Inscription on a Human Canvas

Columbia River Reader, March 2008

There are things old people are supposed to avoid – Speedos, nose piercings, saggy pants. For the most part, I play by the rules. My recent tattoo is an exception.

You might be wondering why someone would be interested in getting his first tattoo at fifty-seven. As my uncle Ed used to say when he ran across a road grader or Czechoslovakian tractor he couldn’t pass up, “I always wanted one of those.”

tattoo2-001-copyBut there’s a little more to it than that. I also wanted something special to serve as a daily reminder of the bond I have with my four grandsons. I opted for a single line of text – Papa and the Boys – beneath the kanji symbol for family on my left biceps. Probably a good thing I didn’t want the Last Supper. My arm couldn’t have accommodated more than one disciple.

I’d heard horror stories about people who’d been tattooed with the wrong kanji. In one case, a guy who thought he was getting the symbol for warrior ended up with something like I’m a proud girly-boy. I played it safe. I contacted Jayne Kolberg, Japanese teacher at Kelso High School, told her what I wanted, and had her send me a copy.

I relied on my brother, who is a graphic artist, to handle the design work. He came up with several versions that incorporated the kanji, and I made my selection.

I probably would have had the work done locally if not for the fact that I’m a regular blood donor. In Oregon, the tattoo industry is regulated by the state. In Washington, it’s not. According to the American Red Cross, I could donate immediately if I got the tattoo in Oregon. If I had the work done in Washington, I would need to wait a year. That – along with several recommendations from friends – pointed me toward Tiger Lily on Sandy Boulevard in Portland.

I stopped by and introduced myself to Drat, one of the tattooists on duty that day. We talked about design and price and set up an appointment. I made a $50 down payment toward the $150 total. When I got home, I sent him the design via email.

My wife said I was a fool to let someone named Drat stick a needle in me. I told her the moniker was merely part of the tattoo culture. Sort of like a stage name. Besides, Drat had a real name – Matthew – and I liked his portfolio.

When I arrived at Tiger Lily for my appointment, Drat and I discussed the size and positioning of the tattoo. Then he created a stencil, which he pasted onto my arm. I told him to make the tattoo as black and bold as possible.

I don’t have an aversion to needles, and I wasn’t especially concerned about the pain. What frightened me was the knowledge that this wouldn’t peel off if I didn’t like it.

tattoo-003-copyDrat used a hand-held device called a “tattoo machine” to force the ink into the skin. It took him about 90 minutes to complete the work, which he termed “very straightforward.” Initially, it felt as though a dysfunctional Red Cross nurse was repeatedly probing for a vein. After about five minutes, the pain faded to a sensation like being scratched with a long, sharp fingernail.

Tiger Lily’s interior isn’t an operating theater. However, Drat was very focused on safety and cleanliness. “State requirements have gotten much stricter when it comes to sanitation,” he said. He wore gloves, applied disinfectant liberally throughout the process, and encouraged me to follow a simple after-care program conveniently printed on the back of his business card.

On the drive home, my arm burned as though it had been polished with a belt sander. There was a little redness the following day, but that, along with some minor irritation, disappeared quickly.

Several friends are appalled that I have subjected myself to branding. Doesn’t bother me a bit. In fact, I have plans for another tattoo, one that celebrates my love of mountain biking. Maybe a mangled sprocket with a reference to an epic ride from my past.

Drat did a great job. The design is precise and striking, and I had no problems with infection or pain. Each day when I see the words Papa and the Boys in the mirror, it puts a smile on my face.

Getting the tattoo was the easy part. Telling Mom will be more difficult.

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