Tattoos, Cougars and Stupid Bro’s
Standing next to me was a colorful woman named Sydney Apple. Sydney’s forearms radiated a psychedelic glow from all the ink artistically splashed and distributed over the majority of her visible skin. I had a feeling her personality was going to match her outlandish appearance the moment I saw her.
She had long strands of hair streaming down the sides of her cheeks, as well as some patches of choppy hair abruptly cut shorter and then gelled straight up in the back. Her hairdo looked like an edgy, biker-chick rendition of a 1950’s bob cut. Two hoop nose rings were lodged in each of her nostrils.
We were standing in Big Johnny’s Tattoo studio in West Springfield with Lauren Lonborg. Lauren was a young tattoo artist, who was intently drawing Sydney’s latest tattoo. She would be applying the drawing to Sydney’s skin later that day.
Lauren told Sydney I had come in to talk about the tattoo parlor, and then asked me if I was interested in talking to people who had tattoos as well. Before I could answer, Sydney turned to me and exclaimed, “What do you want to know!? I have tons of tattoos! If you’re going to be writing about me, describe me as follows: ‘Sydney Apple, 36-years-old, self-proclaimed cougar…’”
As she was saying this she began tugging at her clothing. She gradually exposed various limbs completely covered in colorful tattoo art and a chest that was also no stranger to being inked.
I attempted to study her tattoos as she quickly pulled each of her sleeves up higher. From what I could tell, her arms were covered in checkerboard designs, flowers, tribal symbols, animal prints, a Twinkie, a Barbie, the word “POW!” on her elbow, and what looked like a picture of “Hello Kitty” in a sailor’s cap winking at me from her right forearm. I almost felt compelled to wink back in its direction.
After Sydney pulled down the neck of her sweater she felt the need to explain one particular tattoo that rested above her cleavage. The tattoo read “No peeking!” and had a picture of two eyeballs directly below the lettering. One of the eyes was also winking at me just as the “Hello Kitty” had been. I felt less compelled to wink back.
“The story behind this tattoo is that my boss told me to wear low cut shirts when I was bartending. I wouldn’t do it until I got the ‘no peeking’ tattoo. I felt I looked very naked there before because I had this huge section of skin with no ink on it.”
Sydney continued to unveil more and more tattoos with every tug of clothing. I had to wonder where this new tattoo was going to fit in this canvas of a body that left very little of her original peach-colored complexion untouched. I was about to find out.
“Sydney, tell Kara about the new tattoo you’re getting today,” Lauren said, chuckling.
Cynthia turned to me and said, “WELL, it’s a playing card with my boyfriend’s name written on it along with the letters D, L, and W. My boyfriends turning forty so I’m gonna get it right on the ‘ol vageroo.”
There was my answer. She alternated between using the word “box,” “vag” and “vageroo” when referring to the private location of her future tattoo. Through my laughter I managed to ask her what the three letters meant.
“Dirty little whore, of course!” she said. I’m already planning on getting it covered up, though. I mean, Hello! He’s my right now…he’s not my forever! Excuse my ‘Twilight’ reference, but he’s not the Edward to my fuckin’ Bella.”
“So this tattoo is his gift?” I asked.
“No, this is the gift!” Sydney said, motioning toward her crotch. “Write that down! Maybe I should get a bow right above my box, too.”
Laughter was projecting loudly from my mouth, but in my mind I was trying to fathom the fact that someone was thinking about getting a tattoo covered up that wasn’t even applied yet.
Sydney continued, “yeah, I only come here when I need Lauren to do my freaky, private, girly tattoos. But, I mean, she’s about to tattoo my vag so we’re about to get a little closer.”
We all chuckled in agreement that something like that would most likely forge an undeniable bond between two people.
After the laughter died down, Lauren went back to her drawing. She was making the playing card bigger and the letters “D, L, W” bolder and larger at Sydney’s request that it “cover her entire box.”
Lauren also appeared to be heavily tattooed. I wasn’t quite as knowledgeable about her covered areas as I was about Sydney’s due to the previous enlightening conversation, but from the looks of her she had quite a lot of ink on her body as well.
When she leaned forward to blacken the letters she was drawing on the page, she threw her hair up in a loose messy bun. I noticed she had two little piggies tattooed behind each earlobe. She also had a large vibrant blue flower design that started at her shoulder and overlapped onto her chest, and a picture of a woman that almost completely covered her left arm. I later recognized the unidentified half-naked lady as Kat Von D, a famous tattoo artist and the star of the television show “LA Ink.”
“How would you describe the pain?” I asked as I eyed one of her larger tattoos.
Lauren glanced around to see if anyone else was listening. “I take a shot or two before I get tattooed, she admitted. “It helps.”
“I take a strong ibuprofen! 800 milligrams.” Sydney animatedly chimed in.
I found it surprising how open Lauren was being. The first time I went into Big Johnny's Tattoo Studio I had asked if I could ask her a few questions and she rambled off a lengthy disclaimer that employees weren’t allowed to discuss certain things. Now she was spilling her guts.
My first visit to the parlor was an intimidating one. Not knowing what to expect, my heart was pounding as I walked through the door. I heard the soft continuous buzzing of a tattoo needle making contact with flesh as I stepped inside.
“Can I help you?” said one of the girls working on a woman’s tattoo as she popped her head into an upright position.
“Um, yeah,” I hesitantly responded. I had an icebreaking response already planned inside my head. “I have a question about my tragus piercing,” I said as I clutched the metal protruding from that flap of cartilage located in the middle of my ear.
“Okay, I’ll be with you in like five minutes,” the girl responded.
I sat in the waiting area when a young couple walked in. I thought I’d use this opportunity to feel out the type of person I would be encountering in this place that was very foreign to me (I have no tattoos myself, and have only considered getting one for a short period of time before promptly chickening out).
“You guys getting tattooed?” I asked.
The couple looked as me like I had five heads. Damn it. I felt my cheeks get hot and turn a light shade of crimson.
“Yeah,” the guy eventually answered. “I’m getting her face tattooed on my forehead and she’s getting mine tattooed on hers.”
He was messing with me. I laughed awkwardly and said something along the lines of “Oh, haha, cool…” and the couple went back to talking quietly with each other.
I was saved when the tattoo artist, who I later discovered was named Lauren, appeared and asked me what I needed for my earring.
“The ball popped out,” I said. “Can I buy another one and have someone screw it back in?”
My buffer request was actually something I had been meaning to get done anyway. I played in an intramural basketball game a few days earlier and the referees made me somewhat painfully rip out my piercing.
“Yeah, we don’t sell the balls but I can just pop one in for you real quick,” Lauren said.
She took me to the back room and popped my earring back in place in less than five seconds flat. I used the opportunity to ask her if she would be willing to chat with me about tattoos and the parlor for a piece I was writing. She agreed, but made sure to ramble off a lengthy disclaimer that there were just some things she was “not allowed to discuss due to company policy.”
Lauren hesitated for a moment and then continued, “We’ve sent people away if they’ve been really fucked up on pills or whatever. We also do that if someone’s looking to get a really in depth portrait done because we have a friend in another parlor that specializes in that kind of thing. If my boss knew that he’d probably punch me in the face.”
I tried not to look too excited about how open this conversation had become. After my first interaction with her, I figured she wasn’t going to be particularly chatty.
I asked Lauren and Sydney if they believed a tattoo culture existed. I was curious whether there was an unspoken bond between the inked that the un-inked wouldn’t understand. Sydney explained to me that there was definitely a sense of identity that came with being tattooed.
“Some people think they are part of the culture but they really aren’t,” she said. “Yeah, they are like look at my tattoo! And it’s like a little stupid sparrow or some shit like that. Or they have like ‘live, laugh, love’ written on their ankle or something else equally as gay.”
“Is there any discrimination against the culture?” I asked.
“Hell yeah! There’s tattoo culture backlash,” said Sydney. “People stare at me like I’m freakin’ Robert De Niro in ‘Cape Fear’ all the time. I’ve even been asked if I’ve been in prison by older people. Boys love it, though. They think you’re a fuckin’ freak in the boudoir which like totally ups your street cred. Seriously, I get asked out left and right. Do I take all the ass? No…but it’s on the table.”
Sydney was in her own world at this point and I was getting a kick out of every moment of it.
“In regards to this tattoo parlor, it seems to be filled with stupid frat bro’s,” she blabbered on. “You think so, Lauren? I’ve had people come up to me and grab my arms when they were trying to look at my tats. You can gawk at me all day, but do not touch me without my permission. Do not. That’s when I get nasty. I get real fuckin’ nasty.”
What was ironic about Sydney’s comments about this was that as she was saying how much she disliked being touched by strangers was that she was demonstrating what people would do to her arms by twisting and bending mine. She grabbed me by the forearms and started yanking in all directions as if there was no chance I still considered her a stranger.
“As for me,” she continued, “I’m totally part of the culture. I mean I dream about tattoos for God’s sake. Like, just last night I had a dream I got a lip stick tattoo but the lipstick was a red cock! And like everybody loved it! And I was like …really? Uh, next question!”
Nothing seemed off limits anymore as the three of us continued talking. I sensed an old friend vibe in the air, and I just happened to be the only friend who was not going to be taking part in a good ‘ole vageroo tattooing ritual later in the day. At the end of the afternoon, however, I didn’t feel all that left out. I did feel a slight urge to get a tattoo, though. All I knew was that it wasn’t going to be of a sparrow.*
Editors Note: This piece was written almost a decade ago. I have since gotten a tattoo. Interestingly enough, it is of a bird. It’s not a sparrow… but it is a swallow… which is pretty damn close. I wonder if Sydney would approve.
*the names and locations in this story have been changed