I of the Needle

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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.

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Barry Graham