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I of the Needle

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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.

--Graham

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

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Barry Graham