Of Pain & Beauty
The Price of Beauty
The web is full of sappy "My First Tattoo" stories, eagerly Googled by those considering their own first journey under the needle. I read my share of them getting ready for my long anticipated tattooing, and now that I've done it - why I'm going to indulge myself and write my own. Hopefully it will be a little bit different - and far more detailed - than most of its genre.
As I had gotten my ears pierced for my 40th birthday, I had been thinking ever since about what I wanted for my 50th. I toyed with the idea of a navel piercing (being that I'm a Belly Dancer and my navel gets lots of public face time), but dismissed that idea after seeing a dance sister give up on hers after a nine month period with no healing. UPDATE: A year later, I did it! I now have a navel piercing, joining my many dance sisters. We'll see how it heals - so far so good!
Being around so very many Belly Dancers, of both the Tribal flavor and of the Cabaret variety, exposed me to many tattooed dance sisters. Around age 43 or 44, I started entertaining the idea of joining them with a tattoo of my very own.
It was however, not a decision I reached lightly. Unlike many/most people (as I found out much later), I thought tatts looked great on girls, but not so much on guys. I finally figured out it wasn't the fact that the tattoos were on girls vs. guys, it was where they were and what they depicted! Well - duh!
Oh, but what to get, and the always important where to get it? It didn't take long to figure out the "where" - the quintessential place for a Belly Dancer to get a tattoo isn't the belly (although I've seen my share of tattooed bellies), but the lower back (at least among Belly Dancers on the West coast where said tatts are very popular!). Easy to show off in our midriff baring costumes, easy to hide in mundania; it fit the bill as far as I was concerned. I also have come to regard the lower back tattoo as the most beautiful of all tatts, finding them quite attractive on a dancer who is shimmying, doing Maias, or other hip work.
It took quite a bit longer to figure out the "what". My top priority was something that would enhance my beauty, not detract from it. The standard type of tattoo most males get just wouldn't do. A flaming skull for instance, while very cool, wasn't what I had in mind, it had to be in keeping with my "Quest for Beauty", my inner vision of myself as a Belly Dancer...
By about age 47, I had my inspiration:
Public domain image found on web.
Found on the web "somewhere", it had the beauty I was looking for, and I became very enamored of the idea of the "Black Rose" and its dark beauty. It indulged my sometime inner Goth, as well as looking nice. I didn't care too much for the barbed wire, and I wanted the symbolism of 3...
Photoshop is a wonderful thing. I did a quick hack job around my 49th birthday to make it a bit closer to my desire, knowing the time to actually do this was rapidly approaching...
Quick hack job modification.
This gave it the three Black Roses I wanted, compressed it down to a more classic lower back tatt shape, but still had the un-desired barbed wire and it occulted the "architectural" element in the middle. Still, as a quick hack job, it would do to show the artist.
Now this whole time I had also been doing TONS of research. I talked to everyone I could find with tattoos, but most especially lower back tattoos and got them to tell me their story; especially the ever-important "how much did it hurt"? As the decade of my 40s passed by, I became increasingly interested in Tribal Belly Dance as a supplement to my Cabaret style. I realized I wanted something that was "Pretty enough for Cabaret, yet edgy enough for Tribal" - and felt my chosen idea would fit the bill nicely.
I also was researching tattoo artists. I realized right away that whatever else I might need in an artist, the artist HAD to be a woman. She also needed to be familiar with Belly Dancers and our aesthetics, and preferably be a dancer herself. I just wasn't prepared to trust this to a guy, although there certainly are plenty of most excellent guys that could have done me up proud. Being accustomed now to the company of women, and my associations with female dancer/artists such as Lana and others, I just felt more comfortable.
When I was in Seattle for the Saqra show in 2008, I spoke with "Gypsy Jill" on the phone - I had researched her at length and felt that she would be a very good candidate. The fact that my sister lives in Seattle was a bonus. However a far more local artist came to the fore - being local, she'd be far easier to work with, do touch ups with, consult with, etc. I was first told about this lady by The Mighty Siwa, upon whom she had practiced her craft - and I liked what I saw. This paragon of artistic talent was Teresa Lane Scoville, of Staircase Tattoo in nearby Santa Cruz.
I started asking around, and Googling both her and the shop. Everything came back roses - no pun intended. I also learned that she has done a huge number of Belly Dancers' tattoos in her 20+ year career. About this time, I found out that Gypsy Jill had taken a hiatus from tattoo work due to health issues - an aggressive brain tumor. As I write this, Gypsy Jill has passed on - which is a very sad loss for the tattoo artist community as she was the recognized authority on many aspects of tattooing, and literally wrote the book on tattooing safety/cleanliness. It just wasn't meant to be...
Getting back to Teresa, I knew that she had a 2-3 month waiting list, which is pretty standard for a good artist. As I wanted my tattoo ahead of my actual 50th birthday (I really wanted to be able to show it off at ANAS), I went for my initial consult with her in early March, taking the above two pictures with me.
Teresa turned out to be a very professional lady who answered my questions readily, and saw no problem whatsoever with my idea. I told her my philosophy of letting an artist run with a core idea, she was very pleased and receptive to that idea! She also told me that she is a Flamenco dancer and ex-Belly Dancer as well. Perfect! That cinched the deal as far as I was concerned. We made a three hour appointment for mid May...
Then the agonizing waiting began. I talked to even more dancers with lower back tattoos. One gal told me that unlike her shoulder tatt, her lower back tattoo was the worst pain she had ever experienced, even worse than childbirth! Just what a nervous "tattoo virgin" needed to hear, even if said dance sister added that she'd "do it again in a heartbeat". Some told me it hurt worse over the spine; others, such as Didi, told me the exact opposite! As the weeks counted down to days, my apprehension grew. It finally occurred to me that most people getting their first tattoo get a relatively small one in a location reputed to be "less painful". So of course, here I am doing it backwards, getting a relatively large one in a place reputed by all accounts to be one of the most painful of all. I don't like to generalize, but "generally" women have substantially better pain tolerance than men - what on earth was I thinking? "Men don't get tattooed on the lower back because they can't handle the pain - blah, blah, blah..." All kinds of crazy stuff was running through my head!
So at last, the day arrived - down to Staircase Tattoo I went. I brought a dance bag with a jug of ice water, a couple of bags of chips, and some energy bars - "just in case". I wore an old pair of harem pants and a crop top - the same outfit that I wear to dance classes. By this time I was actually calm. I had taken a couple of Motrin as Teresa had told me that doing so would be fine - however I'm not convinced that they did a darn bit of good!
Teresa was very professional, and helpful. She explained that this was not her first tattoo - but that it was mine. I'd been planning this for years, and anticipating for months, and that it was natural for me to be a bit scared/nervous - I didn't know what to expect! Yea, she got that right!
First, she showed me her artwork of my concept. Even though it was just an outline, I gasped in awe: "WOW!". Pleased by my reaction, she said "That's a good sign!". She positioned it over my lower back and asked if the size/placement was OK, or if I wanted it smaller. Although I had envisioned it slightly narrower, and a fair amount less tall, it looked so magnificent that I chose to run with it as it was. After a sterilization of the site, and a shave, she transferred the design to the skin with a kind of carbon paper. We examined the results in the mirror again. With my final approval, we got ready to get down to business...
...When in the door walks Didi! Now Didi, like T.M. Siwa, has several tattoos and had been teasing me over the previous couple of weeks - and threatening to come in "to laugh". Of course, she didn't laugh - she was very supportive and as it turned out, I was VERY glad she was there for the first hour or so.
Teresa warned me that she was about to start the outlining - by all accounts the most painful part of the process. I was straddling the tattoo chair backwards, we discussed my posture a bit - and then she started...
My first thought was the oft quoted "that's all there is to this?" that I'd read in various places on the 'net. The frequently described as "like a cat scratch" sensation was close to what I was feeling - close, but not exact. In fact, the whole experience cannot really be described with total accuracy - "if you've been there, no explanation is necessary; if you haven't, no explanation is possible!".
Pretty soon however, the pain increased as Teresa moved around with the outlining. There were times when it was no less than a hot, searing pain - very intense! Some have described the pain as "exquisite", something I can now understand. Didi coached me things I'd heard/read in my research: "relax into the pain", "ride the pain", "let the pain flow through you" and "don't forget to breathe". Such sentences meant nothing to me before, but now I was gaining a rapid understanding! Especially "relax into the pain". This idea worked for me - the more I accepted the pain, the more I literally relaxed into it; the less it hurt! Instead of tensing up and trying to pull away - I relaxed right into the needle, the very heart of the torment.
Teresa warned me as she worked that I'd get all kinds of weird sensations/pains. Which I did - the overloaded nerves radiated pain in strange ways - often in my belly which was a long way from where she was working. I was starting to "get into 'the zone'", managing the pain and flowing with it. I was feeling fairly pleased with myself when suddenly...
I was feeling very light headed, slightly nauseous, very overheated, and had a pretty good "buzzing" sensation in my lips and fingers. I was about to pass out - I was shocky. My first thought was extreme annoyance with myself - yep, here was the male not being able to handle the pain - BUT there was just NO WAY I was stopping now! A partly outlined tattoo (Teresa told me later that it was about 1/3 outlined) was not an acceptable outcome! I wouldn't be able to dance like this...
Teresa stopped. Both her, and Didi started helping me. Didi - thank Goddess she was there! - started fanning me with a piece of paper she got from somewhere. They stripped off my crop top, and had me drink some of my ice water. The two ladies, as well as the male artist from the next stall over (Didi's artist) talked me through it. The nausea and light headedness passed, but the "buzzing" continued. They let me get up and eat an energy bar. The buzzing gradually subsided. After about five minutes, I felt that I could continue on. Then all three of them told me that this happens to just about everyone ONCE - and that I most likely would have no further problems. They were quite correct - BUT this was something NO-ONE had told me would happen, NO-ONE had written about it in their Internet accounts; but I've since corroborated by asking several other tattooed people: "Yea, that happened to me!".
We only stopped two other times, both for less than two minutes. Once because I was getting "pancake butt" from sitting so long, the other for a potty break. I didn't want to stop for long because I didn't want to come down from the endorphin "high" and have to start over with the pain management. In my case I was like Didi: the pain was worse - way worse - the further towards the sides Teresa was working. The pain was VERY intense - I cannot compare it to childbirth 'cause that can't happen to me - but it was the worst pain I've ever experienced. But the endorphins made it manageable - at one point I asked Didi why I had this stupid grin on my face. "You're enjoying it, silly!" Maybe that's where the "exquisite" comes into the pain...
All in all, it took 3-1/2 hours - about 1 hour more than Teresa originally thought. The shading, as often reported, didn't hurt as much as the outlining for the most part - but as the roses are dark (by my request), the outboard ones were still quite painful. I spent most of it sort of draped over the back of the chair like a wet dishrag - just processing the pain - and I guess enjoying it! Like the gal who said she'd "do it again in a heartbeat" despite it hurting "worse than childbirth" - I would too!
I had resisted the temptation to look in a mirror on my potty break, I wanted to see the tattoo only when it was completed. As the only thing I had seen was the outline drawing, it was quite the surprise when Teresa was finished. We had discussed the shading at the beginning of the session - as Teresa explained that was where the "trust me" came in.
So when I saw it in the mirror the first time, I was awestruck at its beauty:
Picture taken the day after...
Picture taken three weeks after...
I mumbled something to Teresa to the effect that the "roses look real!". Teresa bandaged me up, and gave me the aftercare instructions (which I followed religiously!), and sent me on my way with a congratulatory "You made it!". It wasn't until I got home and was able to take a picture and study it (that's the problem with a back tattoo of any kind, you can't see it directly), that I was able to fully appreciate Teresa's artistry. The roses, the leaves and stems, and especially the supporting architectural element look three dimensional. Awesome, just awesome!
Many people have warned me that tattooing is addictive, that once I got one, that I'd want more. I don't particularly feel the need to ink my body up like some people do - but there is this idea of a small lotus flower on the back of my neck...
Six Month Touchup
Six months to the day, I was back in Teresa's chair for a touchup. As she had said, she strengthened some of the lines (mainly to give it a longer lifespan). It wasn't nearly as painful - I only had pain radiating out of my belly a couple of times, and not nearly as intense. I didn't go through a shocky phase, although I could feel myself getting close. Fortunately, it was only 35 minutes in the chair this time, - making the total time for this tattoo a good solid four hours.
6 Month Touchup
5 weeks later. The re-worked lines have "calmed down" and look like they belong.
Symbolism and Meaning
Ok, so I'm no dummy. I know full well some of the less than complimentary names given to a lower back tattoo. Although I'll jokingly refer to it as my "tramp stamp", due to the popularity of the name, the truth of the matter is that I'd never truly feel that way about one.
It was very interesting when I was at the mirror inspecting Teresa's handiwork at the six month touchup. When I mentioned that I was "inspecting my 'tramp stamp'", a HUGE amount of tension went out of the air - or so it seemed to me! I could be wrong, but I think that everyone there was worried that I "didn't know", and that I'd be upset if/when I "found out". Maybe it was my imagination, but the sigh of relief was almost audible, and there was some relieved seeming joking and laughing as a result!
Yep - I did my research. "Think before you ink.".
A slightly updated version of what I wrote to one of my tattooed dance sisters a few weeks "before":
To me, its all about beauty and being a Belly Dancer. I want symmetry, and beauty. This is the most beautiful of all tatts - to me. It symbolizes everything I've written about in my Gilded Serpent articles, as well as on my website. If I were to get an arm piece (or whatever), I'd just be yet another guy with a tatt. I want more than that, I want beauty. Its kind of hard to vocalize: but its above all else dedicated to the many beautiful dance sisters I've been privileged to dance with - both inked and non - who have inspired me, and encouraged me, to seek my inner beauty and follow my bliss. Of course my inked sisters also inspired me to get inked myself!
It might even give better visual enhancement to my almost non-existent hips, drawing the eye thereto. The only time anyone's going to see it is when I'm Belly Dancing - "you" either understand, or not! The audience will either like me or not - LONG before I turn around and they see that tatt.
Besides, it also appeals to the contrarian in me. Where else would a guy who Belly Dances; wears skirts, earrings, makeup, nail polish, long (Hennaed) hair, hair flowers (or other hair "stuff") in order to do so; get one? I've always wanted to experience everything the wonderful world of Belly Dance has to offer - this is yet another facet of same.
The three roses have multiple symbolism for me: the classic Maiden, Mother, Crone; the Holy Trinity (for my Christian* side); the Threefold Law (for my Pagan side); my parents and I; my wife, child, and myself; the riddle of the Sphinx; male, female, and those who walk in-between. Maybe even "Three Rings for the Elven kings under the sky..." It is, as everything in my life is, dedicated to my patron deity, the Goddess Athena.
The rose itself represents beauty and my quest therefor, the thorns represent the pain I've had in my life - as does the black color; but the black and the thorns also indulge my Goth side!
* I hesitate to use the term "Christian" - it is a word with many negative connotations, and certainly NOT used here with the usual meaning. "Pagan/Spiritual follower of the Christ" would be a better term.
So, I'm a straight guy with a lower back tattoo (or if you insist, a guy with a Tramp Stamp). Big whoop. My internet research shows that I'm hardly the only one, although we're a bit rarer than male Belly Dancers. Hey! Maybe I'm the only male Belly Dancer with one - at least until someone copies the idea!
Teresa herself told me this was her first male lower back piece in her 20+ year career tattooing. She'd done plenty of male lower backs, but only as part of a larger full back artwork. So all this means what? Absolutely nothing beyond the fact that I love my tattoo - and my dance sisters, while not unanimous, overwhelmingly love it too! I've received many compliments on it, even some from people who don't particularly approve of "male tramp stamps" who have told me: "It suits you". It gives me something unique. I'm content.
Put into context with a costume...
Makes it look all the better!
I'm very happy with my new inkwork. I'd recommend the experience to anyone - its an initiation of sorts. To guys who might want to poke fun at my so-called "girly" tattoo I say this: "Are you MAN enough to handle the pain that is usually reserved (by YOUR account) for women? Some tell me its worse than childbirth. Can you handle that?".
I cannot close without giving kudos once more to Teresa. Yea, I sat there for 4 hours (total) - like a damp dishrag as I mentioned before. Teresa also sat there for the same time - and worked hard. I saw her working the kinks out of her arms during my two short breaks - she had to keep the skin stretched correctly, bear down with the tattoo gun, and keep the whole thing on track. Good tattoo artists are expensive - but I can tell you they truely EARN their money!
I'd lastly like to thank all those of whom I'd asked so many questions: Gia, of New Jersey - a (tattooed) dance sister who has always been supportive of my particular brand of lunacy (even if she doesn't always agree with it!); The Mighty Siwa, a teacher and dance sister who wears her crone-hood with pride; Didi, another teacher and dance sister who both inspired me, and helped me through the process. And lastly, but not leastly: All my tattooed dance sisters who willingly answered my stupid questions about their tattoos, shared with me their experiences, and most importantly inspired me in the first place. You are my heroes. You know who you are.