This is the post where you get to see a lot of my terrible skin.
I have known in the back of my mind since I was like… I don’t know, twelve? thirteen? that I wanted to get at least a couple of tattoos. The media of my youth had enough cool tattooed characters that I never really got roped into the stereotypical mindset of “body mods = thug” like so many people seem to (thankfully not of this current generation, at least in the countries I’ve traveled through). I had held off on it up until around this time last year. Partly because it was always in the back of my mind, partly because I didn’t have a whole lot of tattooed friends to consult and I wasn’t really sure where to start on the process. One of the coworkers I spoke to and occasionally hung out with outside of the office had a couple and pointed me in the direction of a local parlor she liked, and in I went to book my first one.
I went with the white tree of Gondor for a lot of reasons. It’s one of the symbols of Tolkien’s work that resonated with me strongest. If you aren’t familiar with the background story, the history of the tree dates all the way back to the creation of Arda, the setting. At the start of everything, the only light sources were two enormous lamps named Illuin and Ormal. Melkor, the being who would eventually come to be known as Morgoth destroyed these lamps. The light they cast was saved and the Valar used it to craft the Two Trees, silver Telperion and golden Laurelin. Melkor again destroyed them with the aid of a monstrous spider known as Ungoliant, the mother of Shelob. The last fruits of these trees were saved and preserved as the sun and moon, but the goddess Yavanna saw that the elves became listless and despondent without the presence of Telperion, and so she created a new tree in its likeness named Galathilion, which gave off no light (with the moon in the sky and the stars made up of harvested dew, it was no longer needed), and the elves presented one of its saplings to the Númenóreans, who named it Nimloth and planted it on their isle. Sauron, inheriting Melkor/Mogroth’s hatred of what the trees represented, came along and corrupted the, tricking him into chopping Nimloth down and burning it as a sacrifice. The last seed was saved by Isildur, who carried it with him across the sea and planted it in Minas Ithil. This was the first true tree of Gondor, and what followed was a cycle of Sauron’s minions destroying a land and the Gondorians always managing to save one last seed or sapling to bring with them as they fled. It’s got elements of everything from the phoenix legend to the Maccabees woven in, a symbol of enduring goodness and a promise of hope so long as someone is always brave enough to bring a piece of it with him or her against all odds, so that a new tree always grows from the ashes of the old in defiance of the forces that sought to destroy it.
Yes, I wrote all that out from memory. Yes, I told my tattoo artist about it as she was putting it on my back. No, I don’t know how we actually managed to become friends after that or why she bothered to endure my presence and put more tattoos on me. But anyway, it went really well. It didn’t hurt nearly as much as people warned me, and I honestly found it kind of soothing, even the “problem” areas like the bits running over my spine. I went with something very basic and clean that I could add onto or have modified later, some day I think I might have the root system worked into the hilt of Anduril or Narsil with the blade stretching down my back.
But, after that, I didn’t so much get “the tattoo bug” so much as realized that it wasn’t nearly as momentous as I’d built it up to. A few weeks after I got it and had my touchups done, I ended up getting a small piece on my chest, over my heart – Terry Pratchett had died a few months prior and I’d been struggling with that grief a little, and I decided to have the golem quote from Feet of Clay placed there so I’d never forget just how much his writing had shaped my life and worldview. I have WORDS IN THE HEART CAN NOT BE TAKEN there forever, and some day I might add onto it with a little turtle.
That kind of broke the proverbial dam. I was in a place where I was getting along well with my tattoo artist, I found out that she and her fiancé played a lot of the games I do and we all started playing together in the evenings and on the weekends. One night she mentioned she’d had a cancellation and I thought I might go in to get an impulsive little kodama tattoo from Princess Mononoke, and this turned into getting a kodama, Calcifer, a couple of soot sprites and one of the smaller totoros lined up just under my elbow joint. A few months later this would grow into a forearm half sleeve with more kodamas, the forest spirit and night walker, catbus, no-face, and a bunch of other characters from the Ghibli catalog.
I also ended up filling out the upper arm a bit with a more custom piece. I kind of put together a list of big things that continually crop up in my writing or have influenced my creativity. I went with tentacles, coffee, undeath. I fed the core concepts to the artist and she came back with a kraken sitting in a skull-shaped coffee mug with a ink-soaked pen lying nearby and a tiny ship clutched in one tentacle. Because really, why not? That took two sessions and was my longest piece to date, and in the first one my fiancée and I ended up getting a couples tattoo as well. One of the original meanings of her name was protector or defender of men, and one of the hebrew translations of Aaron goes back to high mountain or mountain peak, depending on which rabbi you ask. So we went with the incredibly nerdy language route and got a pair of shields with mountains on them as heraldry, hers in colder colours and mine in warmer, on our sides/backs.
This was the turning point where I started getting more interested in bigger and more complicated pieces, and started stepping into other parlors or working with other artists. I kind of lucked out in having such a good experience with my first handful, because I really feel at ease in tattoo parlors as a result. I’ve found that I can connect with people pretty quickly and that most of the ones I’ve worked with have been tremendous nerds who are happy to have someone who wants to talk about weird shit like comparative mythology, Game of Thrones, Star Wars or whatever else while they work.
On my birthday I got a Star Wars piece and gave myself entirely over to the dork side. I’d started researching traditional tattoo types and meanings and getting more into neotrad styles and wanted something that would combine the very traditional with the very nerdy. Ship in a bottle was something I was very interested in but I have no naval background at all and felt it would kind of be appropriating something I had no ties to, so the easy answer to that was… this guy right here, my second favorite ship (shout out to Moya as my first, Farscape you died way too young) and the best Han Solo quote out of a wide selection of very quotable statements. And, as someone who regularly has weird shit happen to them against all odds, it kind of worked for me on multiple levels. My right arm was really filling up at this point, I just needed something on the back and a piece near the front of the elbow for what amounted to a three-quarters flash sleeve.
While I was having this one done, my artist mentioned that a friend of hers down in Portland was going to be leaving soon and was opening his shop up for her special the next day so she could get a Sailor Moon piece, ans asked if I wanted to road trip it with her and
her fiancé to see if I could get in as well. I said sure, why the hell not. The guy was another big Star Wars fan with one of the most incredible parlors I’ve seen and we spent Sunday afternoon watching Taxi Driver and Big Trouble in Little China while getting stabbed under the watchful eyes of life sized Robocop and Judge Dredd mannequins. I’d looked through his portfolio online the night before and messaged him basically saying I wanted something Star Warsy but traditional, preferably focused around Luke’s second lightsaber. By the next evening I had this running down the back of my right leg. I’d probably put this as my most painful to date, not because of any fault of the artist but by sheer virtue of holy shit the wrath of the calf is real and strong.
Around this time I discovered that the owner of the original parlor I’d been going to had some openings around Christmas, and knowing that he normally has a very long waiting list I kind of jumped on that. There was one particular piece I’d been wanting for several years and it happened to sync up very well with the style he works in. See, I love dragons. They’ve been one of my favorite mythical critters as far back as I can remember. I particularly love the archaic way of referring to them as wyrms.
So. You know. Bookwyrm.
I love puns. Sue me.
The other one I have posted about before, in my David Bowie article, but not in great detail. The new Bowie album, Blackstar, was due to come out in a week and I’d been in a huge Bowie mood as a result of that, even moreso than usual. I’d also gone to see the new Star Wars movie multiple times. I wanted to get a little tribute piece that included elements of both up on my right shoulder, since there was a spot to fill there. Bowie actually died the day before I got that tattoo, and overnight my tribute piece turned into a memorial. The artist actually messaged me that morning of to ask if I was alright and if I wanted to do any last minute changes to make it a little less morbid. I asked her to make it even more Bowie-y. It was already incorporating one of my favorites of his songs, and throwing in the lightning bolt added a little bit of colour balance and contrast.
This was around the point that I started solidifying plans to move to Australia. I’d had my visa approved a few months prior and we needed to make the actual, physical move before it hit an expiration date for entry to the country. I was about to find myself in another country, in a city with a lot of amazing and award-winning parlors and artists, but I was moving away from the comfortable and familiar ones. I came to my original artist and said that I wanted to get at least one more from her before I left and pretty much said do a style you don’t get to do much of, pick some stuff that makes you think of me. We were pretty good friends and hanging out regularly outside of the parlor at that point. Hell, the weekend after Bowie passed away she, her fiancé and I got hammered and played Rummikub while listening to a Best Of Bowie station and antagonizing her cats. That’s a level of trust I don’t really give to many people. She came up with a great woodcut style piece of a scenic New England lake with a tentacle poking out of the center, Lovecraft country without actually being Lovecraft. It took less than half the time we’d expected so she also threw one of my earlier ideas on me, the door to Bag-End as a small filler between two larger pieces. At this point my arm from the elbow up was pretty much full. I still need to get a couple of small fillers around the elbow joint itself but you’d have to go with something as small as biker dust to fit in the rest of it.
The final one I got from her was about a month later when she messaged me to say she had a time slot coming up and wanted to give me a goodbye present, she’d found a plague doctor illustration that apparently really fit me and had worked it into a woodcut style like the camp scene from before, and it was just the right size to go comfortable over my shoulderblade. Keep in mind I do fucking love plague doctor iconography but haven’t really mentioned it to anyone, outside of one facebook post about how I love the design they used for the one from Darkest Dungeon.
The last piece I got in the states was from a road trip down to Salem, kind of a prolonged double date to go check out cool witchy shit, wander graveyards, hit up the Harry Potter wand boutique, so on and so forth. One of the forums I frequent has an ongoing tattoo thread and Kelly Doty mentioned there that her parlor had finished reservations recently. We kind of took this as a sign that we should stop down there and each get one road trip tattoo while our partners sat there rolling their eyes at how impulsive we were being. She went with a witchy cat and crystal ball, I decided to offer up my blank shoulderblade to the goetic demon prince Stolas, an owl with abnormally long legs, a crown of burning sulfur, glowing eyes and dominion over the knowledge of constellations, poisonous herbs and rare gemstones. In one of my SMARTER and WISER moves I got this close enough to when I’d be flying to Australia that it hadn’t actually finished healing and I had to endure a day and a half of hellish itching while trapped in my seat on the plane, applying moisturizer from the tiniest TSA-approved tube ever in the itty bitty plane bathrooms. Totally worth it though, I mean, look at him. I had coworkers ask me if I was afraid I’d be invoking a demon by having him etched into my skin and my response was basically that this would be a bonus.
I would say that my life has become way better since I started getting tattoos. Ironically enough I feel way more comfortable in my own skin since I started decorating it, and I’ve definitely made that swing between needing to plan everything out to the extreme and being more impulsive about it. I’d say that about a third of mine were impulse buys and I don’t regret a single one of them, because I was being impulsive about stuff that I already liked a lot. It’s been a great icebreaker, too, I’ve had tons of compliments, gotten in conversations about local parlors with other tattooed people, exchanged stories about certain pieces. Had small children crawl on me in the train because they want to get a closer look at my Ghibli stuff, in one case.
I do find it funny that the closest I’ve gotten to criticism have been people asking if my partner is okay with me getting inked and asking how expensive it is. The stock response for the former is that she knows it’s my body to do with as I please, I don’t need permission from her to get anything, I just need to keep in mind that she’s the only one who’s going to see me with my clothes off with any kind of regularity and to please think long and hard before I get a photorealistic Ron Perlman on the center of my chest or something. For the latter, there’s always that implied “you could be spending your money on something different” critique that annoys me. Frankly, if I wasn’t spending it on tattoos I’d probably be spending it on comic books or video games, it’s not coming out of my savings funds at all and at least this way it’s on something that’ll be with me until I die.
It’s also given me a lot of useful information for writing, considering how many of my stories have featuring body art/modification as a basis for magic. Taking an external thing and making it a permanent part of your body has always seemed like such a fundamental magic system thing to me and it’s neat having personal insight into the psychology behind it.
If you want to check out some cool work, these are the artists/studios I’ve been to so far: Corin Webb, Kevin Becvar, Joe Berube, Jessica Brown. Worth looking at if you want to see art, and if you’re someone who actually gets tattoos yourself they do some travel and aren’t just limited to New England.