This weekend I got my first tattoo. This was no impulse body-modification trip to the tattoo shop after too many drinks. I made plans ahead of time with my friend, Dan, to go get tattoos together. Not only did we schedule our sessions a few weeks in advance, but we were both getting tattoos we had contemplated for nearly two decades.
Like myself, Dan is experiencing a time of growth and transition. I won’t go into the details of Dan’s journey, because it isn’t my place to do so. But I will say that his current path has allowed me to gain a treasured friend who is a constant source of strength and inspiration. He insists on showing me a good time when we’re together, and in many ways has gently nudged me to become an even better version of myself. This includes transforming my body through exercise, healthier eating, and now ink.
Dan lives in Pittsburgh, and had gotten his first tattoo from the same artist at Armature Tattoo Co.. First of all, it’s a beautiful shop with lots of interesting artwork on the walls (there’s a mixed media portrait of H. H. Holmes) and on the skin of the four tattoo artists – two men and two women. The shop is well lit, clean, and full of positive energy. I felt comfortable and welcome right away.
Originally, Dan was supposed to get tattooed on Friday night and I was supposed to get tattooed on Saturday night. But when we arrived, the tattoo artist, Jessi, talked to Dan about the fact that his tattoo would need a bit more time for layout and she wanted to suggest some changes to the original design. That meant I was going first. In hindsight, I’m glad things worked out that way, because I didn’t have time to build up any extra fears about getting tattooed. For years, people have been trying to explain what it feels like, but the only way you’re ever going to know is to get one yourself.
Did it hurt? Well, sure. But nothing like I anticipated. I’ve heard people compare getting tattooed to giving birth. Of course, these people have been men who have zero fucking clue what it feels like to have a period, much less the pain associated with labor. I don’t know what that feels like either, because I had a C-section when my son was born. However, I do know what an epidural feels like and the tattoo needle is nowhere near as large a gauge as an epidural needle that gets inserted into the base of your spine.
To be honest, it was less painful than some of the dental work I’ve had done, and I chose a fleshy part of my body for my first tattoo. There’s quite a bit of blackwork, which was more painful than the line work, but in the hands of a skilled tattoo artist who also has a knack for interesting conversation, the experience was actually pleasant. What really surprised me was the fact that there were certain areas of my skin that felt pleasure in the midst of the pain. My emotional response wavered between joy and catharsis. And, even though the pain wasn’t overly taxing and my session only lasted about 45 minutes, I felt slightly fatigued. I wondered if it was a chemical reaction to continuous pain, regardless of how low-level it was. I mean, was adrenaline being released into my bloodstream in small doses? According to an article on tophealthnews.net, “This Is What Happens To Your Body When You Get A Tattoo!,” I was:
When needles penetrate your body, this is a form of trauma and your body responds in kind. Your Sympathetic Nervous System kicks your fight-or-flight response into gear in response to the pain. The result is a rush of adrenaline.
And, that weird emotional feeling I experienced was probably caused by the release of endorphins.
Endorphins, your body’s natural pain relievers, are also released. These chemicals come directly from the brain, flooding your body. When those endorphins are released, it’s a heady feeling that is sort of intense yet relaxing at the same time.
While fascinating, I wanted to talk less about the science of body chemistry in relation to getting tattooed, and more about why I decided to do it at this point in my life. And, why I chose the image that now decorates my skin.
Like I said, I am not Dan’s publicist, so if you want to know the story behind his tattoo(s), you’ll have to ask him. But, I can show you his before and after pictures from Saturday evening.
You’re probably thinking, “That’s a big fucking tattoo.” And, you’d be right. This first stage of Dan’s tattoo, an artistic spin on Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, took just over 3 hours, and two snacks from the coffee shop up the street, to complete. He has at least one more session to add details to this back piece, but possibly more sessions depending on how detailed he wants the final version to be.
During his 3-hour session, we made jokes about Francis Dolarhyde, the fictional serial killer from Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, since the character has an enormous back piece taken from William Blake’s The Great Red Dragon Paintings. We debated about watching Red Dragon, but settled for the first few episodes of season 1 of “Hannibal”.
So, now that you’re super impressed, and potentially creeped out about Dan’s tattoo, let’s talk about mine.
I first saw the image in a book of essays that deconstruct the various versions of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale, aptly titled The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood, edited by Jack Zipes. The book is dedicated to the late Angela Carter, one of my writing heroes who happened to write one of my favorite stories about werewolves, “The Company of Wolves.” If you haven’t read it, I strongly suggest that you do. She is famous for her versions of fairy tales, rewritten with an adult audience in mind. If you’re looking for something new to read, and think you might enjoy some erotic literary fairy tales, I’d suggest stopping by your local library and picking up a copy of her collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories.
I found Zipes’ book in the library at Hull University. I was studying abroad through an exchange program during my junior year of college, and lived in Hull, England for a year. While I was there, I started becoming more interested in myths, legends, fairy tales and folktales. About the same time I found Zipes book, I also was introduced to The Morphology of the Folktale, by V. Propp. The next thing I knew I was writing all these papers about rape narratives, and cannibalism, and other sexual taboos in fairy tales. That was nearly 25 years ago.
In that time, the meaning of the image has changed for me. When I first saw the drawing in Zipes’ book, I simply saw a woman being held by a werewolf. Sexy, right? I mean, vampires have their sex appeal, but there’s something deliciously primal about werewolves. Not only is the woman being embraced, rather than ravished in the image, but she appears to be happy about it. In fact, it looked as if she had found peace in his arms.
The original artwork was done by Catherine Orenstein (1990), who later wrote Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale. If you’ve ever read any of my other blog posts, you know that I have a special place in my heart for monsters. In fact, monsters can be extremely sexy. Werewolves embody the aspect of the psyche where our signals sometimes get crossed — fighting, fucking and eating all seem to serve the same purpose in the mind of the werewolf — pleasure-seeking at any cost. And the cost may be your life. But in Orenstein’s image, there’s something different happening. The woman isn’t just being held by the werewolf, she’s accepting it in all of its monstrous glory. If she is in fact accepting the werewolf, that also looks a lot like a shadow or darkness itself, brings to mind the idea of making peace with the darker parts of ourselves. Making peace with our demons.
This isn’t my first attempt at transformation in my life. I’ve been trying to reshape myself since I was 12 years old. Weight gain, loss, and regain has been a constant pattern in my life. A few years ago after I gave birth to my son, I lost 70 pounds on Weight Watchers. During one of my meetings I described myself as having a beast that lives inside me that wants to eat all the time. And, sometimes it gets out and loses control. Not unlike a werewolf. It was at this point that I searched for Orenstein’s drawing, because it had a new meaning. I considered getting it tattooed on my body then, but for some reason never went through with it. That was almost ten years ago.
Back in April I rejoined WW, and since then I have lost 30 pounds. I’m proud of myself for doing that. And, I have made a commitment to myself to continue my journey. I am learning to accept myself — fat, wrinkles, white hair, and all. And, I am relearning what my body is capable of doing. I started running using the C25K app on my phone. I forgive myself when the scale goes in the opposite direction and shows a gain rather than a loss. I am not perfect. I never will be. And, I’m beginning to understand why that’s so fucking amazing. I love my demons. I embrace them. Make peace with them. And by doing so, I am learning to love myself. Now, when I look at the drawing, I see a woman accepting herself. And now is a perfect time for my skin, the skin I am becoming more comfortable in each day, to tell that story. This tattoo is a reminder of my strength. The progress I’ve made. And the journey yet to come. Of course, there will be days when I still do battle with my darkness, but now I’m going to own it and show it some love.