Some Tattoo Directions
Here is something I wrote in October 2010, for no clear purpose. I was reminded of it recently, dug it up, and have decided to publish it here (correcting some typos, but otherwise leaving it as written) and add it to my sporadic Letters From Here collection/series. Because it’s about New York. Sort of.
In 1994, tattooing was illegal in New York City. You could get it done, but it took some effort. You had to figure out where to go, and you couldn’t use Google. So maybe you would get a phone number from a girl, a girl with whom you would eventually have a catastrophic relationship. But anyway she would have a phone number, and in fact she would have a tattoo.
You would call the number. No one would answer and the outgoing message wouldn’t say anything, it would just be an instrumental version of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” You’d leave a message with your phone number. Later, eventually, someone would call back, to your home phone, because it’s 1994 and you wouldn’t have a cell. Somehow you’d end up on the phone with another human being and you would tell that person what you wanted and that person would tell you to go to a specific corner in the East Village and use the pay phone there to call a different number. And also to bring cash.
You would get cash and go to the appointed place at the appointed time and dial the number. Some guy would answer and say he’d come get you. And a minute or two later a skinny punk-rock kid in saggy black clothes would come loping across the street and you’d know it was your guy, despite all the other people around.
You’d follow him back across the street. You’d go through a door and you’d be in the bottom floor of an unremarkable-from-the-outside house in the East Village. Inside it was a tattoo parlor, but all the windows would be blacked out so that nobody could tell from the street. You could look at all the available designs, just like at any tattoo parlor, but you brought your own. Small, one color (black).
There would be a counter and you would stand at the counter just like at a regular business, and a big guy with long hair, middle-aged, with a belly, would come out and look at the design and say it would cost $150. They would have said $100 on the phone. You would have $150 in your pocket. Still, you would protest and say they told you $100 on the phone.
This big long-haired guy would would shout, “Maybe Snake Eyes will do it for $100. I won’t. Snake Eyes you want to do this?”
It would not be clear if he was really shouting to Snake Eyes back in the back, or even if there was a Snake Eyes. Maybe the punk rock kid was Snake Eyes? You would never find out. You would offer $120. The big long-haired guy would grudgingly accept.
You would go into the back, a small room where all the needles were. You would have a seat. You would roll up a sleeve. The process would begin. It would take about an hour. It would be painful. The background music would be Iggy Pop’s new album. “Have you heard the new Iggy Pop?” No, sounds great, let’s hear it.
While this was going on, a girl with green hair would come in and take her pants off. She would be there to have her inner thigh tattooed by the punk rock kid. She would arrange herself on a table sort of like one at the doctor’s office, directly behind you, and get her thigh tattooed. She would say, “Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.” The four of you would all make small talk and enjoy the new Iggy Pop.
At the end of the hour or so you would fork over your $120. They would give you the instructions for short-term care of your tattoo. You would go to that movie theater on St. Marks that is something else now and pay a few bucks to see Barry Lyndon, which would be awesome. This would be on a weekday, in the afternoon. And you would be, frankly, euphoric.
Eventually times would change. Tattoos would become more commonplace, but also more aesthetically elaborate. Your tattoo would look pretty sorry compared to the designs that would become typical in an age when demand drove up the supply of talented and affordable tattoo artists. Tattooing in New York City would of course become legal, and you would pass that same spot where you got your tattoo and see it advertising itself with a neon sign.
You would wonder, from time to time, about the sanitary conditions under which you were tattooed, the cleanliness of the needle, the risks you took without careful consideration. But you would not have any curiosity at all about what might be going on inside that fully legal and regulated tattoo shop now. And while you would eventually understand that your tattoo will never impress anybody in this new era, you would have no regrets about the design permanently inked onto your body. Quite the opposite, in fact.
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