The studio smelt clean, but not clinical, looked modern with relaxed lighting and a cool ambience. Rap music boomed somewhere in the back: it spoke of an alien culture to me, another world. A studious thrum filled the air, a high-pitched chatter carefully marking ink on skin in the background. Businesslike.
I asked for Gold Frank, we waited and a head popped up. ‘Can I help?’ Introductions done, a mutual friend. Perching on the edge of a pool table we talked about script, freehand, ‘on the day we’ll just do it’ he said. Trust, I thought. Stripped off, a bicep exposed. Silently impressed. My card marked, deposit left, the flash just a memory.
So my first tattoo, a swift decision made after a long gestation. Wednesday arrives, but the nerves don’t. A late appointment gives my mind plenty of time to work its magic, to no avail. In the pre sitting interview, we discuss what I want and where I want it. He gets down to sketching it out on paper. Freehand curves, traditional methods. Brush pens, red, orange. Biro sharpens the image, tight curves are carefully but swiftly drawn, transferred on to carbon. Transferred onto my skin, it feels cold and smells of alcohol.
The preparation of the equipment takes some time. Meticulous and clinical. The method is reassuring and fascinating. Pots of ink set in vaseline anchors, needles cracked out of pristine packets, bright shiny heads, diamond textured glint in the light. Laid on the bed, the cold vinyl against my skin, I remark. ‘You’ll soon warm up’ comes the knowing reply.
Clingfilm wraps the resting pad and the silence in the studio before the needle starts is heavy with anticipation. ‘This your first?’ he asks, ‘Yes’ I say, ‘any tips?’ A pause ‘just lay still’. He begins his work, under the lights. I focus on the leaves barely hanging on to the branches outside the window. It’s hard to describe the pain, so conscious was I dealing with it at the time. I can see why people get addicted to this pain: it ebbs and flows, stops and starts, it scratches, burns, sears, tickles. The artist is expert, moving quickly, wiping, seemingly aware of pain thresholds.
I lose track of time; the two-hour session is a blur of concentration and realisation that my skin will never be the same again. The bare bones of the script is worked on and the design takes shape, ‘I’ll do whatever I think when I’m doing it, see how I feel’ he’d said. There is a bond of trust between artist and sitter, unusually for me I am quite relaxed about the end result. It’s out of my hands and I quite like that freedom.
My left eye waters with the pinching pain, palms sweat coldly. He was right: I did warm up. During cool interludes, I steal brief glimpses of the emerging ink amidst swollen red flesh and smeared blood. I have pins and needles in my right arm, quite literally and in turn, loud rap music throbs in time with the dancing of the needle. The main outline was the hardest to bear, the shading a breeze by comparison and at last came the fine detailed work which brought another dimension to the pain, exquisitely short and sharp.
And then, at once, he was finished. Seemingly satisfied with his endless filigree of curves, the artist sets down his needles, cleanly wipes the inside of my arm and invites me to take a look in the mirror. I’m elated, the complex and delicate artwork serves its fleshy canvas properly. Photographs are taken, iPhones at the ready, Instagram images posted.
The vast inky wound (for it is so) is wrapped in cling film and taped top and bottom with masking tape. The instruction is to slather the tattoo in Bepanthen (nappy rash cream, finding a new market clearly) and keep it out of water. I tentatively pull on my jacket, the tight leather sleeves make me wince. The balance is paid, a handshake and I’m out of the door into the darkened streets, drinking in the cool autumn air.