On the morning I was scheduled for my appointment, I woke to loud thunder and lightning. I got up and walked in the dark through the living room and stood in front of the glass sliding door to watch. Interestingly, there was no rain. I love thunderstorms, so I stuck around for a few minutes taking in the bright flashes and long rumbles. I knew it was too early to get up, but clearly, the storm was going to be the start of my day.
And I was ready. There was no trepidation, no second thoughts.
No, this wasn’t an important job interview or a post-treatment follow-up with my oncologist; it was finally feeling fearless enough to make a “someday” wish be today. I was heading to a tattoo studio.
My past cancer definitely played a role in this decision, but I had become equally inspired to do this now because of a 2009 blog I had read recently written by my old high school friend Lissa who died of cancer and who wrote of her desire to get a tattoo. Sadly, she had waited too long. That full story is HERE.
It wasn’t a new idea. For years, I had known what type of tattoo I wanted, it was just giving a final shove to the “this is permanent”, “this is inappropriate” and “what if you hate it?” incessant devil sitting on my shoulder. My vision was to get two feathers (representing one) as it randomly floats downward; softly landing. The mental image, taken from a movie, speaks to me on how life events can fall and land in seemingly random ways.
Now I needed a good tattoo studio and artist. Utterly clueless, I went online and found reviews and photos of several studios. I zeroed in on one because it was only about a year old and looked professional. I clicked on the “Our Work” link to review the different artists.
I’ll admit that I was leaning towards a female artist. When I saw the name “Melanie”, I knew that I had to click and review her work. She had several ink designs of “two” tattoos close together and one beautiful one of four colorful butterflies right near the ankle right which is where I wanted mine. After my close friend Pam asked for tattoo studio recommendations on Facebook and this location was mentioned, it was a go. I was definitely feeling the synergy with Melanie and decided I wanted to work with her.
The next step required going into the actual studio a week before to briefly discuss the design. Melanie handed me her card and requested that I email her examples of feather styles I liked. I asked whether I could apply my lidocaine cream I still have for flushing my chemo port and she didn’t think that was a good idea because it can make the skin “rubbery.”
The pre-visit offered me the opportunity to confirm cleanliness and its location. I also put down a $50.00 deposit. I asked Pam if she would go with me and she replied “I wouldn’t miss it” and offered to drive us there.
Storms were threatening again when we pulled into the parking lot. Melanie was ready. She was holding a large tablet with a graphics app on it and showed me her design.
I liked her feathers a lot. I did notice that one was clearly larger than the other which concerned me because it was meant to be the “same” feather floating down. But she explained that although it was two images, it was still one design and there couldn’t be too much space between them. This required her to tuck the one feather in towards the other which made both the feather and the distance between them a little smaller. It would be a slightly more symbolic image of a floating feather.
It was quite easy for her to enlarge, reduce, and shift the feathers around on the tablet. Through a couple of buttons, it was also easy to show me all the color variations. I had requested some blue and some purple (purple was Lissa’s favorite color.)
While she finalized the artwork and sent it to a specialized printer to print it out on a special type of paper, she had me read and check off 16 items on an online document including asking whether I had bloodborne pathogens, had eaten in the last 4 hours and of course, whether I understood the risks. Check. Check. Check.
The paper she printed out was an outline of the two feathers, in their exact size and final positions. She held the paper near my ankle while I stood so she could determine their placement. Then, she transferred that image to my lower leg/ankle while I remained standing. In a sense, it was like applying a temporary tattoo.
Guns N ‘Roses’ “Sweet Child O Mine” was playing as I sat down in the large, black leather La-Z-Boy-style chair. I didn’t think of this until later, but it was like a dentist’s chair (not that this fact is much of a selling point.) As she prepared her vials of ink, and swabbed my skin, the tune segued to the Eagles’ “Hotel California.” This was going to be an experience.
I had to get comfortable on my left side with the right side of my right leg facing up. It was a little awkward, but she provided a pillow to place between the knees. Pam was sitting on a comfortable, matching black leather bench directly to my left and would occasionally stand and take photos along the way.
Melanie asked “Is this your first tattoo?” and I replied “yes.”
“Ok, she said. “First, just let me know when or if you need a break, want to stand, or need me to stop for a minute, that’s no problem. Are you ready?” And she injected the first needle into my lower leg.
“How does it feel?” she asked.
“It feels like a small bee sting” I said.
She replied “yes, I hear that. I also hear it’s like a cat scratch. Now, you’ll only feel it about 1000 more times” she said smiling. I wasn’t quite sure whether she was exaggerating or not.
The process had begun. I will add here that I tolerated the instant stop and start bee sting sensation well, but there were a handful of times when it went on longer and I bit my lip, slightly stiffening my body.
First, she used the black ink to outline the image. I didn’t catch everything she did, I almost didn’t want to watch too carefully as I could see she used several paper towels to wipe both ink and small amounts of blood off the skin. But generally speaking, a tattoo artist can guide the tattoo machine (artists in this field strongly dislike the term “gun”) into a fine line or a bold one. Quite quickly, they can create shadows and/or blocks of color. The feathers had some intricate details and I would take quick glances to see it taking shape. As she was adding the white color for highlight and inside the feather stems, she was quite pleased and announced “it was going to look spectacular.”
The artist in the next cubicle over was working on a man, maybe in his early 40’s who was getting a half sleeve (halfway down the arm from the shoulder.) It was actually his 4th session to complete it. When the artist got up and left for several minutes, the shirtless man stood up and leaned over the half wall separating us saying “hey, that’s going to look great.” I thanked him and both Pam and I repaid his compliment on his almost complete full-size dragon. It was all so casual and comfortable like this was my 100th tattoo.
From discussing the design and inking the custom tattoo, it took about an hour and 40 minutes. She charged me $250.00. I had researched prices in advance, and that was an appropriate average. I tipped her 20 percent.
If there was one area I had not fully researched, it was regarding aftercare. I was given directions to go and buy gold Dial soap (I have no idea why it had to be gold) and Aquaphor cream. For the next 5 days, I was instructed to wash the tattoo with the anti-bacterial soap and apply the cream 3 times a day. I had to be careful with placing the leg where it wouldn’t rub too frequently against furniture or my other leg. I could shower, but no swimming or baths. Then I should continue to use the Dial, but switch to an unscented hand lotion for, at least, another week. I also had to keep it out of the sun. She said that “in two weeks, you can get your life back.”
I understood what she meant, but she was far more correct than she realized. The very existence of this new artwork on my leg was a part of the process in taking my life back. I want to live it and I want to live it as best I can on my terms. I don’t ever want to say that I waited too long to act on something. I feel empowered by this artwork.
I love looking down at my new ink. It’s like a little piece of my spirit has risen to the surface. I did it for me, and I did it to honor my friend Lissa whose passion for life helped me get there.
Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.