The First One

It is hard to believe that is has only been two months since I first stopped by to visit an old friend at the tattoo parlor on my way home from church. At that point I really was just curious to see what the process looked like and to see if I could learn a little about what made a good tattoo design. I really liked the idea of someone wearing my art but I didn’t really think it was at all realistic that I would actually be the one to put it there. But this past weekend (6/3/18) I actually took a machine with needles in it and ran it across another person’s skin leaving indelible marks.  I feel like I need to state that again: I took a machine with needles in it and ran it across another person’s skin leaving indelible marks.

Before Pic

Scott, who I am doing my apprenticeship under, decided I was ready and volunteered himself as my first guinea pig. The arm that I worked on already had several tattoos that he had gotten from other apprentices over the years. He did not like the way the Moai seemed to just be floating on his arm so he asked me to add a chunk of earth for them to be sitting on as well as some extra vegetation. I took contact paper and stuck it to his arm and traced the existing tattoos and then stuck it to a white paper and made some photo copies. I then sketched the new design a few times until we both agreed we had a good solution. A new photocopy was made and the drawing was then traced with (a special kind of) carbon paper underneath it to create the stencil. We then shaved his arm, cleaned it, put a special stencil medium on it and then carefully placed the stencil in its place. I did not do a great job with that. I had it slightly tilted so that the left side matched up well but the right was off. I thought maybe I should start over but Scott said that since it was my drawing that I should be able to fix that part as I went. As it is his arm that will have this drawing on it forever and ever I conceded.  As his apprentice I have been setting up and breaking down the station for a couple of week now, so that part went pretty smoothly, but then it was time to actually start the tattooing.

I was incredibly nervous, like heart burn and maybe going to be nauseous kind of nervous. For a minute I thought I might just chicken out and go home, call my little tattoo adventure over and start carving avocado pits again, but I didn’t. I took a deep breath (or 10) and then I did it. My first lines were very tentative, so light they had to be gone back over, but gradually I forgot to be as nervous and just focused on going slow and steady and following all the lines. I tend to want to go too fast. There is a question of when to get more ink. Right after refilling tons of extra ink comes out making it hard to see the lines, but then it clears up and you can really see where you are going for a few lines right before there is not enough ink left to create a solid line. This is compounded by the fact that you need to wipe away the excess ink so you can see how you are doing but you do not want to wipe away your stencil. It seems that it is better to err on the side of too light/not enough ink because even if it needs to be gone over again the line will be visible so once the stencil is gone you will still know how to continue. If the design is not one with heavy outlines you can start with what is called “blood lining” which is just using water and going over the whole stencil so that there are literally just red marks on the skin that can be filled in with color.

Initial Lines
More formed lines

Though I didn’t want to purposefully do bloodlines I let myself relax a little about having the first line be the perfect line and went ahead and traced all the lines on the stencil. Then I went back and shaped them into thicker more artistic looking lines. This part was more intuitive and by the end I was actually enjoying myself.

I did not look at the clock right when I started but the timestamp on the before pictures and the pictures I took of the lines after cleaning up his arm show about two hours. Overall I feel like it went well. There are definitely some lines that do not look great. There is one leaf on the far left side of the image that I absolutely hate, but you really should not go over the same area of skin more than 2 or 3 times so I had to leave it. Scott says eventually he wants a dark sky to come down from the sun at the top of his arm and fill in behind the Moai and that when we do that my ugly leaf’s outline will disappear. But there are more lines that look good than ones that look bad. And once we add color it will change the feel entirely. If you do not finish in one day then you have to wait 3 to 4 weeks for the skin to heal before you can go back in and add color and/or shading. Right as I was finishing up the line work an actual customer came in so I broke everything down and re-sanitized and set it back up so he could work on her. Once hers was done and I had cleaned up everything again I thought we were done for the day. I had come straight from spending the entire morning at church (early service, committee meeting and late service so I could try and fill my meal calendar for Family Promise next week) so I was getting tired. But Scott decided we should go ahead and do a little shading on the chunk of rock before we left.


I reset up the machine, this time with a widely-spread 7 mag needle instead of the 7 liner we had started with. We watered down two caps of ink, one a little, the other quite a bit. I actually thought from watching Scott work on other people that the shading would be easier than the line work. It is more forgiving because of the nature of shading, but because of the wide spread of needles it becomes very important which way you are making your stroke. If you go sideways it will make lots of tiny lines like cross-hatching, which is awesome for tattooing a feather, but not really what you want for a chunk of rock. I had to go back over several areas to try and get rid of those lines which meant some areas are darker than I would have liked. Scott kept reassuring me that it was fine and that when we come back in with color I will like the way it looks, but I was not as pleased with my shading as I was with my lines.

I think I will need a lot more time practicing shading before I will be able to create the type of effects I am going to want. A line is a line no matter if you are painting, drawing, carving or tattooing, but shading seems to be more particular to the medium, and in the case of tattooing does not seem very intuitive so far. What I am not so sure about is how I am going to be able to go about doing the practicing. I do not want to put ugly marks on anyone, but the truth is that some ugly marks are going to have to be made before I can get to the beautiful ones. Until I am certified I cannot tattoo anyone other than myself or people who work in the shop. The other apprentice said I could tattoo her if she could tattoo me, but I really don’t want to make her that promise. I guess I need to start studying up on blood-born pathogens so as soon as the shop owner says I can take the certification test I am ready to pass it. Once I have the certification then things open up a lot. Then my brave friends and any of the area’s meth-heads in search of cheap tattoos can come in and I can practice on them.

Until Sunday I kept thinking that I was just being dramatic and that the fascination with this would pass. I knew I was enjoying the juxtaposition of the bank and the tattoo parlor, as well as the fact that I have kept what I am doing a secret from most everyone. I thought I would only go so far and then get bored and go explore something else, but now I am not so sure. This might not just be a drastic way to distract myself from loneliness. The idea of a creative process that I enjoy deeply and I can actually make money at, well, wouldn’t that be novel? A combination studio/gallery/tattoo parlor might be just what the mountains of western North Carolina need.