Express & Star

Andy Richardson: Time, and pain, well spent under the tattooist’s needle

My tattooist was smiling. Armed with a small suitcase and more needles than the NHS, she was ready to go to work. A youngster at the start of her career, she’d kindly agreed to ‘fill-in’ a tattoo that had taken 10 hours to complete and had permanently etched a passage from Jack Kerouac’s On The Road onto a still-tender ribcage.

And so we began...

I’d worked out how long it was likely to take and decided that the 90 minutes of low grade pain was worthwhile so that Jack’s ‘burn, burn, burn’ would look a couple of percentage points better than it had before.

I hadn’t reckoned, however, on the perfectionist tendencies of the young gun who was wielding her tattoo gun like a dentist’s drill. Nor, indeed, had I made the mental connection that while the level of pain gradually increases during a long session under the tattooist’s gun, young gun tattooists are blissfully unaware of the pain they are causing those of us stupid enough to get inked on otherwise work-a-day Thursday afternoons.

And so we began. I thought she’d fill in about 12 words. She’d decided to redo the entire tattoo, top-to-bottom, using the previously inked area as a guide so that she could perfect the curve of a U, improve the detail of an A, scratch laser-straight on a vertical L and ensure consistency across a more-than-foot-long area of flesh. Thanks. Would have been great if you’d told me that.

I’ve a strange relationship with stuff like tattooists and dentists. Most people hate them, understandably, for subjecting unnecessary pain and temporarily depriving them of all control. I’m the opposite. I like them just for that. As a kid, sitting in a dentist’s chair was fine. As an adult – fine, alleged adult – being on the tattooist’s couch is similar. The absence of control means my mind slows down for just a moment.

Instead of processing mortgages and books and columns and shows, I’m distracted by the thousands and thousands of tiny marks being made by a razor-sharp needle, just below the skin. And so my mind gradually slows. It stops making plans. It drifts, like Jeff Bezos in a rocket ship, and a strange sense of calm emerges. It’s the same as getting a really good, full-body massage from someone with hands stronger than teak. Gradually, any worries and plans, recurring thoughts and issues are pummelled into submission.

Or they are, in the case of the Jack Kerouac tattoo, until Poppi The Perfectionist spends six hours doing what I imagined would take a quarter of that time. Across a hazy afternoon, my mind had stilled before re-awakening to imagine my right side as some sort of metal plate that would have sizzled and spat had anyone dared to pour cold water on it. It felt like the tongue that’s eaten three-quarters of a really hot madras and is in desperate need of a mango lassi to calm things down.

Still, what fun. We talked of music and books, travel and ambition, the future and the past, people we’d loved and lost and those who were ever-present. Spending time under the tattooist’s needle is the place for an exchange of life stories. It is, I imagine, what it’s like to have a really, really long hair appointment. But with added pain. Though what would I know. I can’t remember the last time I visited a barber, having bought a pair of clippers some years ago and decided to take care of business myself.

As Poppi drew an end to her masterpiece, I closed my eyes. I’d visited all of the happy places my mind could conceive.

She admired her work. “Pretty good,” she said. I winced. “Great.” And then she laughed. “Oh, sorry, I forgot it was a needle and that it actually hurts.”

She Who Must Be Obeyed marvelled at Poppi’s handiwork, though found it funny that she had essentially been drawing for fun without a care in the world, oblivious to the fact that my ribs were being branded with a needle.

Still, that’s not the weirdest thing. Stranger still is that I’ve booked her in for another session. ‘Burn, burn, burn,’ and all that.

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