May 16, 2003


I guess it started back in Edinburgh about a decade ago. I don't mean that figuratively. I really mean ten years ago. I have a memory of riding down Dalry Road on my bike (or rather, riding up it - the road climbed gently between the low rows of pawn shops, grocery stores, temping agencies), and thinking that I wanted to get a tattoo.

I think I probably had thought of it before then, but looking back now, that's the clearest moment I can recall where the thought was in my head to get a tattoo. And come to think of it, it was also riding back from the paper recycling plant I was working at. The street is grey, the buildings are grey, and the clouds are grey with the approaching dusk. And I'm thinking of a multi-colored frog. Greens, blues, reds.

But in any case, the point isn't that there were distinct moments that I'd thought about it, the point is that I have been thinking about getting a tattoo for years. Something about the idea of marking your body in a permanent way that was fascinating, different, intense, scary, exciting. I was never really put off by someone with a lot of tattoos. Just found them interesting. Wondered what had driven them to do that. As with everything, I think the most interesting thing for me was the reasons why. It struck me that someone with a tattoo had to have a pretty strong reason why. I wanted to be a person with a strong reason why. I guess there are reasons why I wanted that....

But I could never stick with a design for long enough to know that I would want it to stay with me. I'd think, yeah, that sounds cool. But in the end there really wouldn't be that strong of a connection for me to the tattoo, and so, over the course of a few months, despite my best efforts, it would drift away from me, inexorably. I'd sometimes try and hold onto the idea of it past the point at which I knew my heart (or mind) really wasn't in it, but it was no use. Once it had started to slide, there was no way I'd stick with it.

And then, this New Year, while I was back in the UK, I saw it. My connection, and my reason why. Richard gave me this tshirt with a celtic looking knot on it, and some flared green snake like designs framing it. As soon as I saw it, I was immediately drawn to the design.

"Looks celtic", I said.

"Tibetan, actually" said Rich.

And then I knew for sure that I wanted to get the design. Before I even knew anything more about it, or about what it was. The fact that I liked it, it looked celtic and was actually Tibetan, that Richard had given it to me. All of that was part of my reason why. But what was most interesting to me was that when I saw it, the reason why wasn't the most important thing anymore. Because it wasn't about some rational explanation as to why I was going to get this, and what it represented to me, and how that was an integral part of my life, my personality, my state of being, or whathaveyou. I just knew that I was going to get this tattoo. And that was enough for me. It was a feeling, not a thought.


As he brought the needle closer to my skin, he was saying, "Okay, almost there. You ready. Here we go. About to start".

Kind of ironic, considering my phobia about needles, that I felt fine, ready, calm.


I'd chosen the Sacred Rose because it seemed right. I'd looked through a bunch of papers, done some online research, and this one kept popping up. I headed over there on the day I finally got a bike after almost 5 years in the States.

I locked it up at a bikestand outside a community center on Guerrero. I remember it seemed to take me forever to work out how to get the front wheel off (after having one bike stolen because I'd chained the quick release wheel to the rack, you learn pretty quickly) and aligning it with the spokes and rear deraillers so that I could fit the kryptonite lock around the cold wide steel tubing of the rack, through the maze of the back wheel's spokes, on either side of the rear frame struts, through the spokes of the (now released) front wheel, and still with enough room to spare that I could close the lock. This was my first time, but as always, my self-consciousness at being incompetent was creeping up the scale. After about five minutes of struggling, I finally managed it. I checked to see if the crowd of onlookers I felt in the back of my head was really there, and satisfying myself that it was okay, I was just paranoid, I walked away, not even wanting think about how I was going to undo this impossible puzzle and reassemble my new (second hand) bike. One thing at a time, remember?

I walked past the broken glass which had got me thinking about a whole other bunch of bike-related problems when I'd ridden up onto the sidewalk six minutes earlier. Under the scaffolding, and then left at the corner of the street. I ducked into a grocery store on the corner. No internal lighting. Faint feeling of dead emptiness. There was one other customer in there. A skater, buying some gum so he could get change for the bus. The elderly Asian lady behind the counter seemed defiant and slightly intimidated at the same time. She reluctantly gave him his change, and then let me buy a bottle of water. I don't know why, but it just seemed so sad to me that she should have to work in a neighborhood like that, in a store like that, on a weekend, and have to serve arrogant young punks like myself. Not that I consider myself an arrogant young punk, but she doesn't know me from Adam, and I know that Adam is an arrogant young punk.

I took my bottle, and stepped with trepidation into the Sacred Rose. The bar style reception at the front of this narrow room was manned by a mod/Brit pop afficionado. His swathe of black hair (likely referred to by some as a mop) evidently needed guidance every thirty seconds or so, to avoid overwhelming his slighltly plump features. He was sketching a cartoon pistol with a left hand on a scrap of paper, and he turned to a bald headed guy in a black tshirt behind him to see what he thought of the design.

"Pretty cool, man".

The phone rang, and as Liam (he seemed like a Liam, but was probably more likely a Tony) answered the phone, I began to feel a little untended to and awkward. Like someone trying to get the barman's attention for a drink. "Mine's a Guinness, you fucker. Make it two, if it takes that long to get served around here".

Sarada (real name, I asked her later), stepped forward to help me out. A middle aged woman with naturally fiery red hair, she talked me through my basic questions about cost, hygiene, procedure, and, of course, pain. "Like a cat scratching".

"Like a cat scratching what?" I thought. And what kind of a cat. Are we talking domesticated feline, or ferocious wildcat of the tiger family. I mean, the way she said it, it was obviously a standard line. Maybe this was part of tattoo-artist 101. "Tell them it's like a cat scratching. It's painful enough to be believable, but not so painful that it would put anyone but the biggest wimp off. And once they get started you have two hooks in them - or three including your needle" chuckles from the would be tattooers, " - which are that they can't appear to be even more of wimp once you've started and back out, and also, they're going to look pretty fucking stupid with a half finished tattoo."

Overcoming these and other thoughts, I showed Sarada my design, and talked a little about my ideas of what I wanted, and she seemed to think it would take anywhere from two to three hours. I thanked her for her time and thumbed through the portfolios of their artists. One of them stood out. Paul Taylor's designs looked great - lots of tribal and Asian stuff. There was a picture of what I assumed to be him on cover, in some grassy field with what looked like a Russian Orthodox priest's incense ball on a chain. There was smoke billowing out of this contraption, which he was swinging around in a new-agey way. In his other hand he had a smoking implement of some kind (too grainy to tell), and from his own mouth there was a smaller plume of smoke. His was tall and thin, and had long black hair that kind of sat up from his head a little, rather than a kind of Motorhead look.

Could I trust this man with a needle, some ink, and my skin?

"Is Paul Taylor here, man?"

"Yeah, he's kind of busy at the moment."

"That's cool, man. I'll come by later. Do recognize this work" he lifted the sleeve of his tshirt to reveal some blacker than black tribal tattoos. "Yeah, man, it's Paul's work. You know, I had a friend from Sweden who was going to come over here and he said to me, 'Man, you gotta go to Paul Taylor - he's the best'. And this dude's in Sweden, you know."

"Wow, that's interesting."

"My friend from Sweden never came over in the end, but I got the tattoo anyway. I mean, man, he's from Sweden and he knew about Paul. Fuck, man. Okay, later."

This may not have been the best reference I'd ever eavesdropped on, but it kind of sold me. Swedes are kind of crazy, for sure, but if he was going to come all the way to San Francisco to get a tattoo, I figured it must be worth it. If I hadn't done my homework, I could always rely on someone else to have done it for me.


My appointment was at eight on Saturday, April 19th. My friend Dave's birthday. There's nothing particularly spooky or even interesting about that little coincidence, but I thought it worth mentioning in any case. But anyway, my slight problem was that I wasn't sure if it was eight pm or am. I mean, I know the idea of a tattoo artist working at eight in the morning is a little far-fetched, but if there was even a small possibility. And it would be just my luck to get it wrong, miss the appointment and have to go through all the stress of booking it and enduring the anticipation of perhaps the most painful experience of my life again.

In any case, it gave me something to fuss about for approximately three days, until I decided to look again at my appointment card, where it was clearly marked as eight pm. Obviously.

I left the house at 5:45. It's about a fifteen minute drive. Part of the challenge was how to make the time pass when essentially I had nothing to do. I'd spent most of the day trying not to feel nervous about it. I was convinced that I was nervous because I really didn't want to get the tattoo after all, and that after all this I was going to back out. Luckily, I was able to not think about it enough to have a great day cycling around and hanging out.

But now the hour was approaching, and I couldn't avoid it mentally any more. The games were over (or were they just beginning?). I drove towards the Bay Bridge to take me from Oakland to San Francisco, hoping for a huge traffic jam to pass the time. And then Shirl called. Just to check on me. I pulled over to talk to her, and found that after we'd talked, I felt relaxed, balanced. I hadn't even talked about it with her, as I wanted it to be a surprise, and I wanted it to be my own thing. But somehow the emotion of just talking to her had purged me. I snoozed in a truck stop in Oakland for about three quarters of an hour, with the stacks of tanker loads piled up around me, and the awesome cranes towering over me like apocalyptic sentinels.

And when I got there, it turned out that Paul was actually running late - they'd done some remodeling on the place that whole week and this was the first day back, everything was all crazy - and that I'd be delayed til nine. And I was fine with that. I went to get a taco from the taqueria on 16th and Valencia, and ate it slowly. I picked up a copy of SF Weekly and read about the homeless hacker, Adrian Lamo, and before I knew it (well, perhaps with fifteen minutes of clock watching) it was time to head over.

Paul was the only person there besides a shorter (everyone looks shorter next to him) hispanic man who was getting his right arm tattooed. He looked a little different from the photo of the newage stoner kid in the portfolio photo. His arms were heavily tattooed (I took this, much like a fat cook, to be a good sign), and his head was an inverse mohawk. He had two bright red fans of hair on either side of his head, running from the temples to the back of his head, and sticking violently upwards and outwards. Looked like he could knock someone out with them. There was a wide strip of shaved head in between, and the sides of his head were also shaved. Under a week or two of stubble, you could see some black tribal tattoos on either side of his head. And he had two thick earings. One was like a dark bone curled round on itself, while the other was thinner and metallic. He was wearing big black boots, and generally looked like a hard fucking core punk rocker. Added to this visually striking effect was the death metal/viking rock blasting out on the speakers.

Every minute or so, they'd rearrange themselves in an awkward dance as a different part of the arm was subjected to the needle of the tattoo. I'd learn later that evening that this guy was an FBI agent, and that Paul was kind of pissed off with him because he'd been given free reign to design this dragon piece right up until the last minute, and then the guy had said that he thought the background made everything look crowded and he didn't want it. The background tied everything together and made the dragon clearer. Paul was pissed. His artistic interpretation and skills were being trampled on, and at that point, he lost intrest as an artist and took a fuck you attitude.

They took another ten minutes to finish, and then about another ten minutes of wrap up time - clean up, bandaging the tattoo, niceties, payment. All that jazz.

Liam (Tony) had set Paul up before he left so that he didn't have to spend extra time doing that. Saved him (and me) about fifteen minutes. But it was still ten before we actually got started. Paul had to finish sketching the piece on tracing paper, making photocopies, and then stencils from the photocopies, testing out the placement of the stencils on my skin to get the right alignment. It took a few tries, as the piece was to be on my shoulder, and given my bony frame (and enormous muscles) it wasn't exactly a flat surface to work on, and this distorted the piece slightly, so it was a question of playing with it for a while to see what worked best. This was the first time I realized that Paul was a perfectionist. I was like, "Yep, that looks good, let's do it", and he'd be saying, "No, the bottom section's not quite right. I'll do it again." Clean off, reapply stencil, and so on.


I can feel it like a reptilian crust on my back, an outer skin I'm about to shed. For the first day or two it was like a weeping multicolored wound, and then the scab hardened, and now its my armor, waiting to be shed, my shell to emerge from. If I turn around and reach back I can feel it straining to move with me as my shoulder flexes and my back twists.

I moisturize it twice a day, and wait for the scab to peel


He started off by shaving my back. I'm going to assume that's standard tattooing procedure, and not some comment on the hirsute state of my shoulder blades (which apart from a few sprouters, which I'd carefully clipped beforehand, is as spotless as can be). And then, it began.

As he brought the needle closer to my skin, he was saying, "Okay, almost there. You ready. Here we go. About to start".

Kind of ironic, considering my phobia about needles, that I felt fine, ready, calm. I'm not sure exactly what contributed to that, and I must admit that I was actually a little surprised by my own calm (kind of like when I did the parachute jump). Is this a bad sign? Have I just freaked out so much that I've come out the other side of the wheel of panic? Well, whatever it is... Owww. Small oww. This is okay. He's started. I'm trying to not visualise the needle piercing the surface of my skin, and at the same time there's a huge fascination with what it must look like. The dull drone of the needle has begun, and it's punctuated by a slower grind as the needle churns through my skin. I have no idea if churning is an accurate description from anything but my own point of view.

I don't flinch, and I don't make a noise. I treat this needle like a meditation exercise. I try to separate the pain in my mind from the painful. I try to notice the pain, and to isolate it from my own emotional involvement with it. I find this exercise, although not very successful, is kind of soothing. By the time I've even managed to isolate the pain in my mind and have begun to try and focus on it, it stops. His short spurts last pretty much as long as it takes me to begin to focus on it. Which works out well.

This was all part of the plan, of course. I had thought I would do this, and had imagined that I would calmly pass the time in contemplation of the pain that I was experiencing, that it would be a zen exercise for me, and that somehow that was as it should be. That the pain would be excruciating, but somehow I would mentally endure it, and this would mean that not only would the tattoo mean something to me when it was completed, but the experience of receiving it would also mean something to me.

But it didn't really work out like that. Because pain is painful.

Especially after two hours. And once its changed from being a meditative exercise into something that's genuinely painful, there's no going back. Oww. Big fucking oww. And that boney part (my napoleonic tendencies coming out) on my shoulder is _really_ fucking painful. Feels like he's scraping the bone. And so now its about survival. Mentally keeping it together. Trying to think about how long this section is going to take. Looking forward to the next breaking point. My flesh feels raw, and each time he dives in with the needle it's worse. There's a cumulative pain thing going on here.

The saving grace is that whenever the needle stops, the pain stops. This isn't one of those things where there are levels of pain, and once one stops, it just switches to another, so you really don't get any rest. As soon as the needle comes out, I can feel what this will be like when it's over, and that's enough to keep me going through it. For four hours. Four long hours. That, and the music (Western Movie Theme songs, a blast from the past with Ruby's Saltpeter, The Clash), and the conversation. We talk about music a little (I try to explain who Coldplay, Tricky, Massive Attack are to no avail - unless it's punk, Paul's never heard of it), he tells me he's related to Lord Nelson, and is pretty pleased, because I'm the first person that he's told that who actually knows who that is, and that he was the dude that saved England's skin from Boney over two hundred years ago. We talk about the tattoo, and how it's going. Every now and then I steal a glance in the mirror, but I try to keep these to a minimum or I'd go crazy from looking at it every five minutes and thinking, "when's it done, when's it done?". But when I do look, it looks great. First of all there's the outline. It's so black and crisp, so clear. Then there are each of the sections, and every time, they look so bright and impressive, jumping off my skin.

It's when I look that I realise how good Paul is. He tells me that there are different types of tattooes that he does. His preference is for an involved, expansive piece where he is given total control over the content. They tend to be very lengthy, and as a result expensive, but he prefers that to smaller pieces, or just following someone else's design. I know that I'm not his ideal customer - I know exactly what I want, so there's really very little artistry to what he's doing for me once he's laid out the piece. From there, it's pretty much just filling in the colors. His talents are obviously wasted on a piece like mine, but he brings an attention to detail, a depth of experience, and a pride in his work that makes it a very reassuring experience for me.

The piece looks great. The pain in the fourth hour almost defeated me. At that point, everything was painful. It was getting hard to tell the difference between the painful parts (when he was over a bone) and the less painful parts. It was all about the clock. And being after 1 a.m., it was later than I'd have liked. The thought that kept me going was that I didn't want to come back for another session. I wanted this to be it. And it was. Eventually, soon after 2 a.m. we (he) finished.

He cauterised the tattoo with some piping hot water, covered it with some cling-film, and sent me on my way. I headed out into the cool San Francisco air, as revelers rolled out of Mission clubs and bars, and as I leverage myself into the car, I make sure to lean forward so that I'm not leaning against the tattoo on the car seat. I had a feeling of intensity and excitement at having had this new experience while the rest of the city has been going about its usual routine. I speed across the Bay Bridge, elated, tired, relieved.

Paul had given some instructions for treatment. When I got home to Oakland, I peeled off the cling-film cover, and took a quick shower. I was supposed to stand under as hot a shower as I could bear on the tattoo for 30 seconds. So I cranked up the heat, and then stood, counting. The last 5 seconds were close to unbearable. Who had suddenly decided to switch the showerhead with a lava flow?

The fun didn't stop there. I'd tried to avoid sleeping on side that the tattoo was on as much as possible that night, but somehow there was still a mess of green/red/black spew on the bedsheets in the morning. And I had to peel my tshirt off to reveal an imprimt of technicolor blood plasma. Nice.

But that's it for now. At least, until the next one. Which I'd already started thinking about....

Posted by mthaddon at May 16, 2003 08:32 PM