As I walk in through the front door of the tattoo parlour, my pulse immediately quickens at the sound of the needle. It’s an unmistakable sound, angry and buzzing like a supercharged swarm of wasps. It is the primary tool of the tattoo artist. A wickedly sharp needle connected to an electric motor, it enables the tattooist to create works of surprising intricacy, but is also the main method of dispensing pain. Pain and tattoos are inextricably linked, and it is not possible to have one without the other. It’s simply a part of the process. As I walk further into the studio, I wonder if the pain becomes alluring to some, an agony-induced rush that cannot be replicated by any other means. A ragged groan sounds, rising above the buzzing of the needle. It is not the sound of someone enjoying themselves. Everyone is different, I suppose.
The parlour is clean, tidy, and mostly empty today. The tang of antiseptic fills the air. Appearances mean a lot in this business. No longer are tattoo parlours the hangout of bikie gangs, criminals or other undesirables. Artwork of surprising beauty line the walls; a delicate Japanese print of a samurai, a surreal traditional painting of a flower-laden skull, exploding with vivid colour. Professionalism and legitimacy are important parts of the image of the modern tattooing industry, and this studio has clearly aimed to be in line with such an image. It is not a trendy studio within the inner suburbs, where artists are in high demand and often booked out six months in advance. Located in the outer east along a busy main road, walk-in traffic and word of mouth are vital for a place such as this. The studio must be inviting, friendly, and, most importantly, the work must be good.
James and Michael are the two artists working today. Both are heavily tattooed, which is comforting in a way – they have felt the pain and live with the permanence that is the nature of tattoos. James, in his early-twenties, is excitable and talkative. Having just completed an apprenticeship, he approaches every job with enthusiasm, and has a habit of talking constantly to clients even if they aren’t talking back. Perhaps some find the constant chatter soothing, a way to distract themselves from what is happening to them. James’ father was also a tattooist, ink ingrained in his family not only on skin, but in tradition. He is hunched over the ribcage of a middle-aged man, halfway through a detailed piece that envelops most of his right side. This is where the earlier groan came from, and I can understand why. Bony and extremely sensitive, the ribcage is a notoriously painful place to get a tattoo. Michael, slightly older and more reserved, sits behind the counter. He doesn’t tend to talk to clients, preferring instead to focus upon his work. Not much of a talker myself, I appreciate his approach. He looks up as I near the counter.
‘You’re a bit early, mate. Haven’t finished copying your design yet,’ he says.
Coming in early isn’t always appreciated, I have noticed. It’s almost as if the process of his preparation is ritualistic and private, not intended to be seen by others. This tattoo parlour may be one of the few places on earth where the advice ‘Be five minutes early’ does not hold.
‘Yeah, sorry about that. Just thought I’d come in a little early this time,’ I say.
Michael eyes me suspiciously. Perhaps my arrival during his preparation makes him feel rushed, robbed of being able to complete his routine to schedule. Another explanation could be the inability to fathom just why someone would want to be early to an appointment that mostly involved having pain inflicted upon you. Whatever the reason, I get the distinct feeling that I should leave him alone. I walk over to the tattooing tables, where James continues to work. Essentially massage tables, most work will involve lying down on them at some point. Despite being padded, they are never comfortable. James continues to talk at his client, who lies red-faced and silent, hands clenched into tight balls at his side.
‘G’day Luke,’ James says, looking up from his work. ‘You’re in today, yeah?’
‘Yeah, Michael is doing it,’ I say.
‘Nice, nice,’ he says, nodding. ‘Thought I was doing you for a second. Was going to have to tell you to come back tomorrow – this one will take a while.’
James has a habit of being somewhat flaky with his appointment times, as I have discovered in the past, but he doesn’t mind people arriving early. Everything is open and accessible with him, in contrast to the more guarded nature of Michael. I look down at the silent man on the table. He doesn’t look like the sort of man who would be getting tattoos, but that definition is becoming increasingly vague these days. I know he probably doesn’t want to talk, but I decide to risk a conversation.
‘Looks good,’ I say. ‘How does it feel?’
He looks up at me. Drops of sweat fall from his face and onto the table. His skin, flushed red earlier, has now begun to pale as the ordeal of the process takes its toll. His eyes lock onto mine. I get the feeling that I have asked a profoundly stupid question.
‘How do you think it feels?’ he spits. ’It bloody hurts.’
I nod. There really isn’t much else to say, and he obviously isn’t in a chatting mood. It occurs to me that tattooing, despite usually being derided as a realm beset by regret and poor decisions, does have advice to impart: sometimes, you have no choice but to grit your teeth, endure, and hope that it in the end, it will all be worth it. Both in life, and in ink.
That the man doesn’t seem a likely candidate for a tattoo isn’t altogether surprising. Tattoos have become increasingly accepted amongst mainstream society, and have subsequently seen an explosion in popularity. 19% of all Australians, or one in five, have a tattoo. Whilst traditionally seen as meant solely for the young and rebellious, over a third now get their first tattoo at twenty-six or older, with 20% of people waiting until their mid-thirties to go under the needle. Although some will never be accepting of the practice – my mother being one such person – it seems that the long-held image of the ‘typical’ type of person to have tattoos doesn’t exist. Now, it seems, it is all of us.
In many ways, this surge in popularity has seen tattooing move away from its roots. Its popularity amongst women has soared, with women now more likely to have a tattoo than men, almost one in four. Linked traditionally to masculinity, modern tattoos have now become a common feature amongst both genders, shifting dramatically away from its male-dominated historical basis of naval tattoos and bikers. However, it has not completely abandoned its past. As with most forms of art, artists often look to the past for inspiration and influence. The current popularity of traditional tattoo design, which stems from the naval tattoos of the early 20th century, is a result of this. The resurgence of this style, with its bold outlines and intense colouring, has replaced the more familiar tattoo designs of inspirational phrases and tribal symbols, with over half of all tattoos now being a picture, or drawing. Tattoos have certainly come a long way, both in artform and acceptance. However, some contradictions remain. Whilst it is true that more people than ever are likely to have more than one tattoo, about 26% of people answer in the positive when asked if they have ever regretted getting a tattoo. This paradox lies at the very heart of tattoo culture – why, after all, would someone continue to get tattoos, when you end up regretting them? Despite the advancements made, it seems some clichés about tattoos may hold true after all, which raises an altogether unsettling proposition: perhaps my mother was right, and I will eventually come to regret my tattoos. I hate it when parents are right.
‘Ok, I’m ready to start,’ Michael says, beckoning me over with a wave.
I walk over and sit down. Little thimbles of ink are lined up on the bench, each held in place with a smear of Vaseline. Fire red, emerald green, golden yellow – these colours will soon be punctured into the skin of my arm, where they will stay to be faded only by time and sunlight. Michael tests the tattoo gun which responds with a piercing buzz. Already I can feel sweat forming on my hands. My pulse speeds up. The anticipation is almost like a drug. People with tattoos do say that it is hard to stop at just one, and perhaps this is the reason why. It is this thrill that they chase – the pounding pulse, the sweating hands, a way to feel alive. Michael dips the tattoo gun into a thimble of black ink. The outline is always done first, with shading and colouring done later.
‘Good to go?’ he asks, tattoo gun held in air.
‘I’m ready’ I say.
I never really know if I am, but I always lie. It’s usually good enough. The needle touches the skin of my arm. Biting and sharp, it is akin to a few small cuts at first, an annoyance more than anything. It eventually grows over time to feel like shards of molten glass tearing at your skin. I am not anticipating a good session. The inside of the bicep is another notorious location for a tattoo, eliciting grimaces from those I asked about it. So far it isn’t too bad, but I know that time is the enemy. It will only get worse.
As Michael works, I think of my mother. Every tattoo I get would invariably bring forth similar statements. ‘I hope you still like those when you’re seventy’ she would say, shaking her head. She would then repeatedly point out that they would be there forever, as though that fact had somehow escaped me. As the needle worked its way across my skin, it occurred to me that ‘forever’ is a term without much meaning to those in the present, which is most of us. It is simply too vast and shapeless to have any opinion on. Besides, when I’m seventy years old, will I really care what I look like? As Michael pauses to swab blood and ink off my arm, I realise that tattoos are a peculiar mix of both impermanence and perpetuity. The tattoos we get now represent ourselves at that moment, but people are not static. They change, grow, and evolve over time. Tattoos mark these representations permanently onto us, where they remain unaffected by the ever-changing person who inhabits the interior of the skin. They will all come to serve as constant reminders of a present long-gone, for better or worse. If the only thing I regret in the future is a few tattoos, then I think I will have made it out from life well, all things considered.
As the pain grows, Michael pauses to refill a container of ink. I look at the tattoo that is beginning to take shape on my arm. The black ink stands up prominently, forming ridges across my skin. My arm is already beginning to swell. The skin of my arm has turned an angry shade of red, indignant that I would be allowing this to happen to it. I take a deep breath, and await the return of the needle. I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else.