My stepmother Hayley and stepsister Amanda both have tattoos, which reinforced the idea that tattoos are a positive thing. I figured by 25, I would have one, maybe two tattoos that held a great deal of personal significance. But that wouldn’t happen for at least another few years.
“Save your money,” my mom would tell me. “You don’t need to be spending money on that while you’re still in college.”
Normally, I would have followed my mom’s advice. But not this time.
I took a full 15 credit hours of class while in Washington, D.C. this past spring, and we spent two of those hours on an “ethnographic research” project. Our professor told us we would have to find a community in the city, embed ourselves in it for 10 days and then write about it.
Due to my prior affinity for tattoos, it was easy for me to pitch tattoo shops as my “community.” The nation’s gilded capital city exudes professionalism, and tattoos still have a stigma. I wanted to see where those two worlds intersected.
There was just one problem: None of the shops I researched would let me come in and talk to anyone, or even watch someone get a tattoo. Fatty, the owner of the shop I was going to, had told me, “We don’t usually do requests like this,” when I asked to come in and watch someone get a tattoo.
I had two options: change my research topic or get a damn tattoo myself. How could they turn an interview down if I was the one with a needle in my arm?
So there I was. Twenty-one years old, still in college, with a pending withdrawal of $150 on my bank account, walking with a crew of three friends to get ink permanently drilled into my left arm. They said encouraging things, but I tuned most of it out. I was about to get a tattoo on a whim after all.
It felt strange knowing all this information at the same time, but none of it held me back. Sure, I had the ever-slight doubt in my mind, “Am I going to regret this?” The answer was apparently no, because I continued putting one foot in front of the other, wading through fresh rain puddles on the way to Fatty’s Tattoos and Piercings.
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I walked in the door and up six flights of stairs to the shop. To be early is to be on time, so naturally, I took a seat in the lobby at 1:50 p.m. with my friends for my appointment 10 minutes later.
Ten minutes turned into 15 and 15 to 20, until finally my artist, Hannah, came out of her office to put the finishing touches on the design she’d come up with. I gave a few quick suggestions for changes, which she accommodated since it’s going on my arm.
After filling out some quick paperwork and paying, Hannah led me to the tattooing room. It had a clinical quality to it, much like an exam room in a doctor’s or dentist’s office. Nothing but blank white walls with an exam chair in the middle.
Next to the big chair was a smaller chair for Hannah and a small table with a smorgasbord of items, including two black ink wells, a razor and the needle. Needles plural, actually. There were several of them.
She took the razor and began shaving and rubbing my arm with rubbing alcohol to ensure a clean surface for the tattoo. She then took a stencil of the design and placed it on my arm.
At this point, I was so out of it that I just nodded along to all the safety information she told me for the procedure.
It’s actually happening. The stencil is on my arm. She’s firing up the tattoo machine and dipping it into the dark, plastic ink well before her.
No turning back now.
The needles entered my skin and for a moment, I forgot I was there to interview my artist as much as I was there to get a tattoo. It felt as though a cat was scratching me in one brutal, continuous tear.
I carefully reached into my right pocket so as not to move my other arm while a sharp needle was inside it. I unlocked my phone and began recording. I had a list of questions in my head, but that part of my brain was a little preoccupied with pain.
My questions started along the lines of how often she has tattoo virgins as clients, whether she has tattooed any politicians or Capitol Hill staffers and whether she thought there was still a stigma around tattoos.
Her answers were pretty often, no politicians but a few aides, and yes, but not as much as there used to be. I heard these at the time, but I didn’t fully process them. I was busy digging my middle fingernail into my thumb to try to redirect my focus from the pain in my arm.
“How ya doing, sweetie?” she asked at this point.
“I mean the pain is … there,” I said, holding back a wince. “I’m not like dying or like ‘Let’s stop,’ but it hurts. It HURTS.”
The one story that grabbed my full attention came after I asked, “What is something that the average person doesn’t know about your profession that they probably should?”
“It’s not just sticking someone with a needle,” she said. “There’s a lot of science that goes into it. It’s different for everybody, but you’ve got the rate of speed that your machine is running at the rate at which your hand is moving and how deep the needle needs to go into the skin.”
At this point, I imagined Hannah and other artists sitting in a lecture hall taking a seminar entitled “Tattooing 101: The Science of Tattoos” and I chuckle in my head. A real chuckle might have some unwanted side effects.
“If I move too slowly when I’m tattooing you, I could cut you open,” she continued.
What a lovely image.
“But if I move too fast, my ink doesn’t necessarily go in,” she said. “If I don’t push too hard, the ink doesn’t necessarily go in. If I don’t push hard enough, that ink won’t go in at all. If I push too hard, I can scar you and I can hit the subcutaneous fat level. So there’s a lot of finesse that goes into it.”
After hearing that spiel, I settle in a little bit and thank the Lord above that my artist has that “finesse that goes into it.”
The remaining half hour of tattooing was peppered with maybe three more questions. The rest of that time was me trying to distract myself from the pain by any means necessary. I dug my nails into my thumb, I talked to my friends who were standing in the doorway, I asked my artist about her personal life.
Nearly an hour after I stepped into the shop and 40 minutes after the needle first pierced my skin, Hannah wiped down my arm for the final time to reveal the swollen finished product: the phrase “I try my best” in black paint brush lettering with a fountain pen tip at the end.
I have never been, and still am not the best at taking compliments. I’ve always feared them going to my head. Once I got to Miami, “I try my best” became my default response to acknowledge the compliment without accepting it fully. Having this mantra on my body is a reminder both to stay humble and to do just what it says: try my best.
The pen tip is easily the most “romantic” part of it, as it signifies that the phrase is “still being written.” It’s a sentiment that’s never finished.
After looking at this new part of me, I stood up, holding my arm carefully, and got all the aftercare creams and instructions I needed. And as I walked back into the brisk February air, one of my friends looked me right in the eye.
“If you don’t get a fucking A on this project, I swear I’ll throw something.”