Our fearless reporter learns about the art of the tattoo needle firsthand.
By Adrienne Martini
MAY 8, 2000: Yes it hurts.
In the past four weeks I've answered that question at least as many times as I've explained Martini is my real last name. When you decide to have some guy draw on your body with a needle, it hurts. So why would someoneespecially a someone like me who looks so enormously average that I could blend into off-white wallpaperhead to a tattoo parlor in the first place? That, my friends, is the $64,000 question.
My journey into the world of skin and ink started my first year in college and to this day I'm not sure what prompted my desire. Maybe it was the sugar magnolia a Grateful Dead-loving friend had tattooed on her upper arm; maybe it's because I rarely wear makeup and need some kind of body decoration; maybe I just spent too much time in the sun without a hat. But the only place to go was to a frightening fellow named Buddha, who, as it turns out, later died of hepatitis.
Ten years later, my tattoo lust had turned into something of a joke. The husband teased me mercilessly. Drinking buddies knew I was all talk and no action. A couple of weeks ago, however, I found myself pacing the halls of Saint Tattoo, with a design idea in my head and Scott Cooper, an independent contractor at Saint, poised to start.
"I wanted one when I was a small child," Cooper explains about his own lust for ink. "I'd see my uncle. My uncle had an eagle on his arm. My grandfather was a serviceman in the Navy in W.W.II. He had a propeller, globe, and anchor on his forearm. I just was fascinated by this as a child.
"As soon as I turned 18, a couple of days afterward, it was like hey, I can get a tattoo. I'm a legal adult. Shitfire. I'm getting tattooed. I went outit wasn't a very wise decision. It was my college logo. So, yeah, it started out with that. Not the wisest of decisions but at the time it was logical, like oh, this means this and I'll always be proud of this."
Cooper, who looks like an illustrated Drew Carey, shows me the WVU logo on his upper arm. He grew up in a small town outside of D.C. and ended up heading to grad school at East Tennessee State in Johnson City. But an advanced degree in education turned out to not be his calling, particularly after hooking up with Mark Hagedorn, Matt Burns, and Brett Caldwell at a shop in J.C. Hagedorn decided to move west and open Saint in Knoxville. The other three followed and Cooper has now been in the skin trade for four years.
My eye kept drifting to his other tats, one of a punked-up pin-up girl wearing saddle shoes, "LOST HART" across his knuckles, a dragon twining up one forearm. Art on skin has a different depth than art on canvas or wood. And Cooper's tattoos were definitely artmore than just scratched-out lines blotched in with color. So art-like, in fact, that it's difficult to not stare.
But there is more to tattooing than the art itself. Scratching someone's skin with a needle can be the first step to a deadly infectionthe late Buddha would be a prime example. Tennessee has legislation protecting both the consumer and the shop that requires each establishment to pass an inspection by the Board of Health. The results must be posted. Picking a shop, however, requires more than a clean certification. You also want to check out the artist himself.
"You want to check out portfolios," Cooper says. "You want to see what they can dodon't look for content, don't look to see if it's something you actually want to wear but look for the quality. Look for your line workis it solid? Look to see if the lines are smooth. Look for a solid pack job," he explains as he points out how dense the colors are in his pin-up tattoo. "You want to make sure everything looks even, nothing looks grainy. You want to analyze it. Don't look at it with admiration immediately. You want to be picking at it."
Something about Cooper inspires trust, although, at first, his gold front tooth throws you off. Perhaps this is because he worked as a bouncer during summers off from college. Perhaps he's just one of those people with exquisite bedside manner, honed from years of having to calm people who want to leap out of the chair with their work half done.
"Have an idea what you want but be open to suggestion," Cooper tells me when I ask how best to approach the actual art for my tattoo. "The artist is always going to steer you in a direction that he's more comfortable with and he knows he can make the tattoo look its best. That's his main prerogative. And sometimes you get people who are just locked in on one concept that's just not feasible in the medium of the skin. An image that's too small, where the lines are too tight and won't allow it to have any room to age. These are lessons you learn when you become a tattoo collector. And the funny thing is, when most of them have gotten tattooed, most of them wish they had gotten it bigger.
"I'd say about 50 or 60 percent of the time, people do flash. Flash is the images you see on the wall. Then 30 or 35 percent of the time they come in with something they have drawn. Then the last 10 or 15 percent is stuff that we just do on our own, stuff that we have completely drawn from scratch. And that's when we really get excited. Someone who just jumps in your arms with trust, that's when it gets really fun."
Framed flash art lines the walls of Saint Tattoo. A lounge area sits off to the right of the doorSaint is a converted house that squats on the outskirts of tony Fourth and Gilland it is full of artist portfolios, more flash, and religious icons whose representation ranges from the reverent to the blasphemous. On the left is the tattoo studio with two barber's chairs, further on the right is where the piercers live. (Oddly enough, tattooing doesn't bother me but the idea of pushing a huge needle through some part of my body gives me the willies.) In the back, a big room where people hang when off-duty looks well lived in and comfy. In this room, pictures more unusual tattoos are taped to the walls along with old art projects and an autoclave.
"I've tattooed a tongue before, which was an odd experience," Cooper says, after admitting that some of the more unusual places he's inked could get him in hot water. "The guy was warned many, many times. Any time you have an odd place somebody wants to get tattooed, moralistically and karma-wise, you want to tell them no. So you try every way you can to tell them no, then finally, it's like okay, if you want to do it, let's do it. I'd rather have you do it here then try to get somebody at home to do it or hurt yourself trying to do it yourself. If you want it, you want it."
What did he have done? I ask. "A question mark. Something to do with the Insane Clown Posse." Cooper shrugs. "It was like carpet. The tastebuds are fibrous. It was really weird, an odd experience, something I don't even want to repeat. It's hard to find that linewhen do I become their parent and tell them no?"
"A lot of people want to get names of a loved one. The only loved ones we ever recommend are your mother, your father, your children, and your petsany near family or a loved one that has passed on. Never get your lover or companion's name tattooed. It is bad juju. Black magic. We've had people come in before the tattoo has even healed and it's always with some Jerry Springer story. Situations happen and you've got to cover 'em up."
Despite Cooper's easy manner, I'm still shaking when I crawl into his chair. It's not that I'm terrifiedmore like excited and more than a little apprehensive. What in the hell am I doing here? I'm not the tattoo "type," even though Cooper admits that he's seen everyone from West Knox soccer moms to Harley-Davidson riders. I'm the kind of person who likes routine. I even floss.
"Any advice?" I ask.
"Relax," he tells me, and then the high pitched whine of the needle starts up.
"The pain issue has to do with your mindset and where you're at on the body. Like this, across the pit of my arm and the inside of my elbowthat was bad. But the really painful areas are not only painful but big and open. So to get them tattooed you have to fill themyou have to fill that body part or that muscle group, that's one of the main goals. And to fill that is a tremendous amount of work and it hurts really bad. It hurts the same way on the inside of your wrist, but you're done in 15 minutes. Whoopee. I can sit through 15 minutes of making the gas face. But three hoursthat's a whole new realm of hurt," he says.
"I've found the more times I get tattooed, the less my body wants to help me out. It's like, 'No way buddy. You've pulled this stunt too many times. You're on your own.' Either that or I'm just jaded to the point where I'm whiny," he laughs.
Cooper's hand is heavily resting on my upper chest as he works and he mentions that he can feel my heart pounding.
"Women usually do really well," Cooper tells me, "unless they've got a problem with anxiety. For the most part they handle the painand that's another cliché tattoo answer, that women do better than men, for the most part. They find their center, I guess. They just take it."
In 10 or 15 minutes, it's done. The pain is like somebody with sharp little fingernails pinching the same spot over again. Unbearable, no, but I can see how a longer session under the needle could be excruciatingnot from the pain itself but from the relentlessness of it.
When I'm done, I look in the mirror at my tattooa martini glass, naturally, with some bubbles drunkenly lilting up from it. The ironic part of the whole thing is that I don't even drink martinis, but see the image as more of a symbol of self and of self-reliance.
Non-tattooed friends advised me to have a beer before I went. To this, Cooper says "If you don't have the gumption and the wherewithal to get it sober, then you don't deserve it. You don't need anything to calm you down. You don't need anything to get a tattoo. It's perfectly simple to just sit down and take it."
But now, a drink is called for. I feel like I've just gotten off of a roller coaster, full of energy and adrenaline. The buzz eventually disappears but the art itself still thrills me. And I can imagine doing it again when the muse strikes, even though my immediate, giddy, post-tattooing thrill has waned.
"Be excited. Be happy," Cooper advises about tattooing. "I remember when I first became a serious collector, if I had an appointment the next day, it'd be like Christmas Eve, like when I was 8 years old. I'd be so stoked. Doing a little song, a little dance, and wake up the next morning ready to go, couldn't wait to be there. And those days, tattoos didn't hurt me. I could sit there for four hours and not blink because I was so excited. I was bullet proof when it came to getting tattoos. And now that I'm living the life, no longer bulletproof, it just hurts. But I'm still doing the 'I'm getting the tattoo dance.'"
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