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Does it hurt? PART II

January 11, 2010

My last post on this topic ended with my discussion of the actual sensation of pain in tattoo; I intend to continue that discussion here with a more abstract discussion of the role of pain in tattoo.  It seems to me that in today’s hedonistic, image conscious, instant gratification driven culture, many people ignore the gratification of earning the object of one’s desires and potentially worse, can’t or wont appreciate the process.  Pain is an integral part of the process and history of tattoo.

Certainly tattoos have historically been a way to publicly display one’s culture, one’s family and one’s ideals, but no less important was their use as a show of strength.  Maori warriors are tattooed head to toe at least in part to intimidate.  Sailors have been tattooed for centuries as a show of strength and toughness, but also as a display of mental fortitude and toughness gained in the experience of life.  In fact, one of the more common tattoo subject matter one might see in modern day tattoo is an homage of sorts to the sailor tattoos of old.  Swallows, tattooed in mirror image fashion on the chest is a common meme in tattoo.  Swallows were often the first birds seen by sailors when returning to port after a long journey, so they represent the journey and homecoming. A sailor would often get a single swallow tattooed on one side of his chest and then get a matching mirror image of the same bird tattooed on the other side of his chest upon his return.  The pain of receiving that tattoo mirrors the pain of being away from friends and family for months or years, as well as the pain of struggle on the open sea, which ultimately becomes a physical manifestation of having overcome pain and adversity.

Likewise, each tattoo is a journey of self discovery.  Particularly large scale tattoos require a discipline and mental fortitude to brave the moments when the pain is so intense that you want to give up.  My entire life, I have had difficulty finishing.  I have, at times, lacked the drive and motivation to forge ahead in times of adversity. Being tattooed was a revelation in this regard. I took my first tattoo as a challenge from the start.  I didn’t start small.  My first tattoo is the half sleeve I wear today on my right arm.  All told, that piece took 24 hours over 5 sessions.  I had no choice but to finish, lest I end up with a ridiculous looking half-finished tattoo.  I dove into the tattoo head first and persevered.  There is no doubt in my mind that through my right arm sleeve, I proved to myself that I have the mental toughness and desire to make it through the pain, no matter how intense. I have and will continue to apply that mental resolve in all areas of my life.

In the  introductory portion of this post, I briefly mentioned my feeling that there is a lack of appreciation for process in tattoo in modern culture. I find myself often looking to the past, looking to the future, impatiently focusing on results.  No one is immune to this. As Yoda said about Luke in The Empire Strikes Back, “This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away… to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing.” I strive for contentment in the here and now everyday, and everyday I fail, but the days in which I am most successful, I am also most happy and the most calm.  Because of the value I place on those moments during which I am able to focus on being present to the here and now, I appreciate unequivocally, the crescendos, when the pain is so intense that nothing else registers in my conscious mind. Does this make me a masochist? I don’t think so.  I think it makes me a realist.  There is nothing more real than that pain.

Another facet of the experience of pain that tattoo has revealed to me is how the experience of it is relative, not just from person to person, but within each individual.  There is no doubt in my mind that my perception of what truly hurts has shifted since I started getting tattooed.  Similarly, I think that if our experience of pain is malleable, so too, should our emotional response to it.  Certainly at it’s most fundamental evolutionary level, experiencing pain is supposed to trigger a negative emotional response; that’s simply a basic survival mechanism.  However, I think this gives rise the fallacious notion in human psychology that all pain is a bad thing, but pain causes growth, pain makes us stronger, and it teaches self-control; discomfort makes us compassionate, empathetic, and human.  Because of that, I firmly believe that developing an appreciation for pain has made me a better person, and tattoo has been a part of that.

My younger brother has a Thomas Paine quote tattooed on his ribs, which reads “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.”  I can’t think of a more succinct way to summarize what I love about tattoo.  There is nothing cheap about getting a great tattoo; certainly financially, but more importantly physically.  I cherish my tattoos because I had to earn them.  I cherish them because of what they say about me and who I am.

In Part III, I’ll wrap up with a short discussion of “Does it hurt?”

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 13, 2010 8:38 am

    Yes putting tattoo’s on our body make ourself who really are…But why people like this tattoo’s on their body..It can be good or what…

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