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Damn you modern technology, how many of my dreams will you mercilessly destroy?

January 19, 2010

If only I hadn’t procrastinated for so many years, I could have been a modern day John Dillinger, but now that’s out the window…

“MorphoTrak (Safran Group) is pleased to announce the acquisition of a unique tattoo matching technology developed by Michigan State University. With this technology, the corrections and law enforcement community will now have the capability to accurately and efficiently search tattoo image databases to identify suspects, criminals and victims…”

Bummer, I was really amped for that spiderweb ear tattoo, I guess it will have to wait until after my San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank heist.  *tear*


Does it hurt? Part III

January 14, 2010

So, we’ve established that getting tattooed hurts.  It’s self-evident that it hurts.  What other sensation could possibly result from being repeatedly stabbed by a needle at 1,000 or more RPM?  If the answer to the question is so self-evident, why bother asking in the first place?  I have a few ideas:

  1. People are stupid? I don’t think so.  Don’t get me wrong, people are most assuredly stupid, but I don’t think stupidity is the reason people ask this question. Several people whose intelligence I hold in the highest regard, have asked me this question.  I believe it is often the result of some ulterior motive.
  2. Friendly small talk?  I think on the surface, this is certainly the simplest explanation and owing to Occam’s Razor, I am inclined to put stock in it. In all likelihood, people who do not have tattoos and have a limited knowledge and understanding of the tattoo process or the psychology of getting a tattoo simply do not how to begin a conversation about it.  Genuine curiosity combined with lack of knowledge leads them to ask about the most immediately obvious facet of tattoo in a somewhat inarticulate manner.
  3. Some people are hoping for a particular answer?  There is probably a subset of who are curious about getting a tattoo and have never been able to walk the plank so to speak.  They can’t decide what to get, they hate needles…both.  I think perhaps these people want to be reassured.  They want one of the psychological obstacles removed for them.  Ideally they would like to be told that it’s all hype and tattoos are pretty much painless, or at least, if they are living in reality, that it’s not that bad; which, fortunately for them, it isn’t.
  4. Corollary to #3.  There is also probably a subset of people who want to find a way to distance themselves from the possibility of tattoo.  Perhaps somewhere deep down they are curious about getting tattooed, but social pressure, fear of needles/pain, inability to commit or concerns pose an insurmountable road block.  These people probably view the entire process with an inherently skeptical, if not cynical eye and in all likelihood view confirmation of their preconceptions as a get out of jail free card.  Maybe they want a tattoo, but as long as the pain is ostensibly too much, they don’t have to worry about it.

In the end, in most cases it probably comes down to simple friendly banter, but I don’t doubt at all that there is a psychological component at work. I’d be interested to here some opinions of my readers on this topic.

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?”

LINKY! Check out this really cool blog post discussing Japanese Tattoo (w/ Pics)

January 8, 2010

I love this stuff. Raise your hand if you can guess why Japanese Tattoo is my favorite style.

Does it hurt?

January 7, 2010

If you have a tattoo, you’ve probably been asked this question.  Although I never show it, almost invariably, my gut reaction is one of incredulity.  Frankly, in the past, I was not even sure how to answer that question as the obviousness of the answer led me to believe that there was some underlying implication lurking beneath the surface of a question that could otherwise only be answered with a resounding “DUH!”  In spite of myself, I strive to be open minded, and I like to think of myself as a nice guy. For that reason I always give an honest and emphatic yes, which I typically follow up with some sort of detailed explanation that attempts to analogize what the sensation of being tattooed feels like.  The first few times I was asked the question I was still basking in the afterglow of tattoo devirginization, so I was eager to talk about it anyway.  After that the question started to inspire a visceral swelling of condescending and irritation, originating somewhere in my lower intestines.  That being said, to my credit, I can’t recall a time that I rewarded anyone’s innocent curiosity with an outward display of disdain.

Interestingly and ironically enough, the number of times I have been asked if it hurts has brought me full circle.  By that I mean that because I strive to avoid giving curt and condescending answers to what really amounts to friendly small talk, I have been forced to explain my experience of being tattooed so many times, that it has required me to explore the possible underlying intentions of question itself in order to come up with interesting and satisfying answers.  Because of that, the topic is no longer a source of irritation for me.  Instead, I have come to enjoy the intellectual exercise of exploring the meaning of pain as part of the tattoo process, explaining the qualitative sensations of the experience, as well as the underlying motivations behind the question itself.  I think I have come up with some interesting answers on all three counts.

Ok, so first of all, yes it hurts…a lot.  The simple answer is that sensation varies greatly, both in terms of character and intensity. I think what most surprised me is that it doesn’t feel like being poked repeatedly.  The needle oscillates far too quickly to discern each prick as an individual event.  In effect, the basic or most common sensation I experience is something similar to a sharp piece of metal scratching the surface of the skin.  It’s not a cutting sensation though, as with a knife, but more irritating, like a thorn.

Then there is a whole universe of other sensations that really depend on the location where one is being tattooed.  For example, on my shoulder and the outside of my bicep, the pain was extremely low grade and at times barely even bothersome.  Switch over to the inside of my arm near the armpit and the sensation changes completely.  Intensity increases by a full order of magnitude and is accompanied by several complementary sensations.  It becomes hotter and sharper and there are hot shooting pains originating in the nerve endings that radiate out from the needle point.  Sometimes I even feel what I would describe as sympathetic sharp pricks elsewhere on my body, like my cheek or inner thigh, for example.

As awful as this may sound to some or many, there is also a whole range of pleasurable sensations that I would best describe as warm and somewhat glowy, which pulsate in and around the tattoo site.  I may be completely off base in this guess, but I have always assumed that it was the result of the body’s release of endorphins to combat what it clearly perceives as an injury.  I generally attribute the sensation to the endorphins’ ability to mitigate but not completely mask the pain of the tattoo, which creates a sort of synthesis of pain and euphoria.  Either way, the “tattoo high” is definitely one of the more pleasurable and interesting aspects of getting a tattoo.

More to come on this topic in my next post…

ATTENTION PARENTS! don’t tattoo your children…

January 5, 2010

I just saw this story on CNN and all I can say is HOLY SHIT!  By far the best part of this video is the mother’s shocked disbelief at why “this has gotten blowed [sic] up so big.”   Really lady? Seriously? I mean I guess I can see where she’s coming from.  When I was 10 years old all I wanted for my birthday was a GI-JOE, some Transformers, and a prison tattoo.  Furthermore, the kids wanted the tattoos.  How can I argue with that impenetrable logic?  It’s just like when I was in 3rd grade and my friend Christopher told me that he was going to ask his parents to let him take steroids so he could dress as Rambo for Halloween.  What did his parents do?  They let him of course.  How could they not?  What 8 year old isn’t mentally equipped to understand the vagaries and potential health hazards of taking steroids?

So in the end, I really don’t see how anyone could fault these parents for giving their children what they want.  After all I have yet to meet a person between the ages of 10 and 16 that isn’t fully cognizant of the permanence of tattoos.

My hat’s off to you mom and dad, nice job not buckling to those silly laws and social mores.

The 52 Hour Tattoo Session

December 26, 2009

“Nick Thunberg’s body was swollen and sore after a marathon tattoo session where he endured more than 52 hours of needle on skin.

Artist Jeremy Brown was sleep-deprived, back-cramped, and raw-fingered from gripping the machine over the course of three days…’I don’t look at it just like a publicity stunt,’ Brown said. ‘If you can do something like that, it shows a lot about your character to be able to endure the things you have to endure to accomplish this. You learn a lot about yourself when you challenge yourself.’

I love this quote from Artist Jeremy Brown.  This is something that to me is central to the tattoo process.  I firmly believe that a tattoo is earned.  The pain that one goes through in getting tattooed is a test of mental fortitude in many ways.  I have experienced moments in every tattoo session that made me want to quit.  In those moments there is nothing in the world but the tip of that needle.  I value those moments; in fact, I would go so far as to say that I cherish them.  In spite of the searing pain, or perhaps more aptly, because of it, I’ve never been as  present or “in the moment” as I am during the crescendo of each session. Perhaps a lot of people out there don’t realize it, but as Jeremy Brown notes in the article, getting tattooed can be a character building experience.  If you don’t believe me, go get tattooed for even 3 hours much less 6, 12 or 52 and then come back and tell me it didn’t change your perspective on a few things.  As I have maintained throughout this blog, there is a lot more to tattoos than pretty pictures.