I Finally Got My First Tattoo!

A spur-of-the-moment trip to get a tiny finger tattoo turned into an appointment for full-blown, calf-occupying art.
Publish date:
May 16, 2014
Brooklyn, tattoos, pain, Aquaphor, blood, Hand of Glory, scabs

I did it. After several years of hemming and hawing and collecting ideas, I finally got my first tattoo. It didn't go exactly how I planned or imagined it, but I have no regrets.

A few Saturdays ago, I met up with my coworker-friends Carly and Kelly to check out the flea market in my neighborhood, Park Slope. Actually, before Carly arrived (her birthday party was the night before, so she was forgiven for being late), Kelly was telling me about how she'd just recently gotten her first tattoo--an Italian phrase in script--right below one of her boobs.

That must have planted the official seed, because once we were done browsing the records and rings and inordinately gigantic selection of vintage overalls, I said to them, "Hey, you guys wanna come with me to get a tattoo?" They didn't hesitate to say yes.

We were only a few blocks away from the place where several of my friends have gotten really beautiful tattoos, Hand Of Glory.

As we walked over, I told Carly and Kelly how I wanted to get a little star on my right pointer finger, inspired by some song lyrics that mean a lot to me. But when we got there, the artist up front talked me out of it. He explained how finger skin tends to heal weirdly, and it reminded me that Beth had told me finger tattoos often fade and "blow out" more than tattoos on other areas.

"You have finger tattoos," I said to him.

"I'm a tattoo artist," he replied; and even though, in retrospect, that was an insufficient answer, I nodded in acceptance.

"Well, there's another I've wanted for a while now," I said instead of just leaving, and I pulled up a retro robin illustration on my iPhone. He told me he could do it, but would prefer not to as a walk-in so he could have some time to sketch it out and "make it more tattoo-y."

I made an appointment for two days later--Monday night--and he gave me his card so I could email him the illustration: Yonatan "Yone" Caldwell. Instagram username: truejew.

"That's incongruous," my friend Eric said when I told him that; but a part of me was actually a little comforted. Even though my parents didn't raise me religiously, the very first thing my father would say to talk me out of tattoo temptation when I was younger was "Jews can't get tattoos." Well, tell that to Yone, whose own sleeve includes a dreidel.

When I returned on Monday evening, I had narrowed down where I wanted the tattoo to either my forearm or calf. Yone printed out the stencil, and while I was happy with the design tweaks he'd made, I was taken aback by the size, especially when he laid it across my forearm.

"I think it's way too big for my arm," I said. So I rolled up the left cuff of my jeans and he positioned it on my calf. When I looked at it in the mirror, I was still reluctant.

"It can't be any smaller? Not even a teensy bit?" I asked.

"Not really," he said with the same nonchalant tone as absolutely everything else he'd said so far. "It fits the space perfectly."

I chalked up my hesitation to general first-tattoo nervousness, and I gave him the green light. He brought out the cushioned table, and I lay down on my stomach. He did the whole cleaning and prepping thing as I tried to find a way to turn my giant bottle of water into a pillow.

A few very long seconds after the startling rattle-buzz of the needle began, he got to work. And to my surprise, as soon the tattoo was under way, I was at peace with getting it.

As for the pain, it varied. I flinched a few times, and my calf got a workout from tensing up, but I can definitely think of things I've experienced that have hurt more: having half a toenail removed, a wide-gauge needle inserted into the tonsils, tearing a hamstring while cheerleading at a middle school wrestling match, etc.

I was distracted from the discomfort by the other tattoo artist and his two friends who were hanging out in the back, laughing at internet videos of porn bloopers. At one point, when the other artist engaged me in conversation and I told him I'd probably be writing an article about getting my first tattoo for the "feminist beauty website" I'm an editor at (that's always my default description of xoVain when I don't have the energy to go into detail), he said, "Oh, I'm sorry."

"For what?"

"You're a feminist and I've been talking about porn," he said.

"I'm a sex-positive feminist," I explained, and put my head back down on my water bottle, which was actually pretty comfortable.

When it was done less than two hours later, I noticed he used more red than I was expecting; he explained that brown doesn't always translate well in tattoos. But even though it wasn't the exact color scheme as the illustration, I really liked the liberties he took with the design.

He sent me on my way with instructions and an invitation to call or email with any questions. The instructions included keeping it clean without fully submerging it in water, not picking at any scabbing that may occur (definitely the hardest part for me--I'm a picker), and applying Aquaphor several times a day. I stopped at CVS on my walk home and bought a giant tub, which exploded in my new Kate Spade Saturday weekender bag a few days later.

My calf was pretty pink and sore for the next couple of days, and when that passed, I could see that my skin was getting ready to peel. I did my damnedest not to pick at the harder areas (mostly where there was a high concentration of more than one color), but if a feathery piece was hanging on by a whisper and a prayer, I carefully removed it with a tweezer. I probably shouldn't have done even that, but I'm a rebel, as is now evidenced by the tattoo on my leg.

About a week after getting it, I contorted myself to take a super-close look and noticed a few faint lines extending from the tail. I couldn't tell if it was a mistake or part of the design, so, naturally, I texted an extreme closeup to every tattoo-haver I know, including Danielle...

And Emily...

Ultimately, even if it wasn't intentional, I can live with it. That's one of the reasons I decided to put it on my calf--so I wouldn't be able to look at it constantly and obsess over something I can't control.

It's been almost three weeks, and while there's still some dry, flaky skin and one stubborn scab in the bird's mouth, I really do love it. The photo I posted on Instagram the night I got it garnered more "likes" than any Instagram photo I've ever posted; and when I shared the photo with xoVain writers and Trista said, "It looks like a robin illustration from a vintage Golden Book!" I was like, perfect--that was all of the external validation I needed to be the icing on top of my internal validation cake. (I promise to never use that metaphor ever again.)

It has even inspired me to break out of my jeans rut and wear more dresses and skirts. And this will probably come as a surprise to no one, but I'm already thinking about and budgeting for a second one.

I would love to read YOUR first-tattoo story, so please share--with photos, of course--in the comments!