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In July 2003, I got my first tattoo.

I was 16 years old, worried more about school than anything else and I wanted to “rebel” safely. My stepfather’s brother (step-uncle, I guess?) has a tattoo shop* so he did it in just under an hour. There wasn’t any hesitation, I knew straight away that I wanted a wolf on the back of my shoulder. I picked out a friendly looking wolf from a big book of flash art on the shop’s coffee table. The only alterations I requested was for it to be coloured to match a character named Salvaged Eternity I had created for a play-by-post roleplaying game. The wolf had brown, white and black fur with bright green eyes which I thought looked far better than the black and white wolf with red eyes in the book.

Due to my age my mother came with me to sign the parental consent form. True to her style she didn’t protest my getting a tattoo and actually got her first one a week before. A mother dragon clutching two eggs with name and my little brothers on them. I don’t think she stayed the whole time I got mine, I may have asked her to go. This would start a trend of always getting tattoos alone. I won’t lie, it hurt like hell. I remember my step-uncle having a heavy hand, this is now compared to the three other tattoo artists I’ve gotten inked by since then. Whether this is because of my age I can’t say. I do know I almost “whited out” about halfway through. Apparently this is the precursor to fainting, but all I needed was a very cold hand on the back of my neck and time to breathe.

The only picture I have of this tattoo.

I had known something was happening before it did, and I was too full of myself to tell him I needed a breather (another reason people under 18 shouldn’t get tattoos). I maintain that it was the spot that he was tattooing at that time that caused it, I have bony shoulder blades and the less flesh on a spot the more it can hurt. The rest of the tattoo went by without incident, thankfully, and I was left with a piece that I’m still proud of. I still judge tattoo shops against his for cleanliness and ambiance. And yes, I picked out my prom dress mostly because you could see my tattoo.

A week ago I got my fourth tattoo, it’s on my forearm and it’s the first tattoo that’s easily visible with what I normally wear. In between these two dates, I’ve gotten two designs that take up a good amount of real estate on each of my legs. Both are Doctor Who related, one drawn by an artist I knew from the aforementioned play-by-post role-playing game and the other designed by the tattoo artist who inked it based on some ferret photos and a scarf knitting pattern.

 

The first of the two, a TARDIS and husky, I had originally thought my step-uncle would tattoo. Although he was willing to do it he didn’t think it was a good idea to tattoo it on my bicep/arm like I had originally planned because of all the straight lines. He recommended a place like my calf where the design could fit smooth and flat and said it should be bigger than the original design or the detail would be lost.

First thing first: he was completely right. I, however, thought it was ridiculous that he would tell me where I should and shouldn’t put a certain design. So I said forget about it, and left the design to simmer on the back burner of my mind until I found the right shop in Alberta. Not surprising at all when the tattoo artist there agreed.** Two against one – it’s bigger and on my leg and I’m very happy with it. This exchange opened my eyes to working with an artist instead of being set in stone. Sometimes they know better.

I’ve come to realize how often tattoos have played the role of markers of how much I’ve grown. The latest tattoo looks nothing like what I had been thinking about getting. I’ve come a long way from picking out flash art from a book. My original idea was lyrics from a Frank Turner song, which morphed into getting one of the barn swallows from the album cover of “Poetry of the Deed” f413731a0adf2fa191aeef6f82fa611cinstead. Like Whovians with their TARDIS tattoos, I’ve seen quite a few of these tattoos on Frank Turner fans so it seemed apt. (Further investigation into it revealed that barn swallow tattoos are some of, if not the oldest nautical tattoo design and they have a great backstory to boot). After discussions with the tattoo artist – he knew what I wanted even if I didn’t at the time, the artwork turned into something more realistic and more stylized. If that bird from the cover came to life I like to think they would look like the one on my arm.

 

I can only speak from my own experience, but the process of getting the tattoo is usually easier every time. It still hurts, after all it’s skin and needles, but it’s easier to slip into a head space where it’s less noticeable. I’ve gained some confidence because of it and learned to speak up when I need a breather or tap out entirely if it’s a bigger piece and I’m done for the day. I love that roar of a buzzing sound that the tattoo machine makes, it’s comforting and exhilarating all at the same time. Maybe I’ve gained a Pavlovian response to it and my brain connects it with the Adrenalin released while being tattooed. I may fear getting blood work done, but I look forward to getting tattooed. The artists I’ve met have been great too, and they understand having passions and being geeks.

I don’t think I’ll ever be someone covered in tattoos, or someone with a lot of visible tattoos, but they are important to me. They have gone from being used to try to be a rebel, to being pictures that need to commemorate something big and super important, to being like stickers on a suitcase. They chart my growth as a person and tell a story of who I was and the journey I’ve been on. I’ve even given up my defensive reply when someone asks why I got a certain tattoo. The best answer I’ve come to realize is: because I wanted it.

It goes without saying that I’m not an expert and I have far fewer tattoos than friends of mine. Just wanted to share my experiences. I’ll leave you with some lyrics from the song Tattoos^, let me know which camp you fall into. Share your tattoo stories & pictures!

Because the ink in my skin where the needle went in
However many years ago
Has left marks on my arms and they say who I am
Everywhere that I go.
Some people have none, some have one they’re ashamed of,
Most people think that we’re fools.
Some people don’t get it and some people don’t care,
And some of us we have tattoos.


* He no longer tattoos anyone under 18, regardless of parental consent. This was 13 years ago, after all.
** My step-uncle will not tattoo just anything on just anyone.
^ I tried to find other tattoo-based songs, but they all seemed depressing. I’m looking at you The Who. This one is upbeat and happy.

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