Tattoo Me

In the summer between my junior and senior years of college, back in 1980, my friend Liz Azzaro (nee See) and I went to get tattoos at Peter Tat2, a shop on in West Hempstead on Long Island. Tattooing was still illegal in New York at the time (it only became legal in 1997 and has since exploded, with multiple shops in practically every town), but Peter Tat2 made no secret of its purpose, with bright colorful signage and a large storefront window showing framed flash on the walls. Liz got a seagull on her hip; I got a blue heart crying two tears on my left ankle, which I considered the iconographical depiction of my love life. (Little did I realize at the time that my first tattoo would represent not only a lament about my present but also a prediction for my future.)

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When I got back to Trinity for two-a-day football practices in August, a couple of weeks before the rest of the undergrads returned, it was still warm enough in New England to wear shorts on a daily basis, so I was able to show off my ink. I like to think that the guys were impressed; back in those days, girls other than biker chicks did not get tattoos, and only the coolest of the cool of the preppie and Connecticut public school boys got one, usually on a dare.

Nowadays, I see at least as many girls as guys with tattoos, and not just a tiny heart on the ankle or a butterfly on the nape of the neck, only to be glimpsed when their hair is up in a ponytail. It’s not as rare as it used to be to even see full arm and leg sleeves (is it actually called a “leg sleeve”?) on a lady. A Harris poll in 2012 concluded that 1 in 5 Americans have at least one tattoo and, for the first time since they’d started inquiring, women were slightly more likely than men to have one.

There are also more female tattoo artists. One of my favorite art-based reality competition shows is “Ink Master” on SPIKE TV (my other favorite is “Project Runway”, but I also like “America’s Next Top Model”, primarily because I enjoy watching the photography process and then seeing the finished product). “Ink Master” is hosted by heavily tatted rock guitarist Dave Navarro (ex of Jane’s Addiction and Carmen Electra), and every week the competitors tattoo a “human canvas” in accordance with an assigned theme. Every season there are at least a few female contestants, and while none of the females has yet been named “Ink Master”, I believe it’s only a matter of time.

My last two tattoos were done by a talented woman artist named Liana Joy in a shop in Oceanside, NY called Empire State Studio. Empire State is owned by one of the finalists in the very first season of “Ink Master”, Tommy Helm, who in addition to Empire State now runs a shop on the left coast as one of a trio of tattoo geniuses who specialize in difficult cover-ups on a weekly show called “Tattoo Nightmares” (which comes on after “Ink Master”).

I went to Empire State one day a few months after Superstorm Sandy actually hoping to see Tommy Helm. The shop was not far from where I was staying, and I had been wanting to get another tattoo, as a way to sort of cheer myself up after all the loss and destruction and homelessness. When I walked into the shop, I was almost shocked to see the man himself, leaning up against a wall. He was much smaller than he had looked on TV but as adorable in person as he had been on the show. (My daughter, her step-mom and I all had a little crush on him and we were convinced he should have won. I told him the latter but kept the former to myself.) Of course, he is too famous now to be doing the minor tattoos of walk-ins like me, but he suggested I consider one of his protégés. Liana Joy is a talented young artist with a creative eye and a steady hand for fine work, but I worry that she might have to give up tattooing as a career because the traditional tools of her trade are causing her to have a sort of specialized carpal tunnel syndrome. I’ve seen some new-fangled tattoo equipment, though, that seems to be lighter and less noisy than the incessant “BZZZZ” of the customary inkers of old, so hopefully she’ll be able to find a machine that is easier on her wrist and arm and she can continue her brilliant work.

Tattoos tell stories, and not always good ones, as Tommy, Big Gus and the exceptionally gifted Jasmine from “Tattoo Nightmares” can attest. Their whole show consists of re-enacting the horror stories of how the folks getting cover-ups originally got their terrible tattoos. All of my tattoos also have their little histories and significance, but thankfully none quite so horrific as the ones on “Tattoo Nightmares”.

I got my second tattoo on the Lowest East Side circa 1990. A friend of mine had come into the bar where I was tending with a delicate little bracelet of bones tattooed around her birdlike wrist. I wanted something just that tiny and fine – a laurel wreath encircling a yin and yang sign on the meat of my upper arm – so I asked her who had done it. “Mike Fineline!” she told me. Despite having a bloviating, self-proclaimed “tattooist to the stars” named Jonathan Shaw literally living in the basement apartment next door to mine at 43 East 1st Street, I ended up going to see Mike. He was called “Mike FINELINE”!! Of course he would be the perfect choice for the kind of delicate work I was seeking! Unfortunately, Mike might have had a bit too much to drink that day, and he freehanded my design instead of creating a stencil, and it turned out to be twice as large as I had originally envisioned. The black outline was heavy and the skin often gets raised. If I had a really great idea and a really great artist, I might want to cover that one up somehow, and I have a lot of upper arm around it to work with. But other than that, I think I’m done with tattoos. Soon my skin will turn saggy and thin and spotted – my legs, blessedly free of varicose veins for all these years, are starting to show some telltale capillary blooms, even near my most recent tattoo, done by Liana Joy, of a kitty yin and yang – and the thinner the skin, the more painful it is. And believe me, tattoos do not tickle.

My father had a few tattoos, which he had gotten when he was in the Navy in the early ‘50s. Maybe because he became a banker, he covered them up in long-sleeved shirts and suit jackets. By the time I was aware of them – a skull with a “Mother” ribbon and a bluebird on his arm and a hula girl on his calf – a decade or more after he had gotten them, they were blown out and blue, but I still loved them. I swore I would get my own when I was old enough and when I figured out what it was I wanted to preserve on my body for the rest of my life.

Other than the aforementioned laurel wreath, I am quite content with my current state of ink. They all look good and they all mean something. They even reveal me to be a little bit of a rebel, even though so many people have tattoos these days, unlike in my father’s generation. In most circles, tattoos no longer carry the stigma they once did, when they were only sported by bikers, sailors and ex-cons, but they’re still not very common in New York City law firms (or at least they’re not OBVIOUS). I’m a corporate lawyer who doesn’t hide her tattoos. They’re in full view on my lower arms because I want to be able to see them as well! My cat yin and yang, which is on my upper thigh and not on display except in the summertime, reads from upside down (to me) and right-side up (to onlookers).

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I have an owl-and-stars wristlet in honor of my mother, although she hated my tattoos. I hid them from her for years but when she finally saw the one on my upper arm, she expressed her disappointment. “You’ve defaced yourself”, she said with an exasperated sigh. I gather she never liked my father’s tattoos, and she would tell me that he regretted having them, but I didn’t read him that way. I liked his tattoos. They made me want to have tattoos, too. The Eye of Horus (designed and inked by Liana Joy) on my right inner forearm, which I treated myself to after Superstorm Sandy, is in honor of my father.

My daughter has one. She actually got her first without my knowledge, an “831” on her chest to commemorate the date of her grandmother’s death. For her 18th birthday I paid for a beautiful owl (my mother’s spirit animal) with a full red moon-and-pine background, done by a local kid.

My ex-husband never wanted one (big chicken!), even though he clearly didn’t mind them on his wives, since his second wife has even more tattoos than I do, including one massive piece of three horse silhouettes on her side that must have absolutely killed. But even he broke down and got one, a massively detailed Roman gladiator on his arm, which coincided with his being in the best shape of his life in his forties and enjoying showing off his guns.

I think everyone should have at least one tattoo, an entirely permanent and personal piece of art with deep significance. We all have our stories to tell.

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