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Growing Into My Skin

Two and a half years after I got my second tattoo – a small, almost-paisley design under my left breast – I was not afraid to say that my ideals had changed somewhat. Yes, I still loved my tattoo, but every time I looked at it I felt that it was somehow incomplete, and admittedly less than perfect. While a little part of me had always planned on extending it down to my thigh, I didn't feel as comfortable as I had all those years ago about letting the original artist tattoo me again. Yes, I had learned a lot – about the importance of entrusting my skin to not a "good", but a "great" artist; about bigger really being better as far as ink goes (my own opinion anyway), and about being truly comfortable with my own choices. Sure I could've benefitted from learning this a few years earlier, but I certainly didn't have any regrets, only lots of plans.

The plans to get my tattoo extended were left to hibernate in the part of my brain that deals with the things I'll "someday" do. That is, until I met Garth Staunton – a man I initially came to know as a photographer with the same appreciation for beauty in strangeness (or is it strangeness in beauty?) that I have. His images were artistic, haunting and sexy as fuck – when I found out he was also a tattoo artist I just had to explore further. I had no doubt that his eye for detail extended to his chosen profession, and if he was as talented with a tattoo machine as he was behind the camera, then he was definitely the artist for me.

A few months later, when I was more familiar with Garth and his work, I knew without a doubt that he was the man to extend my rib ink – and soon too! In April 2007 I was finally ready to finish what I'd started. I went into Wildfire to speak to Garth about what we would be doing and within minutes he knew exactly what I wanted. He told me that he specialises in paisley patterns and that it didn't matter that I didn't have a design to give him (admittedly I'd been unable to draw the rest of the design myself); he'd just draw directly onto me and we could work from that. Surprised, but confident that it would be beautiful and with absolute faith in his abilities, I wondered to the reception desk, paid my R200 deposit and booked my appointment.

Tattoo day finally arrived, and naturally I was excited. Along with that excitement came the inevitable nervousness though. How would it look? How would it feel? Would I be able to sit for a whole session from just under my armpit to my thigh without getting too agitated? While buying some Coco-Cola and toffees to keep my sugar levels up I reasoned with myself that I could always split it into two sessions if needs be. That, and I'd waited long enough to have my tattoo extended – there was no doubt that it would look much, much better.

When I arrived at Wildfire Garth was still busy with his previous client. I sat nervously in the reception area sipping my Coke and trying to appear totally nonchalant. When Garth finally did appear to call me to the back, I knew that there was no turning back... and I was more excited than ever. But before we even got to anything involving needles, it was time for a doodling session. Garth and I chatted while I undressed down to just my panties (luckily it was a warm day), and I asked him if it would be okay if we only went as far as my waist in this session. While he was happy to do that if it made me more comfortable, he was quick to add that we could keep going past that if I wanted to. Glad for the options, I stood up as straight as I could in front of Garth with my left side facing him, as he armed himself with... a ballpoint pen!

Now, being willing to stand up half-naked in front of someone and let them draw onto your bare flesh can be pretty intense. There's a lot of trust involved and Garth made me feel as comfortable as possible – not by making trivial small talk, but by focusing all his attention on the job at hand, so that the design would be right the first time. It was actually quite liberating putting that much faith into someone else and allowing my body to truly become a canvas for our combined creativity. The pen tickled a bit as it traced its way around the curves of my body; gliding along that pale surface like the path was already set out for it. I was in awe of Garth's confidence and his skill. Within only a few minutes he was done. I eagerly checked his design in the mirror – it was perfect! It complimented every curve of my body, it was feminine, it was unique and, most importantly, it was exactly what I wanted. Now, to make it permanent.

While Garth set up the studio, got the inks he needed, and changed his gloves, I settled down onto the medical-style bed. I lay on my back with my left arm pulled across my chest, thus twisting my side and exposing the whole pattern – from just under my armpit to the smallest part of my waist (I ended up convincing Garth that if it didn't go further that day, I didn't want the design to look totally incomplete standing alone, so we should design the next part separately afterwards). Finally Garth settled down on his stool in front of me, little ink pots laid out on the counter next to him and a box of latex gloves within reach. My heart was already beginning to pound and I hadn't even heard the buzz of the tattoo machine yet.

Before getting started, Garth explained to me that he'd start on the highest section on my ribs, since it was most likely to hurt most and he thought we should get it out of the way first (while I was still feeling strong). I nodded in agreement: my tongue felt like it was velcroed to the roof of my mouth as I gulped nervously. Garth gave me a reassuring smile.

Bzzzzzzt! Ink met needle.

Bzzzzzzzzzzzt! Needle met flesh.

The electric-tingle, scalpel-sharp hot-dance of the needles across my soft goosepimpled skin had begun. Was I smiling or were my teeth gritted? Was this pleasure or pain? As the new-born lines on my body began to take shape and emerge into clarity, other mental lines were being blurred. I closed my eyes and let the buzzing sound fill my head. Slow, steady breaths; in and out... in and out... in and out.... Watching the faint blue pen lines become suffused with dark colour was hypnotic. From time to time Garth would glance up from his work to check that I was still alright. Each time I smiled in a way that I hoped conveyed something along the lines of, "Ha! This is easy. No sweat." In short, I hoped I looked a lot braver than I felt.

Ever so slowly, one hour turned into two. The vibration of the tattoo machine against some of the more bony areas, like just under my breast, would send a ticklish tingle through my body and I'd have to force myself not to laugh or squirm. Tattooing other spots, like the softest part of my waist, felt like my flesh was being slowly cut and pealed away: every muscle in my body would tense up, I would feel my face grow hot and flushed, and – sweaty-palmed – I'd tighten my grip on the edge of the bed. Short, shallow breaths were lost in the endless drone of the tattoo machine. Each time Garth wiped away some excess ink, I'd bite my lip, close my eyes, and try to gather my nerves; "man up". When I'd reopen my eyes and look at the growing mass of black lines, dots and spirals – of ink in perfect harmony with flesh – I'd feel ready to keep going. It was beautiful.

As the second hour of near non-stop tattooing began to draw to an end, I started feeling a little shaky – never a good thing when someone is doing finely-detailed needle work on your skin. While Garth and I had chatted quite merrily at the beginning of the session, by this stage the only sound was the ceaseless buzz that still reverberated in my ears even when the actual sound stopped from time to time. The "silence" was punctuated by the occasional groan or gasp from me and Garth enquiring if I was alright. "Just a few more minutes to go," he told me. I smiled, or at least I think I did.

Finally, the last little shape on my waist had been shaded, the last dots drawn, the last small changes to the original ballpoint design tweaked and set in skin. Fearing that Garth might feel inclined to keep going (I naively thought my "brave" act had fooled him), I confessed, "I'm not sure I can keep going." To my relief, Garth agreed – we were done for the day.

I sat up as Garth wiped down the freshly-tattooed surface with cool water. It stung a little, but felt heavenly against the pain-warmed flesh. I smiled happily as the last traces of excess ink were wiped away. My tattoo had transformed from a fairly formless little blob into an exquisite tribute to being embodied. The overwhelming urge to hug Garth was tempered only by modesty (I was still half-naked). I chattered happily for the next few minutes as Garth wrapped my in saran wrap. Once I was done singing his praises, he explained the aftercare to me: keep it wrapped up for the next 24 hours, then take the plastic off and wash it with mild soap and water. Keep it clean and well-moisturised (but not overly so) until the skin is done flaking. He said with this method of aftercare there would be no scabbing, and he was right.

Once I was dressed and finally feeling capable of driving home, I gave Garth a hug and thanked him. He seemed as pleased with the final result as I was and told me I should schedule the waist-to-thigh session as soon as possible. I felt like I was glowing with joy as I walked out to the reception room to pay. At last, my tattoo was going where I wanted it to – it already looked more complete and more like I had always imagined it than it ever had before. Yes, it had been years in the making, but it was certainly worth the wait.

Aftercare was incredibly easy. Sleeping all wrapped up in plastic was a bit uncomfortable, since I got sweaty and thus stingy underneath, but that was about as bad as it got. The first few times I washed the area were also not great fun – if you're familiar with that sunburn-like new tattoo feeling then you'll be nodding in agreement. Within a couple days though, the skin was already flaking to reveal the new, tattooed layer beneath. Unscented aqueous lotion became my new best friend, and within a little over a week everything was completely healed. More importantly, I wasn't even dreading the next session: the pleasure had far outweighed the pain. Every time I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror – when I was naked, of course – I'd feel a thrill of excitement. It's the feeling that always motivates the next tattoo, the always inspires new ideas, that makes you "itch" to go under the needle again.

In the end, it's reassuring to know that we are always changing and evolving, learning and growing. Sure, our skins can't always keep up with us – your ink is not an anchor to some point in your life that will ground you there, but a memento you pick up on the road – but the fact that mine could evolve with me this one time was exactly what I needed to teach me just that.


submitted by: Anonymous
on: 29 May 2008
in Tattoos

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Artist: Garth
Studio: Wildfire
Location: Cape+Town

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