Getting Inked

Maybe a little gray on your temples is an invitation to add some color to your skin

After an hour in the chair, Randy Burnham, big arms covered with vivid designs down to his knuckles, wipes black ink — and blood — off my arm and says we’re done with the outline. I have a few minutes while he sets up for the color. I’m glad. Tattoos hurt. Like someone drawing on you with a wasp. I’m relieved to have a break without having to ask for one. I look at my arm. The tattoo, a tree with a rosary wrapped around it, four stars above (one for each of my kids), and a crescent moon below with a snake twined around it with an apple in its mouth, is big. From the top of my shoulder down to the middle of my bicep. I’m pleased; the way you are pleased when you have leaped from the rock toward the icy swimming hole but haven’t hit the water yet. Committed.

So what is a 45-year-old father of four, who wears a bow tie to work and has a penchant for wide-wale corduroys, doing in Bitter Sweet Tattoo in Manchester getting his first ink? Acknowledging major life transitions, the search for identity that comes with them, and the pain and permanence of change. If denial is a stage of grief, then a defiant, permanent piece of body art is a way to step past denial, to acknowledge that life is change.

This retrenchment of identity and desire to put a permanent mile-marker on the highway of a body that’s winding through vastly uncharted technological, social and political landscapes may explain why 36 percent of Gen Nexters and 38 percent of Millennials are tattooed. Thirty-two percent of my generation, X, reports having tattoos, more than double the Baby Boomers. Most people who get one don’t stop at one.   

Tattoos are more mainstream than ever, though not so mainstream as to render them a completely useless gesture of defiance. They’ve been around for a long time. Ötzi, the Iceman discovered in the Alps in 1991, had his 61 tattoos done 5,300 years ago. They’ve been used by indigenous cultures for religion, healing and adornment. During World War II, the American Traditional tattoo style, epitomized by Sailor Jerry (Norman Collins) exploded with bold, dark lines and bright color across the arms and backs and chests of American fighting men.

Since then, tattoos have risen and fallen in degrees of social acceptance, and in the last few decades they’ve experienced a massive resurgence.

After about 10 minutes, I’m back in the chair and Randy positions my arm on a stand. He begins the black and gray shading. There’s more blood and new pain as he works over areas already sore from the first pass. When done with shading, he’ll fill the whole thing in with color. I don’t listen to music or read. I watch the needles move across the skin and Randy’s concentration. Stare at the strange, beautiful and dark art or the walls of the clean, bright shop and focus on my breath. I don’t want to flinch and ruin a line. I don’t want to be distracted from the experience — the pain has meaning; it’s a sacrifice, a passage.

As he works, Randy controls the tattoo machine with his foot. A cluster of tiny needles moving at incredible speed push the ink below the ephemeral epidermis into the permanent dermis. He adjusts the speed as he goes, noting that the speed of the needles must harmonize with the speed of his hand. Art and technology as one.

Randy works with his wife, Elle. (“She’s the boss,” he says, “I’m just riding her coattails.”) Their work is complementary; they both do American and neo-traditional with bold lines and bright colors. He’d told his art teacher, when asked what he planned to do with his life, that he’d play guitar in his band until it broke up, then become a tattoo artist. That’s exactly what he did.

I looked at a good deal of tattoo art by New Hampshire artists before settling on Randy at Bitter Sweet. I loved his style, and there was an overall feel to his work that felt like the right fit for the design I pictured.

Talking with him later, Randy emphasized how important this is. Of his own tattoos, Randy says, “The ones I love the most are the ones where I gave the artist the most freedom.”

In my case, I have a tolerably good hand for drawing but in no way wanted to draw my own tattoo. I picked Randy because I liked his work, not because I thought he could reproduce mine. So I labored over the concept of my piece, the meaning of each element and then did a rough sketch to show where the elements should go in relation to each other. But when I handed Randy the sketch on the day we met for our consult, a few weeks before he did the tattoo, I made it clear after explaining the symbolism that I wanted his drawing, his art, on my arm, not mine. I’d drawn it in pencil in a Moleskine notebook, and he nodded as he looked at it, and then at my arm. “It’s going to have to be bigger,” he said, “to look good with all these elements. And I think I need to reposition the rosary and cross.” No problem, I told him, it’s not to scale. Do your thing; these are just the elements I want to include. I rolled up my sleeve, and he measured my shoulder and upper arm with his hands. “I can see it,” he said. “I’m drawing it in my head already.” And just like that, as his vision took over, I knew I was in the right place and working with the right artist.

If you want a tattoo you love, he says, then you need to know what kind of style the person you’re seeing does. Many artists specialize, and bringing a photorealistic portrait to an American traditional artist may also be bringing the ingredients for disappointment. So will an unwillingness to listen to the artist’s advice.

The finished product

“I want people to come in with a lot of ideas,” Randy says. “But I’m going to shoot them down when they’re crappy.” Very occasionally, he’s turned away a customer he can’t see eye to eye with, rather than risk having him or her unsatisfied at the end.

Not everybody wants to go into a shop with an elaborate concept. For those customers, every shop has “flash,” pre-drawn art that customers can browse and have a solid idea of what it will look like right from the start.

After two hours and 15 minutes, Randy moves toward the lightest colors in his pallette. Yellow ink for the crescent moon, white for the highlights. The lightest colors always go on last, and how they look as they’re applied is the customer’s only glimpse into how they’ll really look when the piece is healed. For the next two or three weeks they’ll be dull and tinged with the color of the healing skin beneath them. Eventually, the whole area will scab and peel like a sunburn.

After two and a half hours, he adds final white touches, wipes down and sterilizes my arm. I am delighted by the colors he’s chosen, the drawing he did. I’m wrung out physically, a little like the end of a marathon, a long time at prayer, or both. He takes pictures with his phone and mine. I text one to my eldest son. He texts back, “It looks cool!” More of a text than I usually get back from him, and with an exclamation mark no less!

Ancient cartographers added mythological beasts to uncharted areas, leading to the perhaps apocryphal, hic sunt dracones, “here be dragons.” I left feeling great relief; I’d filled in uncharted territory on my own map and acknowledged that all of my life is sailing from one such territory to the next. There is no guarantee we can make to ourselves about the permanence of any situation. Life affords that only as fantasy; a presentiment of heaven. Tempus fugit, memento mori.  Do the things you must do, as you may not have the opportunity tomorrow. On the other hand, don’t get hung up on the vanities of life. None of it’s forever. As Ani DiFranco wrote in her song “Shroud,” “A tattoo is no more permanent than I am.”

Categories: Features