I've known I wanted a tattoo for a few years now -- the weight that such beautiful artistry can carry is so powerful -- but for so long, I was held back by fear. Not fear of the permanence a tattoo guarantees, or of making a design choice I might regret, but of the pain I'd face.
I don't know anyone who doesn't dislike pain. For so long, though, I've let my apprehension hold me back from exploring my life. Even after I decided to commit myself to the perfect tattoo, as I searched for the perfect style, the perfect artist, the perfect size and spot, I was plagued with worry.
What would the needle feel like?
How long would it take?
Would the pain be sharp? Constant? In waves?
The more I researched tattoo stories and advice, the more I worried. It seemed like as I traveled further down this online rabbit hole, I was only becoming more conscious of the ways my appointment could go wrong. Looking back, I wish I could've known how easy the experience would be.
Walking into the tattoo shop, I had high hopes. Burying my apprehension, I watched my artist show her illustration: a pair of flowers, a little larger than the size of my palm, that'd go between my shoulder blades and be shaded with dot work. In seeing my tattoo finally come to life, if only in a stencil, my excitement completely overpowered my fear.
My artist began with a small line. She warned me before the needle hit my skin, giving me a moment to brace for the pain.
Imagine a small cooking knife. If you've ever tested a knife's sharpness, to see if you need to manually sharpen its tip, you may have held it flat and brushed your finger across the point. Imagine the short, almost superficial pain of that scratch. Now, think of the utensil being held upright, as if you're slicing some small vegetable. When you accidentally cut your finger as you're slicing, you often don't immediately notice since the knife's so precise, right?
The pain of a tattoo needle combines those two sensations. It's a light, precise scratching that's like the pain of a flu shot without the latent ache. I had expected the pain to radiate outward, or to sting deep through my tissue, but in truth, it wasn't bad at all. When the needle ran directly over my spine, my fingertips simply curled; I didn't once clench my fists in pain. When the needlework turned to the muscular areas of my upper back, the pain was so negligible that I nearly fell asleep on the table.
The weirdest part? Throughout the three-hour appointment, my artist would tattoo for 4-12 seconds at a time, then pause to wipe my skin down. I got accustomed to that routine well enough. But when she'd take the needle away for long periods -- whether to change the needle or to take a drink -- I found myself wanting her to start tattooing again. It was like I was missing the feeling.
In the days following my appointment, the tattoo became a little more sensitive, like the stinging of a raw sunburn. Keeping it bandaged, washed, and moisturized offset that irritation.
All in all, I had an amazing experience. Yeah, part of me wishes I had known exactly what I was walking into, that I had been able to find some kind of play-by-play for a tattoo appointment. Now, though, I'm truly thankful that I got to work through that rollercoaster of fear and pain and excitement and calm on my own.