My First Tattoo

The intention was there, and had been for many years. g. and I were to get a tattoo to commemorate our decade plus of friendship.

The tattoo itself was not without meaning. As I shared on Facebook,

It’s of a snail I’ve been drawing for years…

a symbol of (our) friendship, art and life.

And then she followed up more eloquently…

I had this epiphany about life and happiness and meaning, etc., one day in college while watching a banana slug(!).

At the time I struggled to articulate this terribly meaningful moment to my best friend. Several weeks passed. I noticed that she started obsessively drawing these beautiful snails everywhere.

I asked her about it. She looked at me incredulously: “Because of your epiphany.” I laughed. “But that was about banana slugs!” D’oh.

But her snails were so lovely. We adopted the image, tied up as it is in my forgotten epiphany and her sweet acknowledgment of it and the funny misremembering of it and our storied twelve-year friendship.

Yes, this was a particularly meaningful tattoo. It was also the first one for both of us.

Now I had a good idea of where I wanted it to be. I wanted it to be on my hand, walking along the edge of my thumb. With me always and helping me through life. I had been drawing the snail there for years, during boring meetings and while on phone calls.

I mentioned this to a few of my more worldly friends, and oh boy did it set off a shit storm.

Nick protested wildly, “If you get a tattoo on your hands, you will look like a crack whore!”

A crack whore!

But I’m not, I argued.

“That doesn’t matter! You cannot get a tattoo on your hands. A snail on your hands tells everyone you used to do heroin.”


And then more reasons. “Would you get a tattoo on your face?! Getting a tattoo on your hand is just like getting one on your face.”

No, no I wouldn’t.

This guy and his face tattoo.

This guy is so proud of his facial tattoo that he releases this photo on wikimedia commons for all to use for any purpose.

It turned out not sending the crack whore vibe wasn’t the only reason not to get a tattoo on my hands. Joe turned me on to some others. It turns out that it’s illegal to get a tattoo on your hands (not fact checked). And since you use your hands a lot (and I use mine A LOT), the clear lines of a tattoo will get blurry as the ink bleeds into the nearby cells.

Blurriness aside, tattoos on your hands also fade more quickly since they are subjected to a lot of sunlight in our day to day lives.

Who knew?

I didn’t. But I was glad to get the low down before I went into the tattoo parlor. The discussion about my first tattoo that night didn’t end there. We went back and forth about where to get it on my body, and which of the many tattoo artists Nick and Joe knew which would be the right one for me and g. and our first tattoo.

A bit overwhelmed by the apparent importance of our tattoo artist, I followed up with my friends Kim and Lindsay. Kim agreed with Nick and Joe, urging g. and I to meet the tattoo artist first and to find the right one for the job. Lindsay disagreed — or apparently she did. When she was visiting from Seattle, she got the urge to get a tattoo and wandered into a tattoo parlor. When that one didn’t have an artist available, she wandered into another. There she was tattooed.

After her lackadaisical attitude towards her tattoo artist, I was surprised when she mused upon returning from getting her tattoo, “You have such an intimate relationship with your tattoo artist!”

Intimate??? But you just met him and let him tattoo you?

“Yeah, but he was a nice guy.”

The mind blows.

Lindsay got her first tattoo at 17, and never stopped. “It’s a slippery slope,” she says. She’s gotten tattoos to hide other tattoos. For her, a tattoo is not that big of a deal.

I decided to adopt her attitude to quell my rather ongoing reluctance. I had been procrastinating this tattoo for months if not years and I could tell that g. was a bit tired of it…and so was I.

The other Sunday g. and I had a date. We met up in Rockridge for some food and bloody maries. They were good.

We talked about the possibilities for the day. I suggested we go into the tattoo parlor by my house…just to see what it was like. We should follow Kim’s advice, meet the people who run the shop and see if we like them and their art. At least to enter a tattoo parlor would be a good first step.

She was surprised by my change of heart, and agreed readily. g. didn’t think we needed to interview our tattoo artist on the basis that we always have good luck.

We walked back to my house to pick up our tattoo design. Each anxious step shouted, “My first tattoo, my first tattoo!”

I told the boyfriend. He didn’t believe us. He’d never believed that we would pull the trigger. Why would he when we’d been talking about doing getting this tattoo for so many actionless years?

We retrieved our tattoo design. We wandered in to Tattoo 13, just a block or two from my house.

Tattoo 13 Oakland

The dudes were nice. Funny. They liked us and we liked them. Well. No time like the present, right?

We went over the design with our guy, Chummy. He’s the third Chummy in his family. He got his first tattoo with his dad at 15, a cross in the center of his arm, surrounded now by layer upon layer of art. Only later would I discover that the East Bay Express named him the Best Artist for Tatto Virgins, just what we were. g. was right, of course. We have all the luck.

The process began. He put the stencil on my arm. I neurotically demanded it be moved up on the right two degrees. He cheerfully complied. I went first.

I hadn’t ever thought about what the actual tattooing process was like. Our tattoos only took about twenty minutes each, but in those twenty minutes I had many agonizing seconds to go over and over again what was happening.

A little needle was piercing my skin. Over and over and over again. Many, many times a second. It was injecting ink into my skin. I was paying someone to cause me pain and inject ink into my skin.

I don’t handle pain well. And, on top of it, I was to get my period about an hour later. And there’s no time of the month when pain hurts the most then right before a lady gets her period. This was not the ideal day for me.

But Kim had told me that this was preparation for child birth. And I definitely want to be prepared for that.

The black outlines were the most painful; the ongoing piercing of the needle (is it a needle?) made my skin crawl. Just to remember it makes my skin crawl.

“Deep breaths help,” Chummy coaxed and entertained me with tales of being a tattoo artist. “It’s better in LA,” he said, “where there’s not as many IV drugs. Up here, shit gets real. I wash my hands like thirty times a minute. And that’s why we’re so careful.” He was alluding to the twenty minutes of prep when they coated his workspace in plastic wrap and got out fresh, sterilized tools.

Jennifer Heller getting her first tattoo.

I appreciated that. I appreciated the glimpse into another world. A world that Lindsay must live in, where tattooing is just like getting your hair cut. Sometimes it has to be done.

It was being done. To me. The color of the snail’s shell and body hurt less. It was more a dull piercing pain. We were almost there.

And then, we were done.

I couldn’t believe it. I had a tattoo. And then it was g.’s turn. She handled it like a champ, laughing all the way through. “This is nothing compared to laser hair removal. Though the pain is a bit different.”

My best friend g. getting a tattoo at Oakland's Lucky 13

We were to get a cocktail after we were through, and at no point in my life did I want a cocktail more than those long minutes with my bandaged arm aching and nothing to do but try to forget what I’d just been through. At last she, too, was done.

Chummy talked us through all the phases. It turns out that we had open wounds. A new tattoo is an open wound. We paid him $70 to inflict a wound on our arms. The mind reels.

The instructions were fairly simple: wash it three times a day with soap, apply lotion. It will scab and look weird over the next few weeks. Don’t pick at the scabs or you might lose some of the dye with it. If at any point we are wondering if we are at a normal stage, call or come in and they’ll reassure us.

Matching bandages covered our matching tattoos.

Matching bandages covered our matching tattoos.

I couldn’t believe how much my arm ached. But it was cocktail time and we were pretty high on the fact that we had finally done something we’d planned for so long.

The cocktails were good, if not great. We enjoyed them and our conquest. Our first tattoos!

The bartender liked us, giving us samples of a whiskey with caramel undertones and a prosecco so light and dry it danced in our mouths.

Outside the tapas bar, g. and I removed our bandages to share our new tattoos on Facebook. At last! Our matching tattoos!At last!  Our matching tattoos.

I bed g. goodbye and headed home to my boyfriend. I had texted Will earlier, “And I am tattooed.” He had responded, “At least you can get it removed.” Oh such support!

At home, bandages off, and the glow of the conquest fading, a different set of feelngs began to set in.

I looked at the tattoo on my arm. It seemed so foreign. That’s the arm that I put bracelets on! Normally so clean, so white, so freckled. The color and darkness! It’s so big and bold and seemingly out of place.

What did I do? Oh, what did I do?

I’m not someone who gets tattoos. There was a reason why I walked into that tattoo parlor earlier at age 31 and untattooed. If you’re 31 and untattooed, you should remain untattooed, I chided myself.

There’s nothing to be done. I can’t get it removed; g. would never forgive me. Oh what have I done?

My arm ached and my head did too. The night was sleepless, filled with longing for the day before when I might have that decision to make again.

I lay awake in the early morning wondering how my professional associates would react. Had I just ruined my career? How would I hide it? It’s so front and center! I can see it every time I look down, whenever I work, whenever I type.

Oh what had I done?

What had I done? My father was going to kill me. And I was going to kill me. I was my father’s daughter after all. It turned out that I agreed with him! Hellers are not to get tattooed.

Oh my goodness. What had I done?

This was nothing to lose a best friend over. And oh did my arm ache. To get it removed would be even more pain!! And I so very much dislike pain. I had painted myself into a corner in a room filled to the brim with snakes and no window to pry open and escape.

In this fog of regret and anguish, I drifted off to sleep.

When I awoke the next day, I showered. I put lotion on my open wound. It ached. I wore a shirt that almost covered it up, and didn’t share it excitedly with my coworkers.

I watched it out of the corner of my eye in our morning meeting. There it was, the commeration of our friendship during our workload discussion. There it was, the celebration of life and happiness while I chatted on the phone with clients. There it was while I went to the bank.

And I liked it.

Questions? Comment? Cigars? Cigarettes?

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