Since early 2010, I had thought about getting a tattoo. I frequently said this to friends, followed by “but I don’t know what, and I don’t know where”. Obviously, these decisions—along with finding a great place and person to actually do the tattoo—prevented me from taking any action.
I was with my husband in Toronto in March 2010, and during one of our adventures we passed a closed tattoo shop. We looked over the photos of tattoos hanging on the windows, and I found an artist with a style that I liked. By this time I’d also started toying with concepts for what the tattoo would be. When home, I emailed the tattoo shop and got a very nice response. Unfortunately, the thought of trying to get the artwork right entirely by email, then flying to Toronto to get it done (and home after!) wasn’t super appealing.
I decided instead that I could try to get someone to sketch out my concept, and then walk into a place in Cambridge that had been recommended to me by a colleague. I feel like I’m not artistically inclined, and since I was trying to merge two of my passions into one piece, it might be useful if I could get a sketch of if done. One night at a dance, I asked an artist friend if she could help, and she kindly referred me to another person who did something more like the artwork I was looking for. I got in touch with her, and then her daughter (who she suggested), and various conversations and email iterations of the art ensued. But it never quite gelled the way I was looking for, and although I wasn’t in any rush, the time between seeing versions was lengthy and went on without improvement for a few months. I considered whether this blending of two concepts was too complicated an idea for a tattoo, and longed to be able to express myself better visually!
I had all but given up on the idea when I asked another dance friend at an event that April 2011 where she had gotten hers done. She recommended Juli Moon Studios in Lynn MA. I decided to send them an email and see what would happen. Pat, their receptionist, responded promptly and we started talking. Since one of the things I wanted to capture in the tattoo was my love of West Coast Swing dancing, I sent various photos and YouTube videos. The response was amazing. Pat would often talk about her and Juli (the owner and potential artist) watching the videos and really being blown away by this style of dance. I felt like they understood me and so I scheduled a visit.
The place was what I expected and not what I expected. Inside almost everyone is tattooed from head to toe, and there are all kinds of fairy-like, Gothic artistry and trinkets on the walls. I particularly loved a painting of Buddha above the sofa—the rest of the room contained scattered black plastic spiders, fairy-looking masks and photos, skeletons with wings, etc. More importantly though, the shop was on the second floor on the back side of a professional building, with adequate parking, and everything was clean and neat. During the consultation, Juli took me into the room where she does tattoos, and talked with me for about a half hour about what I wanted. I was able to look through a few of her sample books, she patiently answered all my questions, and even showed me the individually wrapped needles that were used. This whole time, soft music played in the background. Plus, Juli and Pat made me rethink my planned tattoo location—I didn’t really care whether people thought of it as a “tramp stamp”, but I did want to hide the tattoo if I wanted to. They pointed out, however, that on my back I’d never see it, and that got me thinking about other options.
When I returned home that day, I decided to make an appointment. This required a deposit for Juli to generate the artwork, which I thought was completely fair. I can’t imagine how many people probably say they want to get a tattoo and then back out for whatever reason. However, I was a little nervous because I would not actually get to see the artwork until the day of my appointment. Pat reassured me that Juli would be happy to make any adjustments if it wasn’t right, and that if it were completely wrong, I could rebook the appointment. I never felt pressured to get something done that I wouldn’t be totally happy with.
After making the appointment, the big day came pretty quickly: July 16 11am. I did all I could to prepare, so the experience would be as pleasant as possible. Here are some things I was told and/or read about that might be useful to anyone about to get their first tattoo:
- Go to Whole Foods and get some arnica montana, in the strongest dose you can find. (This is a homeopathic remedy for bruising, which you most certainly will be.) Take it as directed the day before you get your tattoo, and then for as long as you feel you need after. (I used mine up after a few days.)
- 48 hours before your appointment, do not drink any alcohol or take any medications like ibuprofen or aspirin. I also avoided caffeine the night before and day of, though I’m didn’t specifically read anything on this point. (It just seemed like a good idea.)
- Eat well before you go in, and make sure you’d still comfortably full when the procedure begins.
- Be sure to shower and be clean when you go in: no perfumes, lotions, etc.
- Wear comfortable clothes that allow the tattoo artist to easily get to the area.
Here are some other things I took with me to the actual appointment:
- Snacks and waters
- My iPhone and headphones
- A super helpful meditation app (on my iPhone) called Simply Being
- Socks and a hoodie (in case the room was cold—I didn’t wish Juli to be trying to tattoo over goosebumps!)
- Someone to go with you who could drive, be supportive and otherwise helpful
- A magazine to have that your helpful someone could read to you if you ran out of things to chat about
When I got there I was asked to sign a waiver (of course), and got to see the artwork. It was a good try, but more along the lines of what my dancer friend’s daughter had done—and therefore not quite what I wanted. Juli was kind about it and talked to me about what to change, then said I should have a seat and she’d work on it. After a few minutes, I grabbed one of the portfolios to look at, and found something that was similar to what I was trying to convey. I joined her in the “Employees only” room and for the next hour and a half, we collaborated to come up with the design I really wanted. Juli was completely patient, working to get the forms anatomically correct while listening to what I wanted. We played with the sizing and the colors (using colored pencils and some books for inspiration). Around 12:45pm, we really had something!
When I asked whether I should eat (meaning, whether I should eat one of my snacks), Juli suggested we go to the new Chinese place next door and get some lunch. We could return in 1/2 hour for the actual tattooing. So, we went to eat, and at 1:15pm the appointment resumed. Juli asked me to get comfortable on the table while she created the stencil, and when she returned to the room, she was very exact about putting it on correctly. Kind of like the prototyping I do on paper for work, she told me that now was the time to change things if it wasn’t right. We looked at the stencil on me close up, then far away, then in a mirror, but it was perfect, and no adjustments needed to be made.
And now for the scary part…Juli cleaned the area, and started to tell me about the different needles she was going to use. We joked about how much of the needle was actually going to go in (i.e. she wasn’t going to impale me!), and I watched her prepare three different tools. She pulled out some colors and told me some of the names that all had a Japanese flavor to them (e.g. Wasabi green). Then the moment came. Juli told me she would do the first dot to start. When she did, I was actually kind of surprised, because the pain wasn’t what I had expected—i.e., I didn’t feel much. (She had previously told me that the first and last 10 minutes were the most painful, with a lull in between due to the adrenaline.) However, over time, the pain increased in intensity. I remember asking everyone what it felt like ahead of time, with responses ranging from “it feels good” to “it felt like childbirth”, but here’s what I think: it felt like when you skinned your knee as a child. Not a deep cut, but a scrape that burns. And the longer it goes, the more mental gymnastics you have to do to get through it. Here are some techniques I tried to use to keep still and calm:
- Chatting with Juli and my husband about all manner of things, including living in Germany and traveling
- Deep breathing, tuned somewhat to the rhythm of her working (e.g. breathe in when she stopped, breathe slowly out when she worked)
- Closing my eyes (most of the time I was like this, so I could focus on breathing)
- Following any floating shapes that form in front of you when your eyes are closed yet there is light in the room
- Repeating a mantra
- Focusing on relaxing parts of my body I felt getting tense, including my hand that was being held by my husband
- Focusing on various parts of the music that was being played (e.g. visualizing the singer on stage, hearing the string section, etc.)
- Using my meditation app (very helpful near the end)!
- Trying not to wonder “how far along is it?” or “am I done yet?” (i.e. thinking instead, “I’m done when I’m done.”)
I didn’t find that the first or last 10 minutes were the worst, actually. After being on the table for 1 1/2 hours, I was parched, but trying not to drink too much water so I wouldn’t have to go to the bathroom. But, truth was I needed a break, and luckily Juli’s room is very near the rest room, so I did get up for about 5 minutes. When I got back on the table I was totally ready to go for part 2 (I was pretty much at the halfway point.) Part 2 was tricky though. I felt myself being relaxed in waves, and then voices in my head asking “are we done yet?” Juli said I’d reach a point where I wanted her to “get that thing away from me,” but that wasn’t really an issue. In fact, the actual tattooing didn’t hurt as much as the wiping, even though Juli was kind enough to use warm water to do it. After about 2 1/2 hours, the procedure was done, and I got to see the tattoo in the mirror for the first time. It was very exciting!
After several rounds of photos, Juli put a very slimy gel over the area, and then lightly bandaged it. She also reiterated some of the things that were stated in the “after care” sheet—e.g. keep the bandage on for 2-24 hours after, clean gently with mild soap/water after that, and use some Aveeno-type lotion twice a day or so to keep the area moist (but not sopping wet). Use old towels/sheets because some of the color might come off, it would likely scab like a sunburn and flake off some color, etc.
Juli was very encouraging all throughout, and I choose to believe that all my prepping and techniques above won me her “stillness award”. (Her prior experience with yoga instructors, in particular, were of them scissoring their legs while she was trying to apply permanent eyeliner!) What’s even more interesting was that my body refused to give up even a single drop of blood throughout the whole procedure. Juli said she wouldn’t be surprised if my scabbing happened within 48 hours, which I took to be sooner than the average person. (Finally, I heal from something quicker than normal people!?) She also told me—after the fact—that the area I selected is usually one of the more painful. (Thanks Juli!)
When I got home, the area was tender (the tattoo ended up on my right lower abs, near my hip bone). I found that various motions like bending, reaching, walking, and even some ways of sitting were sore. (To sit down without pain I basically had to ease into it like a very pregnant woman. LOL!) However, after a few hours, I found that to bend over I could use my yoga techniques to do it by kicking my right leg up in the air while balancing on my left foot, and walking didn’t hurt as much. I also slept a bit (on my back), since around dinner time I got really tired. (I also happened to be recovering from nasty summer cold. Note: occasional coughing and sneezing are ouchy!) When I got back up around 9 pm things felt a lot better. I decided to go to sleep with the bandage on, and take it off / clean up in the morning.
The next morning I took of the tape and the bandage, and was pleased to find that I still thought the tattoo was beautiful. (No regrets!) I wet a soft washcloth and put some gentle soap on it, then patted the area, rinsed and patted the area, dried it, and put on a little Aveeno. When I did this, some minor bits of color came off on the cloth, but I told myself this was normal and not to panic. Doing this also made the area a little sensitive again, but that’s to be expected I guess. All week at work, I wore clothes with soft waistbands or dresses without any, which is also helpful for the area where I got my tattoo. I keep hearing also that I’ll be itchy, and although it has occasionally happened, it’s certainly nothing major.
I’m on day 7 as I update this blog post, and I’m yet to peel, which is apparently the end of the first healing cycle. I’m going a little crazy not being able to workout, run, do yoga, and dance (excessive sweat can also pull some color out, according to Juli, who was also nice enough to promptly answer this question via email!), but the time will come.
Note: This photo was taken right after it was done, and you can still see some of the stencil through the top.