The Stitchery: In General

The Stitchery: In General

A Story by Sabbath_Nikole

A MemoirCreative Nonfiction piece.


Ah, tattoos. The Stitchery, the piece of my mind solely designated to all that is the art of tattoo. Including but not limited to: stories, memories, ideas, relative terms, shops, tattoo artist, all that I know related to tattoos. If I had a shop, if I could hack the immense pressure of being a tattoo artist, it would be called The Stitchery. The idea stemmed from a friend. She had been in a disastrous car accident, but the only mark it left on her was a large scar traveling up one side of her hip across the other to settle across her stomach. Instead of shame and an ugly reminder, she celebrated this mar stretched across her, with a tattoo. Simple black safety pins stitched themselves across the scar as if holding her together. Obviously having enough tattoos myself, ten as of now, the subject is quite important to me. Therefore I find it quite odd that I’ve never sat down to seriously write about tattoos themselves.

Sure they’ve made small appearances in my poetry, inspired and wormed their way into my short stories, but I don’t think I’ve dedicated enough time or writing to the subject. Nor, have I gone to great lengths to puzzle out my fascination with this medium of art. So I hope you appreciate how much time I spent stewing over what form best fits this prominent way of life, the pressure to get all the words just right, in order to reach you, without you completely writing off the subject. Ideally I’d like you to be interested in the subject even if you’re not a tattoo person yourself. Perhaps I’m not writing this just for myself, but to ease ignorance and judgment from our corner of the world.

My current project, a work in progress going on 3 years is my back piece. Large feathered wings slink from the tips of my shoulders down to my lower back. This piece is my pride and joy. I don’t tan, I hardly wear tank tops anymore, and despite it being healed for now, I still rub quite a bit of Aquaphor on it regularly. Aquaphor is a miracle worker. Don’t be fooled into using tattoo goo, or good old fashion A&D. Although many of my friends use A&D, I personally think it smells peculiar. Aquaphor, is mostly water, therefore, it’s not going to irritate your skin. It is simple, clean, and natural. It won’t leech your color nor, leave a sticky residue on your clothes.

Anyway, this project is my baby. After 2 years of multiple 3 hour sessions, over 600 big ones wrapped up in it, 75 percent of the shading finished and half the coloring done I’m nearly half finished with it. And trust me, I did my research. I tried out 4 different shops, have had 5 different artist work on me prior to this large piece, spoke with a few dozen other artist, and a whole lot of other people who had tattoos. My small pieces are pansies compared to this bad boy. Before the wing piece I never spent longer than an hour under the needle. This piece alone has more time put into it than all the others combined. With the smaller pieces I was in and out, no planning sessions or deposits to keep my appointment. They were walk-ins, testers, but that doesn’t mean their significance diminishes any less.

My first tattoo, the Japanese Kanji on my arm, was done at Gene’s where the owner, took roughly a half hour to finish the piece. This guy does great work, but I couldn’t handle his attitude. He was arrogant and talked too much about how great of an artist he was. My second tattoo, the purple star on my middle finger, was done by the same guy. Mainly, because he was the only artist in the area with a spotless reputation and he had more than 30 years under his belt. I didn’t like him as a person; he just wasn’t my cup of tea if you know what I mean. My hairdresser, Darcy who is absolutely, fantastically covered in tattoos, suggested Don at Main Street Tattoo in Urbana. His shop is probably my favorite. It has plenty of open space, not a whole lot of flash on the walls, his portfolio was out in the open, and his wife decorated and ran the place. Therefore, the décor was tastefully done. Don was much too quiet for me. He barely said a word the entire time, and he was extremely heavy-handed. Being heavy-handed is where your artist lets the weight of the tattoo gun rest on you while he’s working. Trust me it doesn’t make the process of getting tattooed any easier. Keep in mind that when you’re doing color work the color has to be saturated, or else it can fade, or not set right. Therefore, you got be heavy with the laying of the ink, and use the weight of the tattoo gun. With a lack of personality, and little to no connection with the artists, I switched to another shop that had recently opened up in Bellefontaine, Touch of Grace Tattoos. My friends love the artist, Don. Me, well not so much. When your artist insults the work you’ve had done in attempts to wheedle more money out of you in touch ups you’re not appreciative. I must say the four black stars on my wrists, representing my family, didn’t look any better than any of my other ink. Needless to say I never went back to him.

Thus, the importance of finding an artist that you dig. Someone who does phenomenal work and that you can carry on a conversation with. For let’s face it, 3 hours under the needle, you’re going to need something to distract you. Find someone that you can tolerate for long periods of time. Also be sure to check their portfolio, take note of what styles they seem to specialize in, and be sure they’re up to date on their certifications for working with blood pathogens. So, when I ran into Gabriel Mendez at a music festival I was elated. He had tattooed many of the different band members at the show. They showed me his work and I set up a time to meet with him. After that everything seemed to fall into place. I coughed up enough money to pay for my first session, the purpose to get the outlining done. A 3 hour session cost me $300. Not including the tip I gave him. And yes, it’s nice to tip your artist they are the one taking a needle and ink to you. And if your artist doesn’t have their own shop, probably half that money that you pay them, goes to paying the owner of the place. I’m getting off track again. Anyway that was my first serious session. Through the shaking, trembling, random spasms, and being wound like a guitar string, I found that I could survive.

You want to know if they hurt? Hell ya they do. I’m not saying that you don’t think being jabbed repeatedly by a small piece of steel hurts, but you’d be surprised how many people ask me that question. Some people I fear don’t think before they speak. I’m sure they’re trying to be appreciative, or are asking how bad the pain was, but all the same think about it a bit before you ask.

The needle is dipped into tiny, and I mean tiny, paper cups of pigment, repeatedly stabbing with neat precision through several layers of skin coming to rest on the layer just before the muscles. The needle seems much to bold, much too violent for such delicate little cups, and much too shocking for sensitive skin. The needle’s movement is controlled by a foot pedal, which, for some odd reason, makes me think of the tattoo gun as a musical instrument. Tattooing a person is definitely art in its raw, primordial form. The permanence of the work alone makes this form revered. Yea, you’ve got laser removal nowadays or cover-up pieces but it’s a story. It’s a memory. Pictographs etched along the wall of the body. Instead of rough rock and charred branches, you’ve got a canvas stretched taught across bone, the glow from within telling the world you are alive.

A tattoo is something that, in all but extreme circumstances, no one can take away.  My ink is my personal “f**k you” to society. For all of those who tell us to be a certain way, that beauty only comes in one form, to the people who think that those with tattoos will never be taken seriously in the professional field. I may not be brash or abrasive in personality, but I do have quite a bit of rebellion in me, I got plenty of spunk to go around. This form of storytelling is my rebellion. The soft-spoken girl, in plain old jeans and a raggedy T-shirt, is my front. I don’t care to make waves, stir up turmoil, or drudge up any angst. I’m not much for politics and I’m not exactly sure I want to save the world through beautifully carved written word. Words, phrases and intent can be twisted, misinterpreted. Take Denise Duhamel’s work: “Don’t sit like a Frog, Sit like a Queen.” A critique or colleague, I don’t remember exactly who, thought that she wrote the piece in all seriousness. This person thought she was lecturing young girls on how to behave. Duhamel said that she was appalled. She pulled the title from a bit of graffiti in a bathroom stall in the Philippines. Thus, words can’t be trusted entirely. They leave plenty of room for colored nuances, and lightly altered shades of intent. I’m writing this down on plain, blue-lined notebook paper, bland and colorless, although perhaps Chesterton would disagree. Just to be transferred, into a computer, changing words and phrasing as I go. But I have too many stories bouncing around about these pictures on my body. I have too many plans, too many projects; I’d like to start, jangling about in my head. Writing these things down in my old composition book is my form of therapy, and seeing how I don’t spontaneously combust, or strangle someone, I’d say my method is working. This is the one way for me to keep some gauze-like shred of sanity. It’s a way to puzzle out my contradictory thoughts.

By chance did you know that a tattooed person can have a deathly fear of needles? How’s that contradiction for you? That’d be me. My grandfather enjoyed the occasional horror flick from time to time, and one day I came strolling through the living room at the exact wrong moment.  I caught a big hulking fellow leap up off an operating table to plunge a syringe, filled with some green concoction, into his unsuspecting doctor’s cheek who then proceeded to convulse on the floor and die. It didn’t help that every time I had to get a shot my mother lied to me. Once she took me to the doctor’s office proclaiming it was just a regular check-up, when a nurse brought in that ugly little syringe. Let’s just say it took 3 nurses and the doctor to stick me. I mean how do you really know what’s in there? They could be injecting you with some sort of disease, and there always seem to be nasty side effects that come with them. A tattoo gun on the other hand is hollow. The needle itself can rarely been seen, as fast as it moves and the majority of it is sheathed in the casing of the gun itself. Unfortunately when you want some serious ink you’re not allowed to run trailing a nasty stream of obscenities in your wake. Tattoo artist get offended that way. Nor are you allowed to jerk, pull way, or tense up while being tattooed.

Squirming leaves a jagged line in place of that flowing segment you were going for. Tensing up can send the needle deeper into the flesh and cause a blow out, so instead of a nice line you’re left with a little blob instead. Completely freaking out is not an option.

When they’re prepping you with a razor blade and rubbing alcohol the nerves can get a bit tweaked, and the process of putting together their equipment seems to exist solely to extend the agony of waiting. The tattoo gun’s name alone sounds violent, but during easy periods of tattooing the gentle buzz of the needle can lull you to sleep. This is only possible, at least for me, when they’re not working around sensitive areas. Every individual has varying levels of pain tolerance. Arms are usually the least sensitive, while I’ve heard people state that the small bird-like bones of the feet are killer, as well as the barren space of the hip, and ribs. I think there are other levels of pain not associated to the different quadrants of the body. For instance, outlines and significant amounts coloring are the worst stages for me. Outlines are difficult because instead of the pain being concentrated over a larger space, it’s focused on the small lines of the piece. It’s similar to being pinched or snapped with a rubber band. It doesn’t hurt all that much because normally you’re only being pinched for a second but that sort of pain doesn’t go away when you’re being tattooed. It’s rather annoying, aggravating, very frustrating and quite painful. You can’t anticipate exactly where the needle is going land. Some artist, the nice ones anyway, will work in sections, and alert you to when their moving to another spot. Some aren’t so kind, they’ll work without any particular method sporadic in their movements, hands fluttering from bloom to bloom of color. Like hummingbirds, they’ll land for a precarious seconds to deposit bright spots of ink, simply to lift off once more.

The shading, now that constant buzz and vibration will send me to sleep, unlike color. With shading the need to saturate the blacks and grays is less extreme. Therefore, the grinding teeth-clenching agony that comes with coloring is mercifully absent. If you can find the right place in your mind you can snag a piece of a nap while the artist works during your session. At least until the artist starts to creep around to your sensitive areas, the soft inside of elbows, the meaty part of the back of your arm, or the tender area around your lower back. I’m not sure how anyone can handle the lower back. I must confess, when the needle started digging into the paper-thin skin above my kidneys I thought I must be stark-raving-mad to want a piece like this. I saw stars and other bright flashes of light beneath my tightly closed lids. The only sharp experience that compares to that sort of pain came once again when we started the coloring. Another bright idea of mine, was to go with color instead of plain Jane black and gray. But if you’re going do a project of this scale you might as well go all the way. Whether it’s a winged back piece, a themed sleeve, or a brightly colored leg piece you have to possess some endurance and determination. Hold them close, they’ll be your only talismans. And once again I’m off on a completely different tangent.

If the outlines are like rubber bands snapping, and the shading can put me to sleep, coloring is like a razor blade, a razor blade that is repeatedly dug into the same spot, over and over again. This repetition is to make sure that the color is saturated. Color tends to fade the quickest, and to prevent this, the needle has to go deep into the skin. The artist will sometimes even use a completely different set of needles, a whole bundle of them. My experience with coloring was similar to the pain on my lower back, except for the fact that it didn’t feel like my artist was trying to torture me to death. Like I said, feels like a razorblade dragged across skin, over the same exact spot again and again. Then you’ve got that burn, the feeling of flesh being seared and scraped away that leaves you trapped in the present. I was unable to think, to focus on anything else for more than 5 seconds at time. I struggled to keep up a conversation with my artist. In those pinpricks of ever present time, my artist had to remind me to breathe. I suppose I feared that any movement of my own accord would jar the needle, or jam it deeper than necessary into my skin. I will admit, and it takes a lot for me to say, it was almost spiritual. The most connected I’ve ever felt to everything around me. It was the most alive; I think I have ever felt. There’s something about pain that brings all the reality of the world rushing in through that small speck of time that feels never-ending. Perhaps it’s because you’re vulnerable, or perhaps it’s your mind attempting to distract itself.  Take a minute to think about it. We are always continuously in the present, but most of the time we’re distracted with past humiliations or future catastrophes. So much so that most of the time we’re not fully in the present, and not truly enjoying the moment at hand. By no means am I saying that getting a tattoo is pleasant, unless you manage to snag a nap. But it is something to jolt you back into the electric sharp reality that we all have to face.

But I’m probably avoiding the most obvious of questions: Why wings? Why of that scale? For me great things come with dedication, by your own hands, endurance, sacrifice, sweat, blood, and sometimes tears. You think I’m being dramatic? How satisfied are you when a project comes into existence by your own hands? How “in the now” do you feel? That kind is of what tattoos are for me, a piece of beauty that me and my tattoo artist think up and etch permanently into skin. But it comes with a price. Tattoos are a form of ornamentation, body modification, and an art where we are the canvas, the medium that bleeds. Images stitched together through needle and threads of color. My tattoo is my personal interpretation of beauty, reality, a cost for rebellion; it is my sense of freedom. Flight breaks the tether of gravity and with that we rebel into the sky. No my wings are in no way divine, call them angel wings and you’ll more than likely receive a well-placed punch in the nose. I’d like to think of them as a little mystery. It’s a symbol, a story. This tattoo has been planned out since I was 12. To grasp a plan, a dream, a desire that long, and to be so close to be finished is unexplainable. I don’t think you realize the sense of completion, contentment, a sense of being whole.

Of course people will “Oooh” and “Ah” over the work but I’ve received more “You’re such a pretty girl why would you do that to yourself?” As if I mutilated my body in some way. Many of people have also asked, “How are you going to get a job with those? People won’t hire you looking that way.” Well, all I have to say is that if their judging me based off my tattoos without knowing me first, I’m most certainly better off without those sorts of people in my life. So they can move along there merry old, dull, and judgmental kinda way.

I’m putting this all out there because I’ve yet to seriously write about the subject I’m so spirited about. It’s been mentioned here and there, speckled throughout a few poems and short stories, but I’ve never dedicated so much time to it. And after several, and I mean several, long sessions and multiple smaller pieces of ink, I think it’s time to put my ink to the page and see where it takes me. It’s high time I puzzled out my relationship with this rebellion, the ache of healing and peeling flesh, the brightly colored symbols that make up the different facets of my life. I suppose I’ll soon find if writing about tattoos is just as addicting as having them stitched in skin.



© 2011 Sabbath_Nikole

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Added on May 18, 2011
Last Updated on May 18, 2011



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