The phone was ringing, ringing-please don’t pick up-ringing, ringing – rigid with suspense, I waited. I bit my lip. I was getting cold feet.
“Studio Zee.” Low and jaded, a woman’s voice cut across my lingering apprehension.
“Oh! Hello!” I fumbled, tossed out my sweetest phone voice.
“Tattoo or piercing.” The response was clipped and icy. This was a statement, not a question. She was a bored traffic cop, herding me to the left or the right, and she had answered the phone this way thousands of times. I somehow managed to regain my voice, and, setting a consultation for 7:30 that evening, I snapped my cell phone shut.
The August sun splashed across the office, slicing through the towering stacks of volumes and documents lining the walls. Over a hundred footnotes, red pens, Post-It flags, and a heap of books on Dutch courthouses lay scattered in familiar chaos over my huge desk. I was alone in my summer office, deep within the Yale Law School.
As a research assistant for a law professor, I was striving to excel as an intellectual. I knew the rhythms and movements of this high-stakes academic game, its strategies and pitfalls, its risks and payoffs. I was comfortable in my element, armed with a highlighter, reference texts, and my own drive. And yet I was wavering at the brink of an imminent foray into the unknown. Convinced of my own insanity, I said to myself, “Tess, tonight you have an appointment at a tattoo parlor.”
From first through eighth grade, I was most comfortable in black watch plaid, lace-up shoes, and Polos. My worst offense was chattiness. I took quizzes on the rules of lacrosse and the Hail Mary. I spent my days cloistered in an all-girls Catholic school perched on 27 rolling green acres of Maryland suburb. Afternoons slipped by as I stretched at the ballet barre. I did all my homework on time, and I never once skipped school. I was not popular, I played by the rules, and, for two weeks when I was twelve, I wanted to be a nun when I grew up.
Even during high school in the District of Columbia, I didn’t feel the attraction of the unexpected until my senior year. I was still a nerd through and through, but I broke out a bit on the brink of Yale. I ate lunch with boys. I flirted with the skater guys and hot shots. I did flamenco in the hallways. I used four-letter words in my creative writing assignments. During spirit week, I came to class dressed in black denim and leather. And yet, by most standards, I was a shockingly vanilla second-semester senior immune to the allure of serious rebellion. I successfully confused everyone by barely toeing the line, and I loved it.
After I marched down the graduation aisle in crisp white, Yale handed me a blank slate and no bridle, so I naturally ran a little wild in the costume closet, picking and choosing and layering and casting off. I slacked off occasionally, stayed out till the wee hours of the morning, cursed to elicit reactions, began my weekends midweek. I relished the fact that people knew nothing about me and fully exploited the opportunity to avoid simple definition. Nonetheless, I never went off the deep end. I remained unable to relinquish my desire to be in control. Truthfully, I barely dipped my toes in the rapids. I was in Directed Studies, frequently “that sober girl” at Beta, and a witness to many long nights erased from everyone else’s blacked-out memories.
Impossibly, I have managed to blaze through two years at Yale without waking up dazed in an unknown bed, arriving hung over to a morning seminar, or beginning a term paper the night before. And yet, I never stayed in on Thursday nights, rarely even on Wednesdays. What was wrong with me? Was I going to utterly lack tales of my mischievous college days? What was I going to tell my grandchildren? That I was occasionally tipsy off cheap champagne? I resigned myself to the fact that I was still an incorrigibly good girl from pony tail to high heels.
So when I considered permanently injecting ink into my mostly pristine life this past summer, the idea hit my plaid-clad, book-hugging self hard. And that, of course, is why I couldn’t shake it.
On the evening of my August phone call, I revisited the results of my Mapquest search: 920 State Street, well beyond my stomping grounds and light years past my comfort zone. I stood on the front porch of my summer apartment building on Lynwood, fidgeting as I waited for the Yale Transportation Service. I was minibussing-it to a tattoo parlor. I reflected on my clothing choices. A navy polo dress, pearl earrings, bronze flip flops, a messenger bag with the Berkeley Crest. I looked every inch the fresh, young, well-kept female off to a beach town coffee shop to get in some good reading before supper.
Who did I think I was? I tried to visualize myself with my sun-bleached locks, scrubbed, moisturized skin, and Moleskine notepad strolling into an establishment that specializes in permanent body art and piercing, whatever, wherever. I really, really needed a motorcycle and some mean, studded boots. In my mind, the place was definitely dark, on a less-than-inviting street, manned by nocturnal individuals who set off metal detectors at airports. Recalling the voice of the woman on the phone, my skin prickled. I feared the worst. I called my mother. She suggested a companion, but this was out of the question-I needed to undertake this mission alone. I wasn’t even getting tattooed. I was going to gather information, compare prices, finalize the details of my design. This, like buying a car or choosing a boyfriend, required serious thought, diligent research, and extreme circumspection. I was preparing to make a permanent commitment, and, true to form, I refused to be rash. I had to be fully informed.
Nonetheless, I was gradually letting go of my vice-like grip on the direction of my life. I felt like Emma Bovary on her way to a clandestine rendezvous with one of her lovers: restless, determined, manic. Seduced, I was definitely not in total control. Though I told my next-door neighbor that I was going to interview a “local artist” (a stretch, but tattoos are art, I thought to myself), I was subconsciously tapping a dark, deep-running current, refusing to acknowledge that I was following its course. And yet I was listening, acting, allowing myself to be pulled forward. Coursing in my blood was something the Spanish call duende, a word that is untranslatable because the concept is too fundamental to permit dissection. It is a basic attraction to the mysterious and the passionate, an understanding of the connection between suffering and love, and a deep respect for the aesthetic and the sensual. Like the opening strains of the flamenco guitarist, this inner voice painfully stirred something in my bones. It was irresistible, a call to action, a llamada. This bizarre pull explained the presence of leopard print in my wardrobe alongside oxford and argyle, the continual dancing, the awe of physical grace, and the persistent desire to emblazon an image permanently on my skin.
hat kind of clientele do you have?” I asked, looking hard into the young tattoo artist’s pale, bright eyes.
“That’s like asking what the weather’s going to be like today. We get everybody. We get doctors, lawyers, kids off the street who think they’re gangsters. We get Guilford moms. Tattooing went mainstream in, say, 1995.”
As I looked at the striking maroon walls and gold curtains, the spotless office, and this kind man who approached his vocation with gravitas and skill, I realized the depth of my own pretensions. Tattoo art was not a game. People inside Studio Zee were fulfilling their vocational callings; their work was serious; their business, clean and highly professional. These artists could discern all kinds of motives in their clientele. I could only wonder what this man thought of me, with his clinical directness, his strong handshake, his gentle humor. He patiently listened to my specifications for the tattoo’s design and location. He gave me prices, medical information, time restrictions. He ignored the slight waver in my voice, my breathlessness, and my air of inexperience.
“Why do you do this?”
“What, tattooing? Because I love it.”
Oddly, during our brief exchange we found common ground. I was soothed; he, perhaps, warmed by my uncommon interest in his handiwork, my naive openness, my youth, my desire to learn.
During the bus ride home, scribbling, I felt nauseous and gleeful. I was drunk on the thrill of this strange hunt. I had stood calmly and somewhat coherently in the lobby of a New Haven tattoo parlor jotting cold, hard facts about turning my smoky imaginings into an inky black reality. I didn’t run away when one of the artists shouted across the counter, “Yeah, he should be done soon. They’re doing the red of the stripes in the flag.” Visualizing a large male torso with an American flag rippling across it, the skin red and agitated at the edges from the invasion of the ink, I was exhilarated. I thought back to my next-door neighbor. Why had I evaded his question? There could be no more shame, nor any further balking.
As August persisted in its russet languor, I found I could not abandon my quest. I perversely craved permanent evidence of a decision entirely my own. I kept finding hints scattered through the summer days. Dictionary.com’s word of the day on August 18th was “tattoo”: “1.) A rapid, rhythmic drumming or rapping. 2.) The beat of a drum, or sound of a trumpet or bugle, giving notice to soldiers to go to their quarters at night”-the same rhythmic call I was increasingly unable to ignore. I found a black card amongst the remains of my trip to Rome. I had picked it up at a club party held in a huge white building, a vestige of Mussolini’s attempt to build a new Rome. Beneath a drawing of a bleeding hand, it read: “Mela Tattoo Studio.” The studio of apples. Tempted, I pondered. The strains of that hidden guitar called to me, the steps of the llamada unfolding in my brain. I could feel the pounding of my heels, the rushing of adrenaline, the burning of the muscles in my legs. The composition birthed already in my mind, I felt the weight of my own role in its execution, subsumed in its larger unity.
I visited other tattoo parlors. In each, I listened and watched, heart thumping. I was a voyeur, blending with my surroundings, feigning total confidence. In one, I overheard a woman dressed sharply in a pencil skirt and leather sling-backs discuss in low tones the script she wanted written on her inner wrist. The tattoo artist was reluctant. Her design was too small and he feared it would blur over the next decade. Perhaps the name of a lover, I thought. I sensed that she needed it done now, that she, like me, was afraid of turning back. She looked sleek, straight-edged, and yet so urgent to ossify this momentary desire. A man in full military blue walked in with a piece of paper. With trained grace and power he walked up to the counter and asked if the studio had time for a walk-in. Yes? Let’s do it, then. He disappeared into the back. Eventually, I slipped the business card into my bag and returned to the hair salon, wondering what would have happened if I, too, had seized the moment like that put-together woman, that navy man. How different was I from them? Did it matter? Should I care? How much more time did I need?
Late in the month, I was on the phone in the library of my house. I had been mulling over my idea for days, replaying and reconsidering my experiences, wavering between total conviction and terror. As I sat tracing the designs of the rug, I listened to the low, male voice on the other end tell me he had something to say about tattoos. Really, I thought? More dissuasion, no doubt. Like many close to me, he was perturbed by my quest. Though he had never articulated his qualms, I could pick them out of his mind. My fascination with tattooing myself seemed odd, out of line, unduly impulsive. He was confused by my behavior, unable to pin down the element of my character that pushed me in this renegade direction. He had wondered, weeks previously, at the note I had left him in a book he borrowed. It was titled: “Things I Would Like to Do With You.” Among the items of prospective joint experiences, I had listed thunderstorms and tattoos. He had looked up at me, running his eyes up and down, taking in my clean, fresh composure and apparent lack of worldly blemish. He looked down at the note, paused, and asked, “Tattoos?”
That day on the phone he carefully told me about a new technology that injects ink in the form of tiny sealed pellets, forming a picture in the way a color printer forms a comic strip illustration. The benefit, he said, is that these tattoos disappear when struck with a laser, since the pigment does not bleed into the skin. Voila. Easily removable. “Thought you might want to know,” he said.
Yes, I thought, good to know. And for a while after our conversation, it seemed like an easy solution to the objections, the insistence that I would be dissatisfied, that I would change my mind. But no. These long summer afternoons had given me time to digest the magnetic pull of my quest. Freshly twenty years old, I had a great sense of both the fertility latent in the future and the rare, transient power of this moment in time. A quarter of the way through my projected lifespan, something primal stirred within me, drawing me towards a private act of self-claiming. I felt a need to stand alone, stripped free of the identities that had clung to me through life. Ultimately, I found tattoos beautiful and my skin a blank canvas all my own.
This was not an act of rejection, but of renewal. It was no longer about toeing the line. A sudden shedding had left me raw, shell-shocked by a newfound sense of power. I owned this vessel, and I felt compelled to run its young, smooth hull through risky straits. I was not sailing in a fleet of other boats, I was in full control of the rudder, and my course was not to be influenced by the destinations of the boats native to my calm harbor.
When I’m ready, there will be no tiny, sealed pellets and no painkillers. I will be alone, in New Haven, with no minibus, no companion, and no doubts. No one will know the day or the hour. I will take a cab, wear jeans, and bring cash. There will be no going back. As I feel the first sting of the needle, my brain will play back the opening strains of the llamada. It will be full-throttle or not at all.
Tess Dearing, a junior in Berkeley College, is an Associate Editor of TNJ.