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Unconventional Wisdom: Permanent self-expression

Whether it’s a tribal armband, a nautical star or a reminder of a loved one, tattoos are a permanent, and painful, form of self-expression. More than three years after my first time under the needle, I decided to take the plunge again and get a little piece of self expression etched on my ankle.

The first obvious question anyone without a tattoo will ask is, “Did it hurt?” And the obvious answer is a resounding “Yes.” It is, after all, a needle pushing ink into your skin. However, it is a truly unique kind of pain. It is more of a continual discomfort than a straight pain. And though it sounds slightly masochistic, it could be described as a good kind of pain.

My first tattoo was a “tramp stamp” on my lower back, an experience totally different from the tattoo on my ankle. Getting a tattoo in a place where you can watch the process is wholly unnerving. Adrenaline pumps through your blood the second you step through the tattoo parlor’s door and hear the constant hum of tattoo guns.

After walking in, a series of preliminary events can also cause the heart to run overtime. First, you must complete some basic paperwork, signing your life — or in this case your skin — away. Then the artist should give you a brief consultation, going over the placement of the tattoo, how long it will take and asking whether you have any health conditions that may affect the process. The area where the tattoo will be placed is shaved, cleaned and prepped for the needle. The artist then places a stencil of the tattoo on the body part to ensure you are satisfied with its location and design.

After all the preparation, it’s needle time.

I was lucky because Jason, my artist, was also my friend. If you are thinking about getting a tattoo, a friendship with an artist can make the whole experience much more comforting. Also, since the piece that I was getting done was small and simple, my actual time under the needle was only about 15 minutes.

Even though I have been through the process before and Jason was a comfort, my nerves were still a bit rattled. I thought I had forgotten what it felt like, yet as the needle touched my skin, I remembered it all. The outline of a tattoo is the most painful part. The only pain I could use in comparison is constantly picking at an open wound. Since the outline comes first, the pain is shocking for a second. However, the body has its own defense and the mass of endorphins makes the experience tolerable.

In my case, this time the outline was done before the pain got really intense, and Jason was on to coloring it in. Coloring in the tattoo hurts far less, and is more of a sting. It feels a bit like someone slapping sunburn.

After filling in the color, the area is cleaned and covered. Jason explained to me the follow-up maintenance. Basically, keep it clean, moisturized and out of the sun until it scabs and heals. Small tattoos require less attention and after-care than bigger, more detailed artwork.

The days after you get tattooed are fun, because you get to show off your piece of colorful flesh, and stare at the permanent accessory to your body. Getting a tattoo in a place visible to you makes it that much more interesting. Whereas I often forget there is anything on my back, I catch a glimpse of color on my ankle and smile.

The combination of self-expression, the adrenaline rush and self-gratification that come with getting tattoos is what makes them addicting. However, the addiction and a rash decision can cause you to be stuck with someone’s name or an off-the-wall item on your skin forever. When a tattoo is well thought out and planned, it is a rewarding and exciting experience. Since so many people today have these miniature works of art, negative attitudes about tattoos are changing.

Well, at least in my case, my mom wasn’t going to disown me for my permanent shamrock.