“Show me a man with a tattoo and I'll show you a man with an interesting past.”
― Jack London
I got a few tattoos in my twenties. I would have gotten full sleeves, if I could. Luckily, I married a girl who appreciated the tattoos but didn’t want to see any more, so I stopped. I say luckily because I had pretty basic ideas back then. I’ve come to believe that tattoos are like writing: most of us need more life experience before we have anything worth saying or permanently marking on our bodies. Just as importantly, I didn’t have the patience or money to do them right.
Now, I’m in my forties, and I still don’t have much worth saying, but I have the time and patience to put down a deposit on an artist who books six months in advance and save up the money to get proper ink. That is to say, I got my first tattoo in twenty years last month, two days before my birthday. Last year I found Joe Chavez of Zombie Joe Tattoos, put down a deposit for a full-day session, and spent six months trying to nail down what I really wanted.
As the day neared, I shifted from excited to nervous. At first, I thought it was because an all-day session sounded daunting, especially after all these years. My helpful wife sent me an article with tips about getting plenty of sleep the night before, drinking water and snacking; it said that people often find it harder to sit for long sessions as they get older. She was actually trying to be helpful.
Still, it wasn’t the pain that made me nervous. I was nervous because I still couldn’t picture what I was getting. Even after all my planning and research, I only had vague ideas and bad sketches. My other tattoos were basic, but this was different.
Consequently, I hardly slept the night before— which breaks the first rule of preparing for a long session.
Then, with a backpack holding my water bottle, snacks, and a spare phone battery that I wouldn’t need, I entered Joe’s shop, sleep-deprived and nervous.
“What are we doing today?”
“Okay. I want a vintage typewriter to cover my forearm, but that’s all I know.”
“Sounds great! Got any references?”
“Kind of, but that’s the catch.” I fumbled with my phone and showed him a few collected images. “These are the other typewriter tattoos I could find, but I don’t like most of them. This one is okay, but not exactly what I want, either. I really like the size of his unrelated half-sleeve you did. Does any of this help?”
I’m normally best described as over-prepared, but I had failed and decided to lean on the expert. “I just want you to do what you think is best.”
“This is all good. I can work with this.”
Suddenly, at that moment, I felt calm. I believed him.
Joe does amazing lettering, and I knew this going in. I had originally not wanted any more words on my skin after tiring of explaining the Hebrew on my arm and the ill-planned Kanji on my chest. Still, this was a typewriter, it deserved some letters to type, and I had found the right words. I told him I wanted “carry the fire.”
It’s from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a book that I read when it came out, and have re-read twice since becoming a father. In the book, it’s the father’s message to his son, when he’s desperately trying to encapsulate everything he wants to pass along. It’s about moving forward, being a light, carrying a torch for humanity, living a noble life, and so much more. For me, it’s a message to my son, a reminder to myself to be always teaching my son, and a bit of a challenge to write books worth re-reading.
I explained parts of this to Joe before he smiled, nodded, and disappeared next door for what felt like forever to look up real, printable reference material. I read a long profile piece on Ben Stiller on my phone; that wasn’t my intention, but I don’t normally fiddle with my phone.
Finally, not actually that much later, he came back with a stencil. It was perfect. I was already jealous of future-me, who would have this awesome tattoo.
Over the next five or six hours, he traced the stencil for an outline, placed it, tattooed the outline, added details to my skin (so many details), inked shadows onto every key, added white highlights, and shaded the area around the paper. It looked perfect, and he said I sat like a champ (evidently daydreaming and not moving is part of my skill set). A few bathroom breaks, a protein bar, and some water kept me going.
Near the end, Joe asked if he could redo my faded wrist tattoo which was almost touching the masterpiece, and I said, “Of course,” while I tried not to think about the pain of going back over that wrist ink. It wasn’t too bad.
Finally, we added the pièce de résistance, a drawing my 4yo made of a stomach bug, named Sad Face (who’s sad because he’s afraid of stomachs). Shep came up to the shop just in time to see that finished.
Now, it’s been a month, and the new ink is just a part of my arm. It feels natural, like it’s always been there, waiting to be visible. My son, meanwhile, said he’ll be sad when it washes off. He doesn’t have a great grasp on tattoos, but I’ll take that as his seal of approval.