I of the Needle

Perhaps this is what's meant by "cultural diversity." There are guys with tattoos, guys with guns, guys dressed as Klingons. There are women, too, but they belong mainly to the tattoo group. It's June 6, and there are three conventions at the Civic Plaza in downtown Phoenix, and they don't have much in common. I have friends at two of them. I don't know any Trekkies, so I don't go there.

The gun show is about more than guns. I pay my $5 and go in with a friend who's a member of both the National Rifle Association and the American Civil Liberties Union. But if the latter group wanted to take a stall at the show, it's unlikely that it'd be welcome. This is about ideology as much as firepower--the stacks of bumper stickers on display make that clear. "Work--It's the White Thing to Do," says one. "If I'd Known It Would Turn Out Like This, I'd Have Picked My Own Cotton," says another. I buy one that says, "PETA--People for the Eating of Tasty Animals." There are also books on sale, either firearms manuals or texts explaining that America is a police state on the verge of martial law. I get one of these, read it, and find it more plausible than I'd like.

The tattoo convention costs $15 for a day, $25 for the entire weekend. This is separate from the cost of getting a tattoo, and there's not much point in going if you don't plan to get one.

A 40ish lawyer gets a highway sign tattooed on his ankle. It's his second tattoo. The young woman with him has never been tattooed, and she wants one. But she frets about it. She's Hindu, and she's worried about what her mother would think. She's tempted when she talks to one of the artists, Deborah Valentine, who's here from Spokane, Washington. Valentine says she specializes in Sanskrit symbols and wants to go and work in India. The woman says she'd like a Hindu symbol, but she's nervous about the pain. Her companion tells her that, although it hurts, the pain is pleasurable. She's not convinced, but she goes ahead. She gets it on her ankle and seems pleased with it.

Unlike the gun show, the tattoo convention has no uniform style or ideology. There are punks and anarchists, and there are Nazis. The range of tattoos offered is astonishingly diverse. If you wanted a tattoo, you couldn't fail to find one you wanted here. There are artsy stalls offering sophisticated, elegant symbols. And there are stalls manned by aging bikers who'll draw a naked woman or picture of Elvis on you.

There's a raised stage, and the band playing on it reflects the latter category of body artist--it's grinding out covers of '50s rock 'n' roll songs in a way that evokes images of sideburns and big cars with their hoods raised and a guy with his head stuck in the engine.

When the band finishes, there'll be a tattoo contest. There's an admission fee, and some people feel so ripped off that they decide not to enter. Others go ahead, and much of the work is impressive. A guy has a portrait of the Dalai Lama on him, and the detail is so precise that it looks like a photograph. Someone else tries to milk the judges' sympathy by announcing a tattoo as "a picture of a friend who died."

There's a woman walking around, probably waiting to take part in the competition. She looks like she's in her late 20s. She's wearing thong underwear to display the tattoo on her huge ass. On each cheek, she has a cherry as big as a baby's head. Cellulite shows through the cherries. "By the time she's 50, those will be prunes," someone observes.

These days, if you were young and wanted to use your body to make a radical statement, you'd probably declare that you weren't going to get a tattoo. Everybody has them--or nearly everybody. Tattoos transcend social class, though the type of tattoo a person chooses probably reflects his or her class background. (Not always in a direct way, though--I've seen white kids from Scottsdale with low rider tattoos, which is as much of a class statement as they meant it to be, though the message conveyed is the opposite of the one they intended.)

It wasn't always that way. Until about a decade ago, tattoos were the sign of the ghetto, the trailer park or the lower ranks of the military. Women almost never got them. Comedy skits and satirical cartoons making fun of "white trash" stereotypes invariably depicted the caricatures with tattoos.

In the late '70s and early '80s, with the emergence of punk rock, tattoos found a new market. But the very reason that punks gravitated toward tattoos was that they were forbidden--getting tattooed was low-class, something that nice people didn't do. Tattoos had only a little more social acceptability than Mohawks and faces pierced with safety pins. The point was to make a visual statement, however naive or superficial, that you were separate, that you weren't part of the mainstream. The reality that this uniformity replaced one type of conformism with another is moot.

Since the mainstreaming of tattoos, the same ethos is probably carried on by the "urban primitive" movement, people who take body art to a further extreme by covering their bodies in tattoos and piercing pretty much anything that can be pierced. But even this kind of look has lost much of its ability to shock, as more and more people wear it.

What happened?
Nobody really knows, though theories abound, from the crankish to the sociological. The most credible argument is that all colors and classes get tattooed for the same reason that all colors and classes listen to rap--that the ever-expanding cultural mainstream swallowed it, digested it through MTV and magazines like Spin and Details and transformed it into one more piece of designer rebellion.

Kieth Anderson is 24 and lives in Phoenix. He has 10 tattoos and 23 piercings. His arms, shoulders, one wrist, one forearm, one ankle, pelvis and penis are tattooed. His ears, nose, lip, tongue, nipples, penis and scrotum are pierced. He has a brand on the back of his neck.

He put in his first earring when he was 15. "When I was in high school, nobody got pierced. Nobody that I knew. I felt different from most people--not better, not worse, just different. I got into gothic and punk, which in my school wasn't common.

"I was flirting with this girl, and she had a cross earring. I'd always been fascinated by religion--I went to every church I could find. She gave me the earring, and I pushed it into my ear during English class. I don't really know why. I don't know what was going on . . . prepubescent hormones, trying to impress her . . . I don't know. I really can't look back that far. But, come to think of it, it was really exciting. It was the shit. I couldn't wait to get out of class, get to the bathroom and look at it. The pain didn't hurt that much."

This last sentence isn't as much of an oxymoron as it might seem. People who're into body art don't often tell you that there isn't much pain. They'll tell you that they don't mind the pain, or even that they like it. There's no question about it--tattoos hurt. And, in the process of getting a tattoo that takes hours, your body receives a massive endorphin kick to help you deal with the pain. It can feel like being high. Some people get tattooed because they want the tattoos and are willing to suffer the pain. Others do it because they like the process of getting it, the pain, their flesh being cut into, and the aesthetic beauty of the scar it leaves behind.

Anderson says he's in the former category. "I like the finished product. The process sucks. It hurts like a motherfucker. But if I can look at the finished product and think it looks good, that's okay."

But it's more complicated than that. When Anderson first pierced his own scrotum, he felt euphoric. "Probably most people who do this hate themselves. I didn't. I was really bored. I don't know how it happened . . . all I know is that when I pierced my ball-sack, it didn't bother me. After I got my tongue pierced, I ate pizza and sang Frank Sinatra."

He likes that he can keep his tattoos hidden if he chooses. "When I'm in a shirt and tie, nobody can see them."

This reflects the sentiments of many people with tattoos. It might seem pointless to get body art that most people aren't going to see, but not everyone--and perhaps not even most people--gets tattooed for other people to look at.

"It's about personal history, marking where I was and what I believe," one woman tells me.

Sunday, the second day of the convention. I'm about to find out what it feels like to get tattooed for a long time. Although I already have three tattoos, they took no longer than 20 minutes each. The pain was gone before my body had to deal with it.

Deborah Valentine agrees to tattoo a Buddhist mantra on me, the Sanskrit symbols for Om Mani Padme Hum, the mantra of compassion. It's long and complex on the page, and Valentine creates a design in which it curves, so it can fit on my arm. I tell her I like the design, and she makes a transfer.

Even before she starts tattooing, I feel like hell. Last night I was at the tattoo-convention party at Jackson Hole, where they sold Jagermeister for a penny a shot, and I'm consequently very hung over.

Valentine doesn't cheer me up when she tells me she's worried about the amount of alcohol I had, because it might make me bleed badly when she sets to work. I tell her to go ahead anyway. I've decided I really want this tattoo, and she's leaving town tomorrow.

The most painful part of the tattooing process is the drawing of the outline. The coloring and shading isn't as bad. Valentine begins on my bicep. I feel my eyes water, but it's bearable. This is because the bicep isn't a very sensitive area. Some people mistakenly think that bony areas will be more painful to get tattooed than fleshy parts. They couldn't be more wrong. What matters is the nerve endings on the surface of the skin. Having the skin over your backbone tattooed doesn't hurt too badly, even if you're very thin. But getting your ass tattooed is absolutely excruciating. The best way to figure out if you can stand to have a part of your body tattooed is to tickle the area with your fingertips. If it tickles much, the tattoo is going to hurt like hell.

It's hard to tickle your bicep, but much easier to tickle the sides of your upper arm, and very easy to tickle the area where your arm joins your shoulder. And the tattoo Valentine gives me snakes into these areas.

At the time, I can't tell how long the process takes, but I later discover that it was about two hours. Painful as it is, I don't feel any endorphins taking effect. But my hangover vanishes almost instantly. In seconds, I've become completely alert.

I try to ignore the pain by focusing on my breath. And then I notice something I would never have imagined. When I breathe in, the pain gets a little worse. And when I breathe out, it eases considerably. For as long as I'm not breathing out, the pain is severe enough for me to feel like crying out. When I exhale, it's just a throbbing ache.

I spend the rest of the session taking huge, lung-filling breaths very quickly and then letting them out very slowly. A friend stands watching. He came here planning to get a tattoo--he even knew the design he wanted--but, seeing the pain on my face, he chickens out. Then he tries to rationalize his fear.

"To get a tattoo, you have to have a sense of permanence," he says. "Once you have it, you can't get rid of it. I change my mind too much for that."

He doesn't believe me when I tell him the experience was strangely positive. "Yeah," he says. "You looked like you were having fun."

I wasn't. But it wouldn't feel as good to have a tattoo under anesthesia. Even if you don't enjoy the pain, the finished tattoo exists as a reminder of something you endured, something you went through to get it.


Contact Barry Graham at his online address: [email protected]

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Barry Graham