On Tattoos

We are socialized by our childhoods, good or bad. That is to say, our ideas of normal are set up in our minds when we are sponges, absorbing language and norms and social expectations. If, every Sunday, your family goes into the woods to a small chapel and speaks in tongues with poisonous snakes around your neck, then that will seem normal to you.

Less prosaically, if you grow up in a house full of books, and you see the people around you sitting quietly reading, then chances are you’ll grow up to be a reader.

And so to me and tattoos.

My dad was covered in tattoos – his arms mostly, but his chest, stomach, ear and ankle all had ink. And he had an earring. Which is weird as he was not, to my eyes, any kind of countercultural figure. He lived in a normal house, had a normal factory job, drove a normal car when he could afford to have a car. Entertained himself in very normal ways. And yet, here he was, just a short hop from being The Tattooed Man in a carnival.

Dad got his tattoos, at least most of them, while in the army. He told tales of old Asian tattoo parlors where he would go to get this or that image inked permanently into his skin.

There wasn’t an area of his body that didn’t have some ink on it: Mickey Mouse on an arm; a bird on his ankle, a winged heart on his chest, something – maybe a skull and crossbones – on his ear. He had tattoos on his legs as well as all the way up and down his arms. I remember snakes, a heart, an Andy Capp. Oh, his back – I don’t remember him having anything on his back.

The best of all – from a story point of view – was the Viking that ran from just below his chest to just below his navel, on the left hand side. This tattoo formed a part of family lore. The story goes that dad was going in for an operation. I believe it was gallstone related. And the last thing he said to the surgeon was: Whatever else happens, don’t mess up my Viking. The surgeon promised to do his best.

When dad woke after the – entirely successful – operation, the first thing he checked was his Viking. And he was more than a little dismayed to see that the surgeon had chopped the poor sea explorer off at the ankles, only to rejoin them a good inch or so away from the rest of the leg. Dad lived the rest of his life with Viking feet slowly drifting away from Viking leg. He never forgave the surgeon.

And so, I love tattoos. If I see someone with a tattoo, I immediately warm to them; I presume they’re going to be interesting. This is not always true.

I got my first a tattoo in my early 20s…

I didn’t know what to get, or even if tattoos were really for me, but I wanted to try. So, I turned up at a little place near Whitley Bay Metro Station as soon as it opened. The tattooist gave me an appointment time and I spent a couple of hours wandering around the seaside-town-they-forget-to-shut-down before anything else was really open.

When my time came, I picked a yin-yang symbol off the wall because it reminded me of something I’d seen in a Bruce Lee movie (years later, I can mumble something about everything being part of everything else, how there’s dark in the light and light in the dark, but that’s rewriting history. The real reason I got that tattoo was Bruce Lee…don’t tell anyone). The tattooist gave me over to his trainee; he himself was working on a guy’s massive shoulder tattoo. I watched as he inked, wiped off blood, inked, wiped off blood. It didn’t seem gross to me. I was fascinated.

My own little circle at the top of my left arm didn’t take long. Did it hurt? Coloring in the dark side scratched like a needed being dragged across the skin, but that was it.

Hours later, I was telling my story to friends in a pub. I was going to get more. So many more! But tattoos are expensive, and life throws other distractions in the way, and I never got around to getting that next one.

And so, now, more than 20 years later, I was ready. For my birthday, in April. By coincidence, my Amazon Prime membership is supposed to renew in April. If I cancel that, then I’ve saved a reasonable chunk of cash that can go into ink on my arm instead. How middle-class is that?

This did not happen. The lure of Amazon Prime was too much. And, once more, it felt like my time for tattoos had passed me by.

Then I went on vacation to Santa Fe, NM. I went from anxious and stressed to chilled and a lover of life. I decided, when I got home, I’d get that tattoo. A simple one, just to once more test the waters.

Gary did my tattoo – it was an accident of happenstance as I just showed up at Atomic and he was the first available tattoo artist. I figured my design was so straightforward, anyone would do. I just wanted to get back in the game. And Gary was good. Maybe not a great salesman (when I asked him about more complicated designs that I had in mind, he did not go for the hard sell but pointed me toward the book of samples from all the artists: “Maybe my style will suit you, maybe you’ll like someone else better,” he more or less said. I have cash to spend, Gary. Take it!) but he was good, and surprisingly quick.

I went for a large ampersand on my forearm. As he was inking it (I believe that’s the term), my wife sat close by, taking pics (always ask first) and asking me if it hurt (don’t ask that). It was over in 20 minutes and I can’t stop looking at my arm. I love my ampersand.

A work-in-progress.

I seem to have Wolverine-levels of healing. There was no oozing, no bleeding, no scabbing. It looked finished right from the off. I diligently added the creams and lotions for two weeks, though, just to be sure. But I now seem to have found my superpower.


As I was preparing to pay, the guy behind the counter stopped to take a phone call. After he hung up, he walked to the center of the parlor and held forth to the tattooists.

“That’s probably the weirdest call of the week. He asked, ‘Do you do touch-ups?’ and I said yes. Then he asked, ‘What if it’s of something that some people might find … politically sensitive?’ I said, if you need to ask that, then you already know the answer…”

There was then a general conversation on the many and varied ways people have tried – and failed – to have Nazi symbols memorialized on their bodies by the various tattooists there.

“I told him, when you’re ready to have that shit covered over, this is the place to come,” he finished.

I liked it there. I’ll be back.

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