Illustration by Hattie

Stephanie: Tattoos are a permanent, sort of scary, but also really amazing way to physically transform yourself. For me, they mark moments of emotional transformation as well. So I thought it would be cool to talk tats with one of my fellow ink-loving Rookies, Laia, and maybe give a little guidance—or at least share our experiences—with those considering membership in the tribe.

The Decision

Laia: I always drew on my hands in high school and, funnily enough, I got the most crap about it from my art teacher. She’d be like, “What the hell are you doing? Are you gonna get tattoos? That’s disgusting.” I always knew I liked tattoos, but I wasn’t sure that I would ever get one, because of the NEEDLE. Did you always know you wanted a tattoo? Or was it like OMG, I need this now?

Stephanie: I’ve always thought tattoos looked really cool, and for as long as I can remember, I’ve loved decorating myself in unique ways, whether it was wearing really funky earrings in fifth grade or streaking my hair with rainbow colors during my sophomore year of high school. Tattoos seemed like the next level. More important, I really loved the idea of being able to have a permanent reminder of a moment or something/someone that I really loved that I could always carry with me. My very first tattoo was actually my attempt to TRANSFORM pain into power. I’d been struggling with the aftermath of an emotionally abusive relationship for a little over a year and doing a lot of self-destructive things, but then I got involved with the Riot Grrrl scene, met all these super-cool supportive women, and began to heal. I decided I wanted an armband of female signs to remind myself of what I’d survived and how I’d survived it. I asked my parents for that tattoo as my 17th birthday present.

Stephanie's first tattoo, as well as some later ones.

Laia: I can’t believe your parents got you your first tattoo! And at 17! That totally doesn’t compute in my brain. I just remember one night, I drew this design or whatever on my wrist with a Sharpie, and I was like, “This is the tattoo I’m gonna get.” So I looked up a tattoo shop and took myself there the next day in my six-hour break between classes. I felt really awesome that I just went and did it by myself. How do you feel about getting a tattoo at 17?

Stephanie: I don’t know that I would recommend tattooing to the general teen population—I’ve known people who got tattoos of band logos and cartoon characters during high school, and they’ve come to regret it. However, I was probably a better decision maker at 17 than I was in my early 20s, so I think it depends on the person. I have no regrets about my first tattoo. I thought about it for a really long time and had special reasons for getting it. I tend to do that with most of my tattoos. I’m a planner. My best friend will think, “Hey, I want a flower,” and go get it. There is one aspect of planning that I do think is necessary if you are under 18: TELLING YOUR PARENTS. Yeah, I know it makes me sound like a goody two-shoes, but I say it for a really important reason: no legit tattoo shop will tattoo you without parental permission, and you don’t want to get tattooed at a shop that is sketchy or by some friend of a friend who is learning to tattoo and happens to have a needle and some India ink. Bad work can be covered or lasered off. Hepatitis, on the other hand, lasts forever. So if you can’t get their permission, just wait. If you really like the idea, you’ll still like it on your 18th birthday.

Laia: Do you get tattooed by dudes or chicks? I’ve only been tattooed by a guy once, and I totally hated it, so I always go to women.

Oddly enough, I’ve always gotten tattooed by dudes. The only time I was a little nervous about it was when I was getting a tattoo on my chest, but he was totally professional. He didn’t touch me inappropriately or anything. I would love to find a female artist at some point, though.

The Pain

Laia: I had a dream the night before I got my first tattoo that it didn’t hurt at all, and it didn’t.

Stephanie: I didn’t necessarily fear the pain. I worried it would be a trigger. I almost hate to mention this because I don’t want people to even associate tattoos with self-injury, but I did self-injure for many years. Of course, tattooing is a very different sensation than cutting, and the emotions are completely different. When I self-injured, I was dealing with anger, depression, and shame. When I get tattoos, I’m often celebrating a chapter of my life, so I’m proud and happy.

The start of Stephanie's cherry tree.

Laia: My current tattoo lady—OMG, I have a “current” tattoo lady—always says that she loves tattooing me ’cause I can take it better than most dudes, and I don’t know if she’s flattering me or what, but I’ll take it!

Stephanie: It was kind of awesome because this big biker dude did my first tattoo, and he wouldn’t do the female signs all the way around my arm. He said, “I seen Marines cry when I tattooed the underside of their arms. I’m not doing that to no 17-year-old girl.” So we agreed on a half-armband, and I did not even come close to crying. When I did get the underside of my arm tattooed later, it definitely hurt, though not as bad as the one on my stomach/hip. HOLY OW! I definitely recommend calf, bicep, or forearm for beginners. Not hip or, from what I’ve heard, foot.

Laia's severed hand with a quill.

Laia: I got the underside of my arm tattooed, and it wasn’t that bad. The underside of my forearm hurt the most. I’ve still never cried! As for the pain, it’s so worth it because, honestly, I really do love all my tattoos. As soon as I get to the place and I hear that machine turn on I’m like, HELL YES! This is happening! I want to get something on my ribs soon, but I am not tough enough. It’ll happen in the next two tattoos.

Stephanie: I am the exact same way when I hear that machine go on! I thought I was weird. I would love to get something on my ribs, too, but as of now, I’m way too chicken.

The Tattoos

Stephanie: I am always thinking of stuff I want to get soon. I just got the Latin word “spirare” on the inside of my left wrist. It means “breathe,” a reminder that I need because I’m kind of high-strung. Next I want to get “scribere,” which means “write,” on my right wrist because, well, that’s what I do. I also have this really epic plan for a big cherry tree that will go up my arm and onto my back, connecting a few of my tattoos. The problem with me not being an artist is I have stuff scattered all over my body. I always wish I’d had a better vision all along.

Laia: The only tattoo I have that was sort of my design was my first: it is the name of one of my favorite poems by my favorite poet, Julia de Burgos, with a modified Puerto Rican flag under it. A couple of my tattoos are things that existed, like the Little Prince catching a migration of birds and a kinda pretentious (but not really?) DADA portrait of Tristan Tzara by Francis Picabia. My tattoo artist came up with the others: a rocket, a severed hand writing with a quill, my cat in space, aka the Catstronaut.

The Catsronaut!

Your cat in SPACE!!! I have my cat’s paw print. It was actually quite a feat to get him posed so that my roommate could take a picture of it. I have 11 tats all together. A total hodgepodge. I have a doodle that a friend of mine who passed away made. I got the Rose of No Man’s Land, a tattoo that World War I soldiers would get in honor of their nurses. Both of my parents are nurses. I got it in honor of my mom. She at least pretends to like that one. And I added the little witch in the heart from the liner notes of Live Through This, along with “Przezyj Przez To,” which means “live through this” in Polish, because my maternal lineage is Polish.

The Reaction

Laia: My mom HATES tattoos, but it’s hilarious because the first two tattoos I got (the Julia de Burgos quote and the Little Prince) were things she sort of passed on to me, so she couldn’t REALLY be mad at me. As for the rest, though, she just looks at my arms and tells me they’re ugly. It’s OK, though, she’s a great mom.

I don’t have punk rock parents or anything. My mom doesn’t particularly like tattoos either, but she understands the reasons why I get mine.

Laia: Eventually I want to have sleeves, but I’m not rushing it. I think it’ll be nice if my sleeves are just, like, a reflection of my life as opposed to OMG I WANT A SLEEVE. And I feel like, by then, people won’t be asking me stupid questions about the tattoos, because everyone will have them, and it won’t be a big deal. I really hate that everyone needs to tell me how they’re just not sure that they want something FOREVER and what about when they’re OLD. I don’t care! No one ever says that to people who just got married, you know? “Oh, that’s crazy, I don’t know if I could sleep with the same person for the rest of my life.”

Stephanie: Since I work as a bartender, I get people asking about my tattoos all the time. Sometimes it’s obnoxious, especially guys asking about my female symbols: “Why don’t you have any male symbols? What do you have against guys?” Sometimes it’s just hard because people want to know exactly what everything means, and those stories are long and personal and I usually don’t feel like telling them to a stranger when I’m at work. When I got my wrist tattoo, I told the artist I wanted the word facing inward, and he was like, “Of course you do because it’s for you, not THEM.” Even though my tattoos are on display, that’s so true. From now on, when I don’t feel like answering questions, I’m just going to shrug and say, “It’s for me.”

A tattoo of Stephanie's friend's doodle.

The Regret. . .?

Stephanie: I ended up covering my second tattoo, which I also had done before I turned 18. Coincidentally (or not!) it was the only one I didn’t really plan out. I totally had the tattoo bug after my first one, so I sketched something out in study hall. It seemed like a good idea at the time—a shooting star with my best friend’s name around it—but since I’m a crap artist, it didn’t turn out well. Also my best friend and I had a falling out for, like, two years, and I secretly thought the tattoo jinxed us.

Laia: I only have one tattoo that I kinda regret. I have a musical note on my ankle. I don’t really regret-regret it. It’s just so random that I wish I had better utilized that space.

The Advice

Laia: Don’t be afraid to go back and forth after the stencil has been done and before they put it on your body!! It took me a couple of ones to realize that.

Good one. I let that biker guy freehand my female signs and they are kinda uneven. My advice is: be vigilant with the hand-washing when you are caring for your tat during the healing phase. I’ve seen tattoos ruined by icky infection. Also, speaking of the healing phase, the itching KILLS ME, and you can’t scratch it. My husband taught me to slap, with a clean hand, right next to the tattoo. It’s about as satisfying as it gets.

Laia: Yeah, that one’s important! Slapping saves lives. ♦