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Cultural Reclamation - Tattooing a Jew

I've not always wanted a tattoo. Being Jewish, there is a bit of a historical taboo to getting tattooed - during the Holocaust, Jews were tattooed against their wills with numbers as their identifications. These tattoos were on their forearms, and you can still see them on Holocaust survivors today. A very large portion of my mother's side of the family perished in the Holocaust, likely with numbers tattooed on their forearms. For this reason, I've always been reticent about getting tattooed. Recently, however, I've been very interested in the idea of cultural reclamation - that is, to take a symbol or term that has been used in a denegrating way and use it oneself, to reclaim it, as it were. The most prevalent example of this is probably the gay community, who use the word "queer" to describe themselves, and has adopted the pink triangle, itself a symbol of nazi oppression, as a symbol of pride. I decided that I was going to get a tattoo that reflected my Jewishness - a symbol that outwardly identified me as a Jew, to take back the artform of tattooing that was marred during the Holocaust for my people.

It took me a long time to find a design. I settled on a piece of stained glass - a rosette window from a synagogue in Russia (but was once Poland) not far from where my mother's side of the family is originally from. The design was a Mogen David (Jewish Star) with a rose inside of it (my name means rose, but it is a Hebrew name). I decided on this design not only because of the Jewish symbolism, but because the synagogue it came from had most of its windows destroyed during Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. This window survived.

At 5:30 on July 11, 2003, I got my first tattoo at Vision World in Urbana, Illinois. Well, actually, the appointment was at 5:30, but that's when we started working on the placement and got the transfer set. When we came in, Ray had it drawn out for the transfer, but he had the crosshatches on it where the window piece held itself together, which I didn't want. So we took them off, and played with placement - the first try was slightly too big, and I wanted it smaller by about a half inch in diameter all around. We did get it right on the second try - it was placed perfectly. It basically sat at a perfect spot right below the curve of my back and right above where my rear starts to curve - a nice flat(tish) spot that screamed for perfect placement. Ray did not disappoint.

My friend who went with me took plenty of pictures - and that's when I started to get nervous. It was an excited nervous, but nervous nonetheless. Ray had me sit in a position which I thought was far more comfortable than expected; I was positioned sitting on the hump of the big chair (it resembled a dentist's chair) with my feet on a chair in front of me, hunched over as best I could leaning forwards. When I asked if I could hug my knees at any point, he said that I was welcome to do that the whole time, if I wanted. I had watched Julie (Ray's wife and the owner of the shop) prepare the colors in those little disposable caps, and she was very patient with me when I asked her questions about the process of sanitizing and the needle itself. I must admit that seeing the colors in the cups was very different once it hit me that those were truly going to be going into my skin.

I warned Ray that I was a wimp. He offered me a stress ball. I also grabbed my friend's hand and squeezed. We brought some sweet tea so I could keep my blood sugar up, and Reisen chocolates for me to chomp down on to avoid screaming. And then it started. He explained that he was going to go from dark colors to light colors, and started with the outline. When he put that needle down for the first time, it was NOT FUN. I know some people say it doesn't bother them, that it's a pleasant buzzing and not really all that much more painful than a scrape, but I was absolutely in agony. Some parts were worse than others when he was doing the outline - the bottom towards my tailbone and the very top were significantly more painful than the middle. I was also able to take long lines better than small curved spots, and I was able to relax for a few of those. All in all, though, I did not relax the entire time. Yeah, I realize that that's not the best way to endure this sort of thing, bu t trying to relax obviously didn't help. I was tense the whole time.

I needed that chocolate. I didn't squirm, but I yelped and moaned and was really quite miserable the whole time. I elected not to see the tattoo until it was done, so when he asked me if I wanted to see the outline, I said no. My friend took a look at it and gave it a thumbs-up, so that was enough for me. Ray had been talking to me for the entire thing, and there came a point at which he said, "this is about the time people tell me to just shut up and give them their damned tattoo." It was about 45 minutes into the process. On the contrary, just hearing him talk calmed me down a great deal and kept my mind occupied. I asked him to tell me a story. He babbled on and on about how he (fictionally) became a tattoo artist - apparently he couldn't get a job at Taco Bell, or something equally as silly. I was reading some of the articles written about him on his walls, and since I knew he'd been at this for 13 years and was fairly locally prestigious, the bizarre stories struck me a s quite funny. I insisted that he absolutely keep talking, that he should babble or gossip or whatever he wanted to say as long as he didn't shut his mouth. I was chomping on chocolates pretty heavily at this point, and squeezing the life out of my friend's hand. I yelped and whimpered and made strange grunting noises to get myself through the pain, and probably scared off some of the patrons in the shop. He called me a wimp, but he didn't say it in a judgmental way - I guess he's seen enough people to know who's a wimp and who's not without taking it personally or judging one's character based on it.

The feeling of the tattooing itself is hard to describe. I've experienced a great deal of pain in my life, with knee problems and the backaches and migraines and other various aches and pains. This was nothing like them. All of the pain I've previously experienced in my life has been an internal sort of pain. This was very external, literally on my skin (of course). It was sort of a scraping burning feeling, and I can't really describe it with any valid reference point. At various points in the process, I described it as: Satan dragging his fingernails against my back, a hot poker carving into my flesh, sharp fire scraping against my skin until it blackened and fell off, and other sundry descriptions. They all more or less focused on the sensation of a very sharp scraping and hot burning. The worst was when it felt like he was going over a part more than once, the pain hadn't subsided when he made his second round and it was absolutely agonizing. Before the whole process sta rted, I asked him whether the outlining or the coloring would hurt more, and he told me that different people said different things. Well, here's my take on it: the both hurt equally. A LOT.

I tried desperately to breathe evenly. I hyperventilated once, and caused myself to get light headed. I recognized it quickly, and put my head between my knees and told him to wait for just a minute. I told him I needed a drink. He laughed and said, "Me too." Of course, that lead me to chuckle and tell him that I had meant some tea, and that he could have anything he wanted to drink after he was done tattooing me. In fact, I said, I'd BUY him anything he wanted to drink after the tattoo was done - just finish the damn thing with as little pain as possible. I had some sweet tea, and he resumed a minute later. It was the only break I had. I cracked all of my friend's knuckles and turned his hand white. I bit him once, when he put his hand too close to my mouth when I was shrieking. It was absolute agony for two more-or-less solid hours.

At about 7:50ish, he announced that he was done, and I should look at it in the mirror. I checked it out - it was beautiful. He captured the stained glass swirls perfectly, and it looked like an utter work of art. The was only one spot I wanted him to change a bit - one corner of the star in the original was translucent and clear-ish, and he left it mostly bare on my skin, and it didn't translate well. I hopped back onto the chair and had him fill it in with more blue, and after that I was satisfied. He bandaged it up with paper towel and scotch tape. I paid him the rest of the $200 (I gave a $40 deposit for my appointment), and asked him what he drank, since I was going to keep true to my promise to get him anything he wanted to drink when he finished. He mentioned a type of beer, so I resolved to get him some as a thank-you. Since he's the owner of the shop, I didn't really know how to handle the tipping, but this worked out. I thanked him and Julie and headed out.

I kept the bandage on for four hours. When I took it off that night, there was literally no blood. Ray was good - a gentle touch. Or, at least, as gentle as you can be with a tattoo needle. There was some oozing, but it didn't really stick the paper towel to the skin at all, and it was utterly beautiful. I put some lotion on it, which stung a lot, and I went to bed sleeping on my stomach.

The next day, it was still sore but not acutely so. I was able to run some errands, and I picked him up his favorite beer and some cinnamon sticks from Taco Bell (long story, but they were appropriate) and dropped them by Vision World. Ray wasn't in, but his wife took them and seemed genuinely touched that I gave them something that wasn't thoughtless and banal. I've been putting lotion and vitamin E on it several times a day. It isn't oozing or really even scabbing. I love it. It's beautiful.

Suffice to say, I would really recommend Ray at Vision World for tattooing. He was incredibly patient with me even though I was a basket case. I knew it was going to hurt, so I can't really hold that against him. His chairside manner (for lack of a better term) was excellent and accomodating, his wife was charming and nice to talk to, and the place was clean and professional.

I'm sure that once I forget the agony, I'll get another one. It may be a while, though.


submitted by: Anonymous
on: 19 July 2003
in Religious and Mythological Tattoos

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Originally written by juniper

Artist: Ray A. Hughes
Studio: Vision World
Location: Urbana, IL

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