SF DAY 9 – A tattoo

Today is a warm, sunny, beautiful day. I take the M line to the Castro, then hike through blocks (and hills) to Haight. Haight, you say, bewildered? Wasn’t that the place you were at yesterday, that you shat all over in your last post? Why would you go back there? Two reasons: as I said, if you don’t really mind the death of the hippie movement, it is a pretty cool place to hang out at. Two, and you probably guessed it by now: I had an appointment for a tattoo.

A day prior, I had given up on the whole tattoo in SF thing, because every tattoo place I had contacted up to then had been completely booked up or simply didn’t care about taking money from me in exchange for cool body art. Then in Haight I saw this really cool tattoo place and I thought I would make sure they didn’t have a last-minute spot for me. I went in already bracing myself for rejection, asked the guy at the counter: “You guys are completely booked, are you?” He looked at me like I was totally insane and said: “Just come back tomorrow around 12:30pm, all 3 tattoo artists will be there, we’ll probably be able to get you good and tattooed in under a hour”. So I guess the lesson of this story is it never hurts to ask. A lesson I have now accepted and will never put to good use ever again.

I get there today at 12:15pm and meet with one of the tattoo artists who’s not put off by my ideas and gets pretty excited about designing me exactly what I want. He’s really nice, explains every step of the process even though this isn’t my first rodeo, and is just a really cool artist to work with.

Two things: to me, the experience of getting the tattoo and the symbolism of it are just as important as the design itself. It all has to mean something. Why? Because reality is a big pile of bullshit and our lives mean nothing, so why not make sense of inconsequential little things like body art to make it all seem a little okay-er?

This is my 10th tattoo. I got my first one in Brussels with my mom when I was 20 years old. I am now 30 and getting my 10th one in San Francisco alone. Symbolism in numbers. Also, experiences: I’ve gotten a tattoo in all the places I lived in (or visited) that held meaning for me: Belgium, Spain, Cambodia, Thailand, and now the US. It is really important to me to do this here, because it is a way to close the circle.

Usually, I spend months prior to the tattooing agonizing over the design and its symbolism. It has to be pretty, it has to be tied to a song in some way, and it sometimes contains a tiny little black star. The black star is a reference taken from an obscure and shameful piece of pop culture and I will never, never explain exactly where it comes from, because shame.

My first tattoo is simply the phrase “All you need is love”, because I was a big Beatles fan at the time and I still do think it is an important message. I do have more than one Beatles-themed tattoo, even though it is sometimes accidental. My fourth tattoo, for example, is a blackbird, but it is not directly linked to the song.

Take these broken wings and learn to fly. All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arise.

So this new tattoo is a skull with the words “Tyler is a bitch” in print around it. No, it is not. But I did see the art for that design hanging in the tattoo shop, and I do think it is super rad. Kudos to the person getting it.

So my new tattoo is a poppy flower. Why a poppy flower? Because for reasons tied to early childhood memories which I suspect are total fiction anyway, they remind me of my grandma, who was one of the people I loved most in the world. This tattoo’s theme is family, which is something my other tattoos have not been about yet. Other themes in my tattoos are: bravery, adventure, traveling, books and words in general, love and devotion and passion, ideals, all things that define pretty well who I aspire to be. But I had never felt the need to mark my attachment to family into my skin before this moment, all alone in a continent I had never been to, further away than I had ever been to my actual family. Symbolism and irony.

Anyway, nobody cares about this crap.

The tattooer designs me something pretty and simple and small and perfect. I am very fucking satisfied. We choose the placement, he traces it on me, I lie down on the table, he looks at me very seriously and says: “it’s going to hurt”. Yeah dude, whatever. Here we go. He starts. We chat because he’s nice and friendly and excited, and so am I. By some crazy happenstance, the girl who came into the shop right after me is also getting poppies, even though her design and tattooer are different from mine.

I expect to be told they do poppies all the time, since they are the official flower of California. Not our red ones, the bright orange/yellow ones, eschscholzia californica, which grow wild all across the state. In Spanish, they are called “copa de oro”, cup of gold. Perfect fit for the Golden State. But no, they don’t actually do that many poppy flowers. As we sit there chatting, my super nice super cool artist currently tattooing my arm tells me he once tried to plant poppies, “you know, for the opium”, but he doesn’t have a green thumb and they never bloomed. As I “uhuh” back at him, I am shocked through my core. Because, of fucking course, poppies (in this case papaver somniferum) are used to make opium. And heroin. Cool. Cool cool cool cool cool cool cool cool. My sweet tiny pretty flowery homage to my family is also a universal symbol for drugs. Awesome. Lit. Great.

I smile and nod and change course in the conversation. About half an hour later he’s done and the result is even prettier than what I expected. It is perfect. This is exactly what I wanted and hoped for. Minus the drug reference.

And that’s the story of why you do your research on whatever design you get etched onto your skin for the rest of your life, kids.