I hate needles. Always have. The goriest shoot-’em-up movies and the grisliest burn-victim photos don’t faze me, but I shudder at the mere thought of any implement that pierces, pricks, rends, or tears. And the idea of people subjecting themselves to said implements willingly has always occupied a special place in the pantheon of Things That Freak Me Out. Back in fourth grade art class, documentary videos on African scarification sent me staggering to the restroom; self-injury presentations in high school filled my head with dizzying colored lights. The assembly on genital mutilation my sophomore year—forget it. I spent those forty-five minutes with my hands so firmly cupped over my eyes that I thought they might stick.
When I got a blood test last summer, I nearly fainted in the chair. And as I sat in the waiting room afterwards, white as a sheet, munching feebly on a stale cupcake, some switch must have flipped in my brain: enough.
I say must have, because a few weeks ago, out of a desire to face down my fear—or perhaps just out of good old-fashioned masochism—I plunged into the belly of the beast, a place where needles abound and voluntary pain is the order of the day, every day: a tattoo parlor. Granted, I’m not talking about just any parlor; I’m talking about Excalibur Tattoo in Shelton, Conn., a place I knew was different as soon as I caught sight of its ducks.
Yes, that’s right: in a foyer packed with bizarre objects jostling for attention (medieval sword mounted on wall, slideshow of nipple piercings and tattooed private parts running on loop) perhaps the most eye-catching is a bulky crate overflowing with squishy foam ducks. Each duck’s chest reads “I GOT PRICKED @ EXCALIBUR.” Every client who gets tattooed takes one home, and they serve a double purpose: on the one hand, as keepsakes, and on the other, as yielding objects for those clients to squeeze with all their might as the store’s owner, using a tiny machine powered by electromagnetic coils, drives a set of pins into their skin at a rate of 120-140 penetrations per second. Most of these ducks, I’m told, end up decapitated.
Most tattoo parlors don’t have crates of duck toys in their lobbies. But again, Excalibur is not your typical parlor. Most tattoo parlors have racks of pre-designed images, or “flash,” hanging in their main rooms; Excalibur offers only custom designs. Most tattoo parlors have dim heavy-metal music leaking from the speakers in the corner; Excalibur has, depending on the day and mood, a soundtrack of old-timey jazz, or classic rock, or bagpipe music. Most tattoo parlors have a staff of cranky skater dudes trudging around with antisocial hair and rings through their noses; Excalibur has only Charles “Duck” Unitas. Duck is the owner and sole proprietor (“head chef, dishwasher, and all that,” as he puts it), a gregarious middle-aged man with a vaguely avuncular grey beard, a passion for wildly-patterned short-sleeve button-downs, and an uncanny knack for putting his customers at ease.
Duck recognizes, with a hint of pride, that he’s not what you’d expect in a tattoo artist, and since I’m without a doubt the opposite of the typical tat-parlor patron, we make a pretty nice pair. He’s a born storyteller, and I spend hours listening to him spin out his personal history as he reclines in his adjustable tattooing chair, his cowboy-booted feet perched on a high stool, one arm playing with his earring, the other flapping about expressively as his voice jumps between registers.
Duck, who says he picked up crayons as a toddler and never put them down, is a lifelong artist, but he got into tattooing late. For most of his life, he thought only convicts and burnouts had tattoos. In high school, while the stoners who haunted the local auto shop were getting inked, Duck was listening to Barry Manilow and hanging out with his fellow “squares”—those wayward souls not athletic enough to run with the jocks, nor intellectual enough to converse with the geeks, nor chemically-inclined enough to toke with the hippies. During his four-year stint in the Navy, an organization famously populated by tattooed sea dogs, Duck took the road less traveled and hitched up with some fellow shipmen who worked as clowns. He continued his clown act as a civilian, gigging at birthday parties. In his most popular act, he’d walk around with a big foam hammer and offer kids “free headaches,” which he’d deliver with a playful bang on the noggin. After a few exasperating years pursuing an art degree at Southern Connecticut State and a whole slew of odd jobs, Duck found steady work in a profession that once again had him offering up pain to willing customers.
Even today, after more than a decade in the business, he has just one tattoo, a simple bit of Celtic knot-work looping around his left wrist. He did it himself, and got it mostly so that he could experience what his clients were going through. As a Manilow-loving high-school square, Duck would have been shocked to learn that one day he’d have even that single small tattoo. See, he stumbled into the profession almost entirely by accident. In fact, it took an unlikely chain of events—involving an eager brother with six hundred bucks to burn; a rundown, possibly mob-connected storefront in Long Island; and a near-fatal explosion of packing popcorn in a Volkswagen Passat—to get a needle in his hand. When he finally found himself pressing that needle tentatively into his brother’s arm to draw the first line of a Mortal Kombat dragon, Duck still couldn’t quite believe he was actually doing it. He had no idea how deep to push. Does that feel about right, he asked? “Nah,” said his brother, “it doesn’t hurt enough.”
How much does it hurt? In retrospect, that may have been the question that brought me to Excalibur.
The question of pain—the one that inevitably follows the image of toy-ducks-squeezed-headless, the one every nervous customer asks himself on the threshold of Excalibur’s doors—is the persistent elephant in tattooing’s proverbial room. Among tattoo artists and tattooees, there’s little consensus on the answer. “It’s like a tickle and a sunburn at the same time,” one of Duck’s frequent customers tells me. (Then again, this is coming from a man who pierced his own lip with a sharpened nail while still in middle school.) “It just feels like a scratch,” says another. On the other hand, one female tat-enthusiast writes in Self magazine that a couple of flowers on her left ankle hurt more than her caesarean section. Duck tells me that he’s seen an even wider spectrum of reactions in his chair. Some weep. Others drift off to sleep. Still others enjoy it. The subcutaneous vibrations of Duck’s needle actually brought one female client to orgasm during the process—with her boyfriend in the room. (Apparently, said boyfriend was weirded out but totally into it). Several clients—often the toughest-looking guys—have passed out in the chair.
As I listen to Duck talk, there’s little doubt in my mind that I’d fall into that last category. I tell him about my chronic squeamishness, and rather than judge me for it, Duck nods knowingly. Our minds, he says, can’t tell the difference between reality and fantasy on their own. It takes information from the five senses to confirm the distinction. So when the mind signals the body to generate tons of chemicals in response to, or anticipation of, something horrible, and then that horrible something really just feels like, say, a ticklish sunburn, those unused chemicals go haywire. That’s when a tattooee passes out, or when I start to feel lightheaded. Chemically speaking, imagining getting a tattoo can be worse than the actual getting. “The mind is very powerful,” Duck says, “and you’d be surprised what it can and can’t do.”
It should come as no shock, then, that when I drive to Shelton one sunny Thursday morning to watch my first-ever tattooing, I grip the steering wheel a bit too tightly. I breathe a little heavily as I accompany Duck on his customary trip to the Dunkin’ Donuts down the street, where the employees know him so well that they often have his large coffee ready to go by the time he walks through the doors. Today, Duck makes a miniature performance of putting change in their tip cup (shaking the cup in mock-indignation: “What’s this? It’s empty! I’m just gonna have to fill it for ya!”).
At eleven AM, a guy named Ron with a build like a defensive tackle and arms sheathed in ink walks through the front door of the shop. He and Duck joke like old friends: Ron worked at Excalibur a while back as a piercer and apprentice tattoo artist. He’s here now to get some work on his arms finished before he ships off to Iraq in late November, and he’s brought his fiancée, a nineteen-year-old ballerina named Nicole.
This is a special occasion: Ron and Nicole, the soon-to-be-newlyweds, are getting matching puzzle-piece tattoos. It’s about Ron’s millionth tattoo, but it’s Nicole’s first, and so Ron’s dad Randy and their family friend Elaine show up a few minutes later to witness the important event. All the other folks in the room, excluding myself, have at least one of Duck’s tattoos on their bodies, and they’re here to see a loved one join their ranks.
As familial chatter fills the room, Duck goes through his prep work. He sets a paper plate on the counter, smears it with a thin strip of Vaseline, and sticks two tiny caps onto it. He fills these caps with ink, which he stores in rows of bottles that look like transparent cafeteria ketchup containers—one pure black, the other watered down for gray shading. Then, delivering a well-rehearsed speech, he shows Nicole her needle, removes it from its factory packaging, and slides it through a disposable plastic tube, which acts as a guide and a handle and attaches to the machine itself. Each needle is actually a thin metal rod connected to a cluster of one to twelve tiny pins—more pins for a thicker stroke. The butt end of the rod attaches to a spring-loaded bar on the machine, which sits over a series of electromagnetic coils. A long black wire carries an electrical current from the power source to these coils, and 120 times per second, the electricity charges the magnets, the bar is pulled, and the needle enters the skin.
Nicole has chosen to place the puzzle-piece on her foot—she’s used to going en pointe for ballet, and so assumes she has a high degree of pedal pain tolerance. Duck rubs her foot with a Speed Stick to provide a sticky coating for the stencil, then transfers the hand-drawn design onto her skin. He can tell she’s tense and he loosens her up by cracking a couple jokes.
Ron’s here to comfort her, so Nicole doesn’t need too much loosening. I’ll later see customers that walk into Excalibur as if to face the guillotine—real bundles of nerves—and watch Duck pull out a new tactic for each one. “Are you nervous?” he’ll ask, before putting on an agitated, nebbishy voice. “Well don’t be nervous. You’ll make me nervous, my hands will get all sweaty, the needle will slip…” Or he’ll spin a client around in the chair over and over again until she finally stops scrunching up her shoulders. Or he’ll put a hand on a customer’s back and say, “Are you alright?” then raise his voice, look around the room, and repeat, “Are you alright?” then throw his arms into dramatic full extension and mock-shout, as if on the deck of a sinking ship, “Is everybody alright?” His years of practice at clowning, maritime and otherwise, clearly pay off. At the craft of tattooing, Duck is a pro, but at the art of placating a nervous customer, he’s an absolute virtuoso.
No diversion tactic can take the anxious sting out of the next moment, though, when he picks up the machine with a latex-gloved hand and presses a pedal on the floor with the ball of his foot. The needle lets off a sharp buzz, like an amplified bee. Nicole, stoic but losing color by the second, tries not to flinch as Duck leans in, carefully, firmly, a kind of peaceful concentration transforming his expressive features, a craftsman setting to work…
This is where I get queasy. This is where the sight of needle tearing up skin like sandpaper tightens my grip on the latte Duck bought me. This is where I see blood rising up in little thin clouds moments after the needle passes, where I clench my leg muscles, as I learned to do in those high school assemblies, and try to think about the finer points of my recent computer-programming lecture rather than the buzzing of the needle and the slow, gentle rending of the skin.
Eventually the nausea passes. I take a deep breath and a good hard look at the really very mild gore, and my mind finally falls into synch with my senses. And then I notice something interesting.
As soon as the tattooing began, something changed almost imperceptibly in the room. The banter now continues as before, the radio still plays, the DVD screens still display a fish tank video Duck bought at Bed Bath and Beyond. But something about the quality of Nicole’s presence in the space has shifted. Ron and Elaine talk to her as Duck works, and she responds, laughing at their jokes, quipping back at their digs. Yet she’s distracted. A part of her isn’t there. A part of her is gathered up and concentrated in the tiny space where needle breaks through flesh. As the process goes on, her body stiffens and she goes silent. Her fingers straighten out and she places them over her mouth. Nicole is accessing what some would call a very primitive experience: she’s moving more and more fully into a purely and urgently physical world.
Throughout the 8,000-year history of tattooing, the ritual moment of pain has often been as important as the completed tattoo itself. On Bellona, one of the Solomon Islands, priests hand-poked tattoos in time with rhythmic singing and drumming: the sensation of pain was drawn out and segmented, an end in itself. In Hawaii, tattoo artists colored the tips of women’s tongues as part of a mourning ceremony for a dead chief—just as the ink became a permanent memorial mark, so also the tongue-pricking accomplished a kind of corporeal mortification.
When the art first reached America with the addition of the Tattooed Man to the freak show lineup, the grotesque allure of pain was central in its populist appeal: P.T. Barnum advertised his immensely profitable freak Prince Constantine, a middle-aged Grecian inked head to toe, as a white man captured by island savages and forcibly tattooed. Crowds flocked to Constantine’s booth to hear lurid stories of agony and swelling as much as to admire any kind of beauty or workmanship.
Margo DeMello’s imposing Encyclopedia of Body Adornment—perhaps the only encyclopedia of any kind with pictures of subdermal implants on its cover—devotes a whole section, between “Pacific Northwest Indians” and “Penis Piercing,” to “Pain.” Writes DeMello, “Pain is seen as tool for self-transformation, and many body modification practitioners follow the ‘no pain, no gain’ motto in an effort to use pain in order to achieve growth.” Tattooing’s first and most dedicated devotees in the modern Western world were a tough crowd—men to whom overcoming physical hardship was an attractive notion. Back then, even for decades after the birth of the electric machine in 1891, many artists poked by hand. A customer would descend into a cramped shop somewhere in New York or Boston, a slimy den with sketches plastering the walls, and sit backwards in a chair while a grizzled geezer with cigarette in mouth made hundreds of tiny, inky incisions, pausing occasionally to mop the blood with a rag summoned up from a murky bucket. There are whole books filled with pictures of early tattoo customers, many of them wind-beaten sailors: not a lot of smiles to be found.
Duck’s studio, where every hand is gloved, every spray bottle plastic-baggied, and every needle formally goodbyed en route to the sharps container, is a far cry from the abodes of Charlie Wagner, Professor Ted, or Lew-the-Jew. Duck’s rigorous safety speeches and goofy playacting ensure that getting “PRICKED @ EXCALIBUR” is anything but an ordeal. But the pain is inescapable. And to try to escape it in the first place would be, in a way, cheating—or at least missing out on a part of the experience. When you get a tattoo, “the memory of it gets locked into your emotional psyche,” Duck said to me once. “Every time the needle hits, your mind is interlocked with the emotion.”
That’s why Duck doesn’t like flash, and why he refuses to tattoo customers with designs that are just plain stupid (although he made one generous exception for a young gentleman who wanted “100% U.S. PRIME BEEF” across his buttocks). When a figure is etched into your back or your ankle or your arm, when you can literally feel its every contour being imprinted on your person, it takes on a heightened significance.
Randy, Ron’s dad, has a stunning gorilla-head tattoo spanning his formidable bicep. Duck designed it. Multiple psychic readings have identified the gorilla as Randy’s power animal, a fact further attested by a second Duck-made tattoo on his calf, showing his own screaming face merging, like the Batman villain Two-Face, with that of the ape. Whether or not the silverback and its accompanying symbolism had any real import in Randy’s life before the tattoo is irrelevant: once he’s felt each hair and muscle pricked into his arm, that ape acquires a primal meaning.
One of the many images on Ron’s labyrinthine ink-crammed arm is a Calvin and Hobbes design in memory of Elaine’s son, a close friend who died young. Ron wouldn’t have wanted that particular tattoo harmlessly stuck on his body; as with the tongue-mutilating Hawaiian mourners, suffering gives physical shape to mental anguish. The needle makes intangible pain concrete, engraving it on flesh, claiming and commemorating it.
I learn about these two men’s tattoos while Duck is still at work on Nicole’s foot. And by the time the completed puzzle piece sits on her skin atop an angry cloud of swelling, and tiny red drops begin to ooze around its edges like condensation, I don’t feel the lightheadedness that I know I should be feeling. That is, I don’t feel it until Ron, leaning in gently to take a look, suddenly slaps the finished design hard. Nicole jolts up and tries to hit him as he runs away, and the whole room laughs (except for one horrified Yale student who nearly spills the remainder of his latte). Ron says he did it to “set the ink,” but Duck tells me that he’s really carrying on a hallowed tradition: whenever someone gets his or her first tattoo, someone else in the room who’s already been through the process offers a little mild abuse to the tender area. Well, not always mild: Ron claims that for his own first tattoo in Duck’s studio, a whole host of people—employees, friends, passers-by—were invited one by one to attack his raw arm. “They were beating me with two-by-fours,” he jokes.
Finally Nicole is finished. “Alrighty m’dear,” says Duck, lowering the pneumatic chair, “let’s bring you back down to earth.”
Just before I met Duck, I’d been thinking—in the most distant, hypothetical way—about getting a tattoo myself. Before then I’d never considered doing so any more than I’d considered throwing myself at a brick wall or going at my leg with a staple gun. But some little thrill-hungry imp over my shoulder got the notion that submitting to the needle would make a perfect finale for this piece: squeamish young academic finally gets inked! I brought up the idea on a family reunion in Virginia, and met with a carful of disapproval. “Oooh,” said my mother, making a face and trying to think of a constructive way to frame her extreme disgust with the suggestion. My sister chimed in: “If you want to see what it feels like, I can just stick a pin in your arm.” Immediately I started feeling woozy and decided there was no way I could man up enough to do it—the issue became moot.
But then, watching Duck complete a progression of increasingly involved tattoos (including one, in neon green, on a particularly copious bleeder whose girlfriend kept opening his ink-and-blood-soaked paper towels and asking him to read them like Rorschach blots), I built up a level of squeam-tolerance I’d never thought possible. I floated the idea to my mother one more time during a late-night phone call. She raised a point I’d largely forgotten in all my focus on the gory aspects: whatever design I got would be there forever.
I tried to think of something that I’d want engraved permanently onto my body.
A Celtic cross? No, I’ve been to church twice in as many years, and I consider myself Irish only for about a one-hour period every Saint Patrick’s Day.
Something writerly? Pen and ink or some such? Naw, I haven’t really decided on a career, and how stupid would that crap look in law school?
A pretty tree or a bird would look nice, but not nice enough to justify the sidelong glances from potential bosses and mothers-in-law.
That night, I found myself tossing and turning in bed, my squeamishness back in full force. My bare skin felt electric and I registered every point of contact between my body and the sheets with painful sensitivity. I couldn’t stop imagining needles gliding over every uncovered inch.
Before I finally drifted off, I had a wild thought. Maybe my rejuvenated fear wasn’t about sharp objects, wasn’t connected to fragile skin and oozing drops of blood. Maybe it was a more fundamental worry, a writer’s fear: the sense that given pen and ink and the most precious canvas of all, I would have nothing worthwhile to say. Nothing for which I’d be ready to hurt.