So I’ve gotten a ton of questions about my new tattoo: where did I get it? Who from? What does it mean? Why do I bother getting tattoos in the first place? I’m going to attempt to answer everything in this one post.
This may come as a bit of a shock, but I used to look down on people who had tattoos. Seriously, I used to scoff at and mock people who got them. I used to nickname it “Wal-Mart Rebellion”. One of my previous relationships went south because the girl I was dating got a tattoo without telling me about it. Boy, if 18-year-old RJ could see me now…
Truthfully, I still carry that sentiment for a lot of people who just get tattoos for the sake of it. Keep in mind, too, that I’ve worked as a lifeguard for several years of my life, two of which were at a water park. So I’ve seen a lot of really bad tattoos over the years. One guy, for instance, had a tattoo of Pinky from Pinky and the Brain on his shoulder. Or there was another who had a portrait of his kid on his back that looked like it came from a cheap coloring book. Oh, and don’t even get me started on the myriad of people who get various corporate logos permanently placed on their body (I’ve seen Chanel, Nike, Puma, Volcom, Quiksilver, Polo, Converse, and Apple, just to name a few).
There was one conversation, though, that took place my freshman year of college that helped turn the tide on my animosity. Being a fresh-faced 18-year-old who had never really lived on his own before, you can imagine my curiosity and almost confusion when I befriended an incredibly intelligent junior who already had multiple pieces on his arms, chest, back, and calf. He and I were hanging out in a group (there may or may not have been alcohol involved) when the inevitable subject of his ink came up. I, along with one or two more snobs in the group, proceeded to bust his chops with all of the insults we had accumulated from years of whispering behind people’s backs. Rather than react poorly, though, he was good enough to turn the discussion into a more serious one. We promptly responded by dismissing tattoos as something that we simply “didn’t get”. Sure, there was no denying their sex appeal to a certain extent. But I simply didn’t get the idea of having an image embedded into your skin for life. I also have a phobia of sharp objects, so this definitely didn’t work in my favor.
“There’s no denying it,” he said, “tattoos definitely aren’t for everyone. But everyone should have something that they connect with on that deep a level.” We asked him what he meant by that. He went on to explain. Throughout your life, there are various things that you encounter that help shape who you are. They can be anything: people, places, books, movies, quotes, whatever…the point is that every person has something that has connected with them on so deep a level that they carry it with them for the rest of their life. A tattoo is simply an outward expression of that idea. Sure, not everyone should get a tattoo, but everyone should have something that they wouldn’t mind getting in theory. “If that’s not the case,” he finished, “then you’re not living your life right.”
Needless to say, that talk planted a seed in my brain. It wasn’t long before I started toying with the idea of a tattoo myself. It would eventually take four years for me to develop an idea, flesh it out, and then gather the courage to actually let myself get it done. My first tattoo was really something that I got to face my sharp-object phobia head-on. Granted, I loved the design and loved the idea of it even more, but I still got it done on my back, a place where I would only have to physically see it occasionally. Four tattoos later (along with plans for at least three more), and I’ve started to notice a pattern with my ink. As a writer, all of my pieces have to do with stories, specifically stories that have shaped me as a storyteller and as an artist in general.
This is why I was extremely excited to get my most recent set of tats. Yes, they were visually beautiful (thanks to my good friend, artist Alex Zastera). However, conceptually, they would have perhaps the deepest meaning. All throughout my studies as an English major, I would frequently encounter a concept that Nietzsche first presented in his work The Birth of Tragedy. In it, he describes the two “polarities” of art, and connected them to the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus. Apollonian art is very conceptual in nature. It’s all about order, language, and the intellectual meaning of a piece. It’s all about communicating and idea. Dionysian art is more sensual in nature. It’s more about chaos, feeling, and the aesthetic nature of a piece. It’s all about expressing and emotion. The tragedy comes into play, according to Nietzsche, when the artist finds himself trapped between the two gods, never fully able to truly have a single work that caters to both. The laurel, which is on my left side, is traditionally associated with Apollo, whereas ivy, which is on my right side, is traditionally associated with Dionysus. The revelation that really brought this concept to life for me came during a TED Talk by Jill Bolte-Taylor called “My Stroke of Insight”. In it she describes how the two hemispheres of the brain think. You can skip directly to it at about 3:27.
Ancient Greeks would often honor certain gods by wearing a wreath of the plant most closely associated with that god. Rather than get these plants tattooed on my actual head (which is a little bit too hardcore for me), I decided to have them done on both sides of my torso. Not only was the placement an aesthetic choice, it also sort of turns my body into a wreath rather than simply having it simply decorate one single part. Placing the two designs on the opposite sides of my body also freed up the possibility of creating a nice contrast between the designs. You’ll notice that the laurel branch design is mostly linear. It’s made up entirely of lines, similar to an old woodcut print you would find in an old book. The addition of the blank scroll also suggests the concept of language, since humans write it down on paper. Meanwhile, the ivy design is a lot more sensual and, dare I say it, messy. There are minimal lines in the design. Instead, it’s mostly watercolor-esque ink that makes up most of its design. The bleeding colors and the splotches were added on purpose, as if the person who was painting them was possibly drunk at the time (Dionysus was also the god of wine). Like I said, conceptually, this tattoo (I really do consider it one piece that has two parts) is probably the deepest one yet. Of course, I feel like everyone should put as much thought as possible into a design if it’s going to go on your body for life. Am I right?
As for the actual process of having it done, let me just say that it was not easy. I went to Euphoria in Tallahassee, which, on a side note, is the only place you should ever go to have ink done in the Big Bend area. I booked a session with my good friend Nate Barnes, who in addition to doing great work, is one of the most hilarious people you will ever meet. When I told Nate that I wanted to tattoo both my sides in one session, his eyebrows went up. He then scheduled me for a 1:00 PM session, and purposely left the rest of his day open. “I’m not saying you can’t do it,” he told me with a cautionary tone, “but if you do, then you’ll officially be carved out of steel. I’m just saying, you can have an out at any time.” If you ask anyone familiar with tattoos, they’ll tell you that the ribcage is one of the most painful areas on your body to have a tattoo done. In the weeks building up to my session, I was trying to keep any nerve-racking thoughts like that out of my head. But when I saw Nate’s expression, my pulse started to quicken. To his credit, he was being honest with me, and I definitely needed to be in the right mindset if I was going to make it to the end.
If I had to guess, I’d say that I was under the needle for about four hours. The overall process took a little less than five hours, in between the sketching, stenciling, and Capri-Sun breaks (that’s right, Capri-Sun…can we just bask in that awesomeness for a minute?). We started with the laurel branch, since it would likely be the quicker of the two. For starters, it was slightly smaller in terms of surface area. Plus, since it involved “hatching”, it would only involve one type of needle. For those novices out there, tattoos are done with two different types of needles. Lines are done with one type and shading is done with a broader cluster of even more points. Anyways, the laurel design was relatively easy compared to what I was expecting. Sure, there were definitely painful moments, but Nate, Luis, and I were making enough small talk that I was actually enjoying myself. So when I was asked whether I wanted to continue with the second piece, I was feeling invincible and a bit reckless. Needless to say, the second tattoo was the much bigger challenge. First off, it took quite a bit longer to do. Second, I had to lie on my side, right on top of the previous tattoo that was still fresh. Third, the “shader” was, in my opinion, the more painful of the two needles. About midway through the second piece, I was ready to call it quits. Two things got me through. The first was plain stubbornness. As much as I was in pain, the last thing I wanted to do was have to come back and go through it all again. More importantly, though, I think it’s really important to have an artist who is personable and is genuinely fun to hang with. Euphoria has plenty of great artists, but Will and I keep coming back to Nate because he also happens to be a friend. Shooting the shit with Nate and with all the other guys there really does help the time go by. It’s ten times better than just sitting there and waiting for it to be over. Also, laughing releases endorphins, which help relieve pain. Long story short, even though I’ve just spent hours in pain, I always leave that parlor smiling.
My ink has been healing pretty well. I’ve progressed past the pain phase and moved on to the itching phase. Again, for novices, people always mention the immediate pain of getting ink, but almost no one talks about what happens afterwards. The tattoo is a flesh wound, and like all flesh wounds, it will start scabbing over and flaking off after a couple of days. When this happens, it itches like crazy. Thing is, you can’t pick at it or scratch it without risking damage to your new piece that you suffered hours for. I’d argue that the itching phase can sometimes be more maddening than the pain phase, since you can’t scratch and it usually takes longer. The best thing you can do is make sure to use plenty of lotion, which I’ve been doing. Other than that, all I can do is wait. It’s been interesting at the gym to a certain extent, since the scabs start to sting a little after a couple of hours of having sweat poured onto them. But, if you ask me, it’s all worth it in the end. I’m absolutely thrilled with the end result, so a week’s worth of discomfort is well worth having a fantastic, unique piece of art that you get to wear on your body for life.