It's almost impossible to get a person naked without finding some ink. Tattoos used to be counter-culture, but now they're so common that when I tell people I don't have any, I'm usually asked, "Why not?"
Beyond making me easily identifiable if I were ever to commit a crime, getting a tattoo is an invitation for strangers to come up to me and ask me to explain it. And that seems really annoying. This week I went out and asked five random people to explain theirs.
1. Chris Rapoza, 33, Bartender
I found Chris sitting outside Pearls, a bar in Bushwick. He's spent about $1K on tattoos.
How old were you when you got your first tattoo?
"I was 15, got it in Fort Collins, Colorado 20 years ago and it was cheap as shit. $50 or $60 after tip. It was part of this one., the praying hands. This one I added on to it, the volleyball."
So your praying hands are playing volleyball?
"They are now."
Why did you get that first one?
"It was much easier to convince my pastor parents to get a tattoo if it had some religious symbolism to it. So I went with that. I left the church pretty shortly after. And then somebody had a funny idea, like, you should just put a volley ball there. It's like, that's hilarious."
So you got it because of your parents, but you just wanted a tattoo?
"I just wanted a tattoo, I was a stupid kid. I got this one shortly after, which is a star band around my arm, which is a very good argument as to why they shouldn't let teenagers get tattoos."
Do you regret either of those?
"I don't regret them. I just wish I'd had better taste as a younger man."
But isn't that the whole thing about tattoos? Taste does change, but the ink doesn't.
"Yeah that's true, but I haven't made much better decisions as I've gotten older."
2. Elise, 29, Catering/Musician
Elise has four tattoos, but they're all a bit hidden so she "wouldn't have to look at them all the time." She has spent about $500 in total on her ink.
I noticed the musical notes on the back of your arm, and you said that's a bad story. What's the bad story?
"Yeah, that one my friend just called me and said, 'hey let's go get tattoos,' and we just went like an hour later."
At what point did you figure out that that's what you were going to get?
"For that one, about 20 minutes before we went in. We decided we were going to do it, so we went to this bar around the corner and had a beer and talked about it. I didn't get my first even until like a couple months before that, and that one I thought about for nine years. I still am surprised I did it. I don't regret it, I like them a lot but its not very like me to just spontaneously get something like that."
Elise has three other tattoos, a symbol from a Manga series, an image from the cover of her favorite book, and Elliot Smith lyrics on her rib cage.
3. David, 25, "I work"
David agreed to be interviewed, but did not want his face or his tattoos shown. Before we began, he asked that we use a fake name.
What's your fake name?
David? That's your fake name?
"That's my real name."
No, what's the fake name you want to use?
"I want to use that name, David."
You want to use David as your fake name?
Got it. Ok, so tell me about your tattoos? Why did you get them?
"I like the pain. I like that pain. I like pain, yeah."
What about this one on your hand?
"Money over everything."
What do you do for a living?
4. "Brittany", 24, Advertising
Brittany asked that I use a fake name. She is still healing from a tattoo of a lotus flower she got on her foot this week.
Why did you get this tattoo?
"I really wanted a lotus flower because of what the lotus flower represents, it's supposed to mean a beautiful flower growing out of muddy waters coming out of hard times. And I feel like I went through a lot in the past year and a half. So it was a perfect time to get it. And then I fell in love with the mandala flowers, which are supposed to represent wholeness, so I just thought it was a good mesh of things, kinda of like being whole and getting out of this hard time in my life."
What happened in the last year and a half?
I got out of a crazy relationship with an ex-boyfriend, and I think it was also a lot of, I graduated college two years go and just living by myself and trying to live in the city and just get through everything.
Do you feel like you have emerged?
"Yeah, I feel like things are going really great in my life right now, and that's why I thought it was the perfect time to get it because I'm really happy with the way everything is right now."
Brittany has three tattoos, including a sun-and-moon tattoo she and her best friend got behind their ears, and a John Lennon quote "life is what happens when you're making other plans."
Pete, 40's, Owner of Do Or Die Tattoo
Pete has been a tattooist in New York since before it was legal in the 90's. He was one of the original founders of Occupy Wall Street, and says that that movement was more artistic than any of the tattoos he's done or received. Pete began talking before I could ask him any questions.
"The way I view it, there's a psychological component to getting tattoos that a lot of people dismiss or don't pay enough attention to. If you look at all the images and stuff that are in what I call the standard cannon of designs, they're pretty much about everything that happens in life: love, death, broken hearts, disappointment, wanting money... there's all these things. Even the people who I think get it for the worst reasons, they want to look cool, they still want to look like they fit in. They're in denial of their psychology."
Are you completely covered in tattoos?
Was that your first one?
"The first tattoo I ever got I did on myself. On my foot, just a couple of lines with a thread and needle."
When was that?
"When I was 12."
How do you pick your artists?
"I worked with just about everybody who has tattooed me."
So you work with them and then you let them? Or you choose them?
"Or I'm forced to be."
What do you mean forced to be?
"I've been forced by a couple of people to get tattooed."
"They're like, you're going to be put down now."
"They're like, 'oh, we're gonna put you down now.'"
What do you mean?
"Put me down with the crew."
So this is like, a gang thing?
"Mmm, I wouldn't call it a gang. I would just call it a group of people. I mean, I got some gang tattoos too, but that's from a long time ago."
So who tattooed you against your will?
"Not against my will. They were friends of mine just like, 'you're getting it now.'"
Can I see that tattoos you were forced to get?
(Shakes his head no)
Will you describe them?
(Shakes his head no again)
"'Cause they're very offensive."
Offensive to who?
Are they offensive to you?
Does it bother you to see those?
"No. Not everything I dislike is necessarily bad. Not everything I like is necessarily good."
Are there tattoos you want to get but you can't now?
"I still got small spots, if I wanted to get something I could probably get something, but I'm kinda over getting tattooed."
You are? Why?