The hardest part of getting a tattoo was walking up the stairs into the shop. I knew I wanted to do it. I'd known that for over a year, and had had the design picked out for months. But it was still scary. I browsed in the jewelry store downstairs. Then I walked around the block: actually standing there staring at the shop seemed a bit too conspicuous. If I'd stood there for long, I might have gone home instead. The shop is up one flight of iron stairs on St. Marks Place: no big deal, but it seemed like a long climb.

When I walked in, I found a pleasant room, with assorted tattoo artwork on the walls, and no people. After I'd looked around for a couple of minutes, a man came out and asked if he could help me. I explained that I wanted something that wasn't on the wall, a tattoo of a cardinal. He asked if I'd brought a picture, and I pulled out Roger Tory Peterson's Field Guide to North American Birds. I took a quick look at the tattooist's portfolio of other work he'd done, more because it seemed like the thing to do--I asked, and he gave me an album of snapshots--than because I had a good idea of what to look for.

While he prepared the stencil, I went across the street to the cash machine, since the shop doesn't take credit cards. I was still nervous, but the ordinary details of putting the card in the wall and getting a stack of twenties helped a bit.

Watching the preparations also helped: I'm the sort of person who asks her dentist questions, and watches the blood flowing out of the arm when she goes down to give a pint to the Red Cross. (My one regret about this tattoo is that I didn't go down to the Blood Center the week before: having gotten a tattoo means an automatic one-year deferral as a blood donor, at least in New York.) Tommy applied the stencil to my arm, then poured ink from large bottles into little disposable cups: if you throw the ink away after each customer, there's no risk of cross-contamination. The little cups also give you something to mix colors in, when you need a shade of blue that isn't in any of your bottles.

The artist could tell I was nervous--you'd have had to be blind not to notice--and asked if this was my first tattoo. In retrospect, I wonder what he would have thought if I'd said no. Once everything was ready, he picked up the tattoo "gun" (it's an electrical needle, really, or rather an electrical device to which a needle can be attached; the needles come in several sizes, and are also disposable, just like your doctor's hypodermic), dipped it in the black ink, took my arm firmly in the other hand, and applied the needle.

And it was all right. Oh, it hurt a little, but well within my tolerance. As he worked, and listened to loud '70s rock music, I asked if he had customers who freaked out when the needle first went in. (I'd figured it was possible, since I had no idea what to expect: my concern had been that I'd be left with an obvious but unattractive black spot or line on my arm if I couldn't handle the process.) Apparently it does happen, and he said he charges them full price. I suppose you could argue for a discount, since they use up less time, but what does he have to lose? These aren't the people who are likely to be back for more work.

Getting a tattoo isn't exactly tedious--there's too much awareness of your body for that--but it is somewhat repetitive. By the time the outline was done, I was thinking fondly of colors other than black. So was the tattooist. The cardinal's feathers are in two shades of red, and Tommy told me he was glad of the chance to use the brighter red: most people who get tattooed want blood red. I got lucky in a couple of ways, by going in early in the day (by Greenwich Village standards: it was mid-afternoon) and asking for original work. The timing minimized the distractions, and the choice of image meant the artist was more interested in the project than he would have been if I'd wanted flash. Oh, I expect he'd have done a competent job, but his heart wouldn't have been in it. As it was, he kept the book open for reference, which is why it now has bright red stains on the pages with the picture and description of the cardinal, and he spotted fine points in the picture that I'd never noticed. That's where the pale blue comes in: it's a highlight color Roger Tory Peterson used in a couple of spots, even though there's no blue on an actual cardinal's feathers. (Naturalism has its limits.)

I didn't spend two solid hours having needles applied to my arm. Some of the time was preparation, and there were a few interruptions, some of them inevitable--Tommy smokes, and stopped partway through for a cigarette--and some because he was running the shop alone that afternoon, so he had to answer the phone. When the door signaled that someone had walked in, I found out why I'd had time to browse. Tommy looked up at a closed-circuit camera, and watched for a minute as a couple of people looked around briefly and left. That's their standard procedure, in part because a lot of people do just that: if you don't leave right away, someone will go out and ask if he can help you. They may lose a few potential customers who look at the flash and aren't impressed, but they also save a lot of conversations with people who get the attack of nerves once they're inside the shop.

A few people, friends of the artist, wandered into the room when my bird was nearly done; one misidentified it as a red parrot, and another recognized it as a cardinal and complimented it. I was pleased--I didn't draw it, but it was my choice, and it was nice to hear that someone other than the artist liked it.

By the time I walked out, with a bandage and aftercare instructions, I was feeling very pleased and a bit giddy. Endorphins. I wandered the streets for a bit, got a bite to eat, and took myself home.

A few hours later, I discovered the second hardest thing about tattooing: not scratching. The damned thing itched, on and off, for almost a week, and if you scratch a tattoo while it's healing you can damage it. So I applied neosporin for the first couple of days, then vaseline, and spent a lot of time not scratching.

People keep asking me, why a cardinal? There are several answers to that, but it reminds me of the person who asked me, years ago, why I like chocolate egg creams. I can answer both questions, but the answers are secondary. I knew I wanted a cardinal on an emotional level: the reasons why came later, and some of them, oddly, came after I got the tattoo. The simplest reasons are that cardinals are beautiful birds, and that they aren't a common tattoo image. Much as I love roses, I never considered getting a tattoo of a rose; it's a cliche, and I didn't have anything in mind to make a rose tattoo personal, though I've seen it done. Beyond that, cardinals stay in the north all winter, adding a touch of color to a winter woodland that, to my eye, can be desperately in need of it, a landscape otherwise all in shades of gray, sometimes under the aching blue of a clear cold sky. The cardinal is a bird of the place I live, the place I was born and have chosen to come back to: by putting it on my arm, I have both acknowledged and strengthened that connection. But I wasn't really aware of that aspect until I'd done it. I don't entirely believe in magic, but I can't entirely deny it either--the tattoo has changed the way I think, and I did it on purpose, but I didn't know what effects it would have. This doesn't mean that I can't leave New York, but it has become a bit less likely that I will. And one answer, one a bit difficult for someone as verbally oriented as I am, is that if I could tell you all of what the cardinal meant, I wouldn't have needed to get it. Some of the meaning is not in the cardinal, but in the fact that it is a tattoo, in the process of getting it: I am what I have done, and one of the things I have done is to have this ink put into my body.

A jpeg of the tattoo is here.

Copyright © 1997 Vicki Rosenzweig.

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