“I’ll never have a tattoo,” I asserted many times, even though I appreciated skillfully created body art—especially full body art. But I don’t like needles and had no desire for a tat.
Yet there I was in Auckland, New Zealand, nestled into a black leather sofa at Otautahi Tattoo. I waited while Randy, my tattoo artist, sketched his interpretation of my idea. I wanted a turtle permanently inked onto my thigh.
I felt awkward getting my first ink at age 65. I didn’t know what to expect, how much pain I’d feel, if I’d embarrass myself being a weenie about the needle. I wondered what the staff thought of an older, silver-haired woman sitting there, waiting for her turn. I also thought that I was kinda radical, this no-holds-barred chapter in my life, taking risks and doing things I’d never done before.
The Otautahi staff didn’t know what an epic adventure I was on, that I’d traveled from the other side of the world to New Zealand, and how the tattoo would be a permanent memory of that place and time. They didn’t know what a big deal it was to me. I wanted the best. I wanted a skilled artist, so I read reviews on the tattoo shops in Auckland. Otautahi was one of the top-rated places.
Otautahi Tattoos was spacious, clean and bright. It looked sanitary. (That was reassuring.) Behind the reception desk, four customers rested on tables while tattoo artists created designs on their arms and legs. One guy was being inked on the inside of his arm. He looked away from the procedure, showing no emotion. It had to hurt.
A 30-ish woman had obviously been “under the needle” for several hours already. Her husband and 4-year old daughter sat on stools, watching as the artist worked a complex rose pattern on her shoulder. The woman stood up to take a break, the skin under the tattoo deep red and a bit swollen. She returned after an hour, climbed back onto the table, offered her shoulder again to the tattoo artist. She didn’t flinch when the needle pierced her tender skin. I realized that not showing pain was an important part of the tattoo culture.
While other customers were being inked, Randy worked on my turtle sketch. I wandered around the waiting area. Skulls were everywhere in the shop.
Randy came into the waiting area to show me his design for my turtle tat. It was beautiful, but HUGE—the size of my entire hand! I’d asked him for something small, about 2” to 3” long, and his design was more than twice that size. We had a lengthy discussion, I insisted on a smaller size, and clearly disappointed, he went back to modify his artwork.
When it was ready, I looked at Randy’s revised, smaller design. It was still much larger than I requested. We had a bit of a design wrestling match because what he envisioned was a traditional Maori design filled with intricate line work. It simply couldn’t be reduced to the size I wanted because the lines would blur together with the natural spreading of ink over time. He wasn’t willing to simplify the internal linework because it had deep symbolic meaning. We were stuck.
After more discussion, we agreed on a turtle outline at half the size he wanted and significantly larger than what I envisioned. It would be a Maori design without the internal linework. Randy was not especially happy about the compromise but he obliged. He transferred his sketch to a stencil which he then applied to my thigh.
Let the inking begin.
I slid onto the table, wondering how much the needling was going to hurt. Showing pain was not an option. Randy put on latex gloves and carefully, thoroughly cleaned the area where the tattoo would be. He told me to hold still, not to move my leg. I tried to relax, to be stoic like the lady with the rose tattooed on her shoulder.
I thought about how excruciating it would be to have needling on the inside of an arm or a bony area like a shoulder, foot, or ankle. I deliberately chose a location for the tattoo that I hoped would be the least painful—my thigh.
Randy started to work. His sharp needle pierced my skin.
I was brave. I grimaced a few times but didn’t make a sound. I was becoming a member of the tattoo culture where ignoring pain was the rule. As the needle dug it’s way into each new part of my skin, I wondered if only the first few minutes would hurt, and then I wouldn’t feel it any longer. No, the sharp biting sensation continued. Lying there on the table, trapped by my desire to be inked, I could only think about the tattoo being finished so the pain would stop.
Twenty minutes later, Randy leaned back and said I was done. Relief washed over me. No more stabbing of the needle, just a dull ache on my thigh. And there it was—the Maori turtle, the memory of my trip to New Zealand—etched into my skin.
That was it. I could go. As I paid my bill, I studied the receptionist’s ink-covered arms. I said to myself, “I’ll never have another tattoo.”