I don’t think of myself as someone who has tattoos which is weird, because I’ve gotten seven of them.
They range from a teeny tiny heart to an Audubon inspired summer bird perched on a grape vine on my low back.
I got my first tattoo in New York in 1992. It was illegal back then, but I wanted it so badly, I didn’t care. I went to some chop shop in China Town where the tattoo “artist” inked me in such a way that the piece faded so much in five years people constantly asked me if it was a bruise.
Later on, I got my infamous “waffle fry” tattoo—which was meant to cover up the bruise, but was a poorly chosen Celtic design that looked exactly like a giant black waffle fry.
Many agonizing laser sessions later and the waffle fry was gone, leaving behind a bruise once more. I waited a few years and then got my pretty red bird to cover up the whole mess once and for all.
In the meantime, I also got a beautiful bold OM symbol when I finished yoga teacher training, then the Sanskrit symbol meaning devotion (bhakti), the aforementioned teensy heart one whimsical Valentines day—and finally a turquoise and saffron Indian elephant.
In the process of getting all these tattoos (and losing some of them), I have come to realize there are Seven Stages of Tattoo. Certainly, there are deviations from these stages for different people, but for the most part, I think they’re reasonably universal.
If you are thinking about getting a tattoo, you might want to read this first.
Stage one: I want one.
Probably the most intense of all the stages. Wanting a tattoo is like having a crush on a beautiful boy or girl; it’s all you can think about, you talk to your friends about it way too often, and you’re pretty sure it’s never gonna happen– but the juicy possibility keeps you up at night.
This stage may last days, or years, but be assured, once you’re there, there is a 90% chance you’re getting some ink.
Stage two: What should I get and where should I get it?
Ah, this question! It has tortured many a pre-tattooed soul. There are so many things to consider; what will be meaningful? What will look cool? What is original? What part of my body am I comfortable drawing attention to?
We mull and plan and imagine until if we have the word tattoo cross our minds one more time we’re sure we will go mad. Then we settle on something. And then, typically, we chuck it and start the whole process again.
I recommend spending a great deal of time in phase two—several years, in fact. Once it’s done, it’s done.
Stage 3: Should I really get one, or am I being stupid?
Stage three is actually kind of a subset of stage two, and the two phases frequently blend and intermingle. They are separate, though, because stage two is all about fantasy, and stage three centers on reality.
It is marked by questions such as; what will people think? How will it look when I get older? Can I hide it if I need to? What does me getting a tattoo mean anyway? Am I sure I want to be a part of this club?
Stage 4: Where should I go?
Once we settle on a design and its placement, we have the difficult and intimidating task of deciding where to go. To the casual observer, this stage doesn’t seem like a big deal, but trust me, it’s a huge deal. The wrong tattoo artist can be wrong in so many ways.
There are all grades and levels of artistry out there, and you want to make sure you’re getting the very best. By the same token, though, you don’t want to get ripped off. Also, I think it’s critical to have a personal relationship with your tattooer—or at least have them be someone you have generally good feelings about. Their energy is going into your body alongside their ink, and if it’s bad energy it changes everything.
The bottom line is, you don’t want to just walk in off the street to any random tattoo place for your first (or, I would argue, any) piece. That’s how I got my bruise and my waffle fry. The people who did those didn’t give a damn about me—all they wanted was my money.
So, talk to a lot of people, look at a lot of tattoos. Once you find the right artist, you’ll know it. (If you live in the Chicago area, I’ve got just the place.)
Stage 5: Holy shit! I did it!
The moment that angry wasp of a tattoo needle hits our skin, that’s it, there’s no turning back.
We wait with sweaty anticipation to see the final result. And then there it is, our new tattoo. We stare at it like a newborn babe. We love it—we think—but it’s kind of scary too, this lifelong commitment.
Stage 6: Acceptance
Soon enough, our tattoo heals, and becomes just another part of us. All that energy we poured into getting it in the first place wanes, flaring up briefly only when someone asks about our ink or we happen to see it in just the right light. The honeymoon phase is over, and we’ve settled into the humdrum meat of the marriage.
Stage 7: I want another one.
…And like old married couples who long for that spark of romance, it will only be a matter of time before we’re lusting after those giddy feelings once again.
It’s true what they say about getting a tattoo—few people can stop at just one.
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Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photo: elephant archives