"Cheap tattoos are not good tattoos and good tattoos are not cheap tattoos", said Jon to me, as the plumber-turned-tattoo-artist, who said he was Aussie but he spelt his name like a French, set about getting his instruments in order. I'm pretty sure that was not the case with the tattoos on his arms, though. He explained that his colleagues and he did that to kill time on slow days. I saw 2.5 yrs worth of tattoos on there, like someone's resume carved on his body.
Getting a tattoo is an activity that consists of many phases, each seemingly tougher than the other. The most important bit is picking a design that you can carry for the rest of your life. It involves finding the right design, deciding where you want it, how big/small you want it, whether you want it in black only or with a dash of colour and finally knowing that this is what you want when you fit it all in together.
Once the art is finalized, the hunt for the artist begins. Finding a hygienic parlour, a good artist and hoping to get a good price. The cost depend on the size and complexity of the tattoo, which means it is a rather unverifiable estimate. Colours or lack thereof do not count, leaving one with more options until the last minute. You can either book in or walk in, to be carved, depending on their schedules.
What one might consider the toughest phase - the tattooing itself - is the easiest of them all. In a few steps and some time, it is all over.
- You hand over your choice of art to the artist, who makes a drawing and finalizes what the actual will look like. Then he makes a stencil of it.
- He cleans the skin with an anti-germ solution (if he doesn't, run!!) and slaps the stencil on there, over a layer of cream, pressing gently to leave a mark on the skin that is his new canvas
- His 'brush' is an electric machine into which he inserts a long (about 5 inches) needle. The palette may consist of one or more colours.
- Armed with a clean tissue to wipe off excess colour and blood every few seconds, he dips the needle into the colour, filling the end of it that goes into the skin and makes contact. Vrrrrrrooooom, it goes before the first sting. Like a needle being dragged deep along your skin, it bites but is bearable. I presume the vibration of the machine eases the pain of the pricks. As the needle goes in and out of your skin, it deposits the colour a few millimeters inside the skin. The colour consists mainly of water, some alcohol dissolvent and dyes that are safe to be injected.
- Once the tattoo is done, the area is cleaned up, moisturized and bandaged, while the colour settles in and the wound forms a definite picture.
- A couple of hours later, the bandage can be removed, the area washed with warm soapy water and moisturized again. Whether to continue the bandage on for a couple of days or not is a choice. The point is to keep the wound clean and moisturized at all times, to avoid infection.
That was the easiest part. The after-care is as important as the pre-tattoo research phase. Keeping the tattoo clean, washing it twice a day with soapy water, leaving it moisturised at all times and finally resisting the itching as the wound dries, forming scabs that will drop off in a few days. Salt water and sunshine are strictly taboo. If the artist has done a good job, the colour will not need a re-touch for atleast 20 years.
Armed with a mandatory course in sterilization and an optional course in art, the tattoo artist undertakes a 2 - 3 year apprenticeship before being a full-fledged artist. The apprenticeship is not quite a government recognized certificate, so the tattoo artist is mostly in the job more for the love of it than anything. Possibly the wages too. I could not help but wonder about their job prospects. What goes on their resume and how is it verifiable? What is growth for them? In any case, I would add people skills on their certification course, for without that it is impossible to stick a needle in and out of a customer towards a happy ending.
Jon, Ivan and some others told me that it was addictive. People keep coming back for more. I now know what they meant. What they forgot to tell me was that it was also contagious. More people keep coming back.