Last week Monday, I finally pulled the trigger on something I had been contemplating for well over a year. I got a tattoo.
I’m aware that for many readers, news of a peer’s tattoo is regarded with as much mild interest as that of a new shirt, but for me this was a really big deal. I didn’t grow up around many tattoos at all. Generally, tattoos were considered the disgraceful graffiti of secular folk who chose to defile the temples God had given them. God wouldn’t send you to Hell for it, but He might plant a passive-aggressive thought into your head (What’s wrong with the skin I gave you?). As a middle child naturally gifted in keeping domestic waters wave-free, I shrugged and swore them off, along with earrings, tobacco, alcohol, sex, drugs, and rock & roll. The straight and narrow was pretty easy for ten-year-old me.
Given this context, my first impressions of tattoos were observed through an ethnographic lens of mystique and awe. My cousin Adam was the first person I knew by name to have the balls to do it. After working on the farm one day, he’d driven over to the Laughing Gremlin, branded himself for life, and then moved on like it wasn’t a big deal. It was just a simple pair of initials on his arm, no more than an inch high, and yet it seemed like the toughest, most badass identity statement I could conceive as a young lad. I’ve always looked up to Adam from a perspective of distant, reverent respect, and I wonder if that tattoo had anything to do with it.
In high school, I was part of a ragtag team of scrappy wrestlers whose skill level ranged from middling to terrible. By senior year, my record had barely tipped past the .500 level, and I remember speculating with a teammate that the reason we sucked so bad was because nobody on our team had tattoos. It was a jovial remark, but there was truth to it. All the other teams out there had a healthy ratio of inked-up muscleheads who raked in victories the way a running back accumulates touchdown stickers. Their tattooed biceps were a lot more intimidating than the Caucasian afro I rocked; I can say that much… The results were in; tats get stats.
Somewhere in the past six years, my attitude shifted from “I’ll keep my distance” to “They’re fine, just not for me” to “If I were to get one…” to “I guess I’d do it if…” Lately I’d been telling people, with varying degrees of seriousness, that if I ever moved out of my beloved Wolverine State, I owed it to myself to get a tattoo of the five Great Lakes across the chest.
All life changes so far have been big strides toward staying in Michigan, but the longer I thought about the tattoo, the more I wanted it anyway. It’s true that I got this tattoo two weeks after starting a new job working for the State of Michigan, a fact that has garnered jests among my peers and new coworkers. But it wasn’t until this past month, when Taryn finally asked pointedly, “So are you going to do it or not?” that I finally manned up. I had been saying yes for some time—I’m going to get one!—but it was my ever-supportive wife who finally convinced me to sum up the courage to make the call.
Tattoo parlors can be intimidating places for those who have never been. Googling “tattoo shop” in conservative, comfortable Grand Rapids yields names like “Screaming Needle,” “Pain For Sale,” and “Anarchy Ink.” Walking through the doors of Lightning Revival was a bit of a culture shock. Posters of yawning demons, vivacious dryads, and hallucinatory cartoons covered the wall space. Stadium-sized speakers blared Earl Dibbles Jr. songs—I recall hearing the lyric “My barbed wire tattoo gets me chicks” as I scanned the room. Half-dressed clients lay strewn about the benches in the booths, their skin red and blotchy, while inked-over artists buzzed away at them with colorful drills. One of the artists, a bearded fellow with nose rings, face tats, and ear gauges the size of snare drums finally noticed me and hopped over to the counter.
“How’s it going bud! Can I help you?”
“Um, yeah, I have an appointment for six p.m.,” I heard myself say shakily.
“Which artist?” He whipped his head around to see which staff were free, gauges swinging like great Dumbo ears. I shuddered. Gauges really creep me out. If Pennywise the Clown ever finds his way out of Derry and comes looking for me, the son of a bitch will have ear gauges down to his elbows. Even as I flipped through various artists’ design books, I was still mentally calculating the number of steps to the front door…
But first impressions can be deceiving. This was my first ever time in a tattoo parlor; I had no knowledge of what these procedures entailed. Matt, the artist who happened to be free when I walked in, took great care in making sure I felt informed and comfortable. His specialty was monsters, a niche I found deep respect for, but he said outlining the Great Lakes would be a piece of cake. Matt printed off the image, blew it up to the correct scale, and then “stamped” the design onto my chest. After a few checks in the mirror to get the placement right, he brought out the needles.
Matt described the feeling as “a long, slow scratch by a cat with metallic claws.” That’s incredibly apt.
During the hour it took to fill in the shapes of Michigan, Huron, Superior, Erie, and Ontario, I learned a lot about tattoos. Apparently, no design is off-limits, so long as you can find an artist willing to draw it. I had asked about trademarks; apparently the tattoo world has a loophole on all of them. You could get an FDA stamp, USDA logo, or Presidential seal tramp-stamped onto your backside if you wanted to! Matt said it simply came down to what the artist was willing to draw for you. “I won’t do anything homophobic, racist, or sexist. But plenty of other guys will,” Matt explained. He lowered his voice to add, “Usually at less reputable establishments…”
When it was all done, Matt wrapped me up in Saran and gave me an instructional pamphlet on tattoo care. “The first few days are the most crucial, but make sure you’re lubing it up for a few weeks. You’ll also want to avoid swimming in lakes or rivers for a while. And do not let it get sunburned.” There was significant gravity in these words.
I fancy myself a bit of a mountain man, so it was difficult to hear some of that. There’s hardly a week that goes by where I don’t swim in a lake or river, and much of my free time is spent outdoors shirtless. But I’m new to this thing, and I’m good at following directions, so I dutifully went straight to Meijer, bought skin moisturizer for the first time in my life, and have been applying daily.
It’s still kind of surreal. It took Taryn a couple nights of rolling over in bed, seeing a tattooed shoulder, and flinching before she remembered it was me. When I showed my parents, my mom politely held her tongue for the evening, but she eventually admitted that it “looks a little scary” and would take some getting used to. It’s not the subtlest of tattoos, after all. I find myself glancing in the mirror and thinking, with slight agitation, “This is never coming off…”
I could spiral into a tangent on the fear of lifelong commitments, but in all honesty, I love it and I’m glad I went through with it. It’s a reflection of something I care about deeply and vocally, which is what I feel a tattoo ought to be.