I watch the hand holding a gun of needles against the flesh of my arm, the points racing across my skin, depositing ink below my epidermis. The omnipresent buzzing is the sound of anticipation, all-encompassing like the noise is originating inside my skull itself.
Tattoos are, fundamentally, a religious experience for me. To get a tattoo is to know God, in my particular religion, in whichever form God may actually exist. A tattoo can be sacred.
I sigh heavily, trying to block out the sweet pain that is the martyrhood of my original self. I’ve gotten tattoos every year or two for the better part of a decade, and I always forget between sessions precisely what it feels like to be tattooed.
It reminds me of the Flagellants, during the Black Death, convinced they could beat the sin from their very skin and end the scourge of the Bubonic Plague. That must have been a sweet pain, too; to feel that close to God through a painful act, a blurring of the physical and the incorporeal, the phenomenology of fear and of empowerment.
“Ok, I need a cigarette break. Why don’t you stretch it out for a few.”
I do, rising from the chair, arching my back to redistribute blood to my limbs. I look down at my arm and smile involuntarily…it’s going to look so good. As I do every time I’m tattooed, I feel cleansed, like I’ve had a shower for my psyche. With each piece, I am regenerated.
I have a bit of a history, you understand. Some of it shames me, some of it saddens me, but at the core of it all was a sense of losing myself; losing my body and my superego, the very essence of what makes me me. When I finally discovered tattoos, after I had clawed my way back up from a rock bottom of adversity, poor luck, and bad choices, I was wholly new. I was reborn from the ashes of my young adulthood like a phoenix. I had a different body, a complete blank canvas housing a soul I was learning to forgive, and it became very important to try and take ownership of it.
My tattoo artist comes back, a pungent cloud of cigarette smoke wafting in behind him. He throws his jacket on a hook, washes his hands, rearranges the tiny plastic cups of ink on the tray draped with sterile plastic, and gestures to me.
“Well, come on. Let’s finish it.”
I beam at him as I sit back down.
“This looks so amazing so far.”
The buzzing commences, a hive of honeybees vibrating against my eardrums. I alternate between attempting to read and chattering on about minutiae as the gently-searing pain travels steadily down my arm. My adrenaline is nearly spent, however, and the discomfort is transforming rather quickly into flat-out pain. I wince.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. But I don’t think I can sit much longer. I’m in agony.”
“Another hour, tops. Suck it up.”
I manage to suck it up for a grand total of ten minutes before I have to speak up again.
“Seriously, I can’t. I have to stop.”
My arm throbs like a fresh wound. Probably because it’s a fresh wound.
He looks up at me, frustration thinly veiled as he speaks through his teeth.
He motions towards the last tattoo he gave me, the first of all seven that is impossible to hide because of its size and location. It is a portrait of the Superman, Zarathustra himself, one Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, looking pensive in all his mustached glory. It took over nine hours to complete and stretches from my shoulder to my elbow. It is my vanity’s Achilles heel.
“You sat through THAT without whining once. And I remember there was a four-hour session in the middle. You seriously can’t sit for another forty-five minutes?”
I am torn now. My pride is injured. To be honest, I’ve always been rather arrogant about my pain-tolerance, my ability to sit through four hours of abuse to my flesh, because the end justifies the means. To admit defeat would bruise my very dignity, would shake the foundation of what I now hold to be true, that I am perfectly able to withstand torture for a greater good.
I look down at Nietzsche, who stares up at me sagely. I remember, as the hours ticked by and the artist tattooed my idol onto my body, how I spoke about Nietzsche’s philosophy and the Will to Power: About mind over matter, about power over others and power over self, about rising above the crappy hand you’ve been dealt to achieve your highest potential and then some.
He sits impatiently, waiting for my decision; hoping, I’m assuming, for his full commission today.
“Well? Are you going to man up?”
“I don’t know if you noticed, but I have breasts.”
“Woman up, then. Come on…think about how good it will feel when you’re done.”
That, at least, is true. The dopamine released after the trauma of a tattoo is the best high I’ve ever experienced, and that’s saying a lot, given my collegiate adventures. It’s not just physical, though; it’s a sense of emancipation. For me, it is the revelation of all in me that might be worthwhile.
I sigh profoundly.
What would Nietzsche do?
Will to Power, I remind myself. Overcome. Ascend beyond the throbbing and greet your highest possible self.
He is waiting, my partner in this sadomasochism that is tattooing. Even at the height of my discomfort, being in the tattoo shop he opened himself is familiar and comforting. I have spent hours upon hours here in a near transcendental state of pain-induced meditation, and the sound of the gun is a lullaby for my troubled mind. Sitting in his chair, I have experienced remnants of my previous life slowly slough away like a snake shedding its skin. Sitting in his chair, I have been finding myself again.
I want to keep going.
I settle back in the chair, calling to mind the near manic joy that is a finished piece of ink, covered in A&D and plastic, a badge of honor and an Ironman trophy. Will to power, I remind myself, and manage a smile in my artist’s direction.
“How’d it go? Is it done?”
My husband is equally covered in tattoos, sharing my spiritual connection to the cathartic nature of the process. We attempt to take turns, given our finite budget and infinite desires for just one more. He has been of the opinion, however, that he deserves a second turn out of order because Nietzsche took four whole sittings and more money than I care to voice aloud.
“Yup! Hurt like hell, but it’s finished!”
“Let me see.”
I shrug off my jacket carefully, gingerly remove my arm from my sleeve, peel back the plastic from my arm, and step into the light. Resplendent and practically life-sized, the octopus’ tentacles wrap around and over my shoulder, down my bicep, and across my back. A series of bright blue rings dot its appendages, and I smile involuntarily at the subtle meaning the tattoo holds for me.
The blue-ringed octopus is one of the most venomous ocean creatures. Its venom contains tetrodotoxin, which paralyzes the muscles, leading to certain death. The octopus is deadly, and I respect it immensely. Something capable of camouflaging itself, of changing shape to protect itself, is an evolutionary victory. I also love that something so deceptively innocuous as a silly-looking cephalopod can rain devastation on its companions like the opening of the marine Seventh Seal.
It is because of its lethality, its total dominion over its own small part of the sea, that I choose to wear it on my body. I’m attempting to hold dominion over that body now, and I’d like to think I’m just as capable, and worthy, of defending it.
He is impressed, despite his best attempts to appear nonchalant. I know him well enough to see that the vague resentment he harbored when I started this piece has faded in the bright sheen of the finished product.
“I know, right?”
I’m immensely pleased with myself.
He rolls his eyes slightly.
“So, like, is it my turn next? FINALLY?”
“Yes, yes, yes.”
I reassure him as I head to the sink to begin the two-week process that is tattoo aftercare. I am vigilant when it comes to tattoo aftercare. I’ve just invested several hundred dollars in original art, after all; I’m not going to let it go to Hell because I’m too lazy to thoroughly coat the area in A&D or something.
He comes up behind me and rests his chin on top of my head as I’m rinsing away suds. We are the perfect respective heights to fit together like that. And other ways.
I pat my arm dry and turn to face him.
“So, what are you going to get? When it’s FINALLY your turn?”
“Luke’s original light saber.”
He says this immediately, like a conditioned response or a deep instinct. I smile as a rush of affection washes over me. I’m less of a Star Wars nerd and more of a Harry Potter nerd; he likes the deep space shows on the science channel while I tend towards Drunk History or Ken Burns documentaries. Nonetheless, we are both freaks, and for two freaks to have found one another is the new 21st century love story.
“What color will it be?”
He rolls his eyes at my ignorance.
“What do you want next?”
This is what we do. We sit around and spend imaginary money we don’t have on theoretical tattoos, looking forward to the next Christmas bonus or tax refund check that will give rise to one of these theories of art.
I pause, a series of thoughts flying rapid-fire through my frontal lobe, one after another, illuminated like lightning strikes. I want to tell him the truth, which is that I’d really like Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. I want to tell him the truth, which is also that my turn might come sooner than we think; I’ve been socking freelancing money away for eight months for his birthday, and I’ve already made him an appointment at the tattoo shop.
I want to tell him the truth, which is also that if my turn does happen to fall at any point over the next several months, I might have to skip it. I want to tell him the truth, which is that you can’t get tattooed when you’re pregnant. And I want to tell him the truth, which is that I stopped taking my birth control last month.
I go with my first instinct.
“I want to get the Vitruvian Man, I think. Probably a huge back piece.”
He sighs exasperatedly.
“Of course…then you can have another four turns in a row.”
Or not, I’m itching to say. Or I’ll be gestating.
It might seem dishonest, not letting my husband know we have no form of birth control.
I guess it is, in a way. A big way. But this is something I want, something I need, and I know it will make us better. Better versions of ourselves. Stronger, like the Ubermensch is stronger.
I know that all the metaphysical filth through which I’ve waded all these years will all be worth it if it ends in a baby. I know that I can look back on my life and affirm it unconditionally if I have a child. And this, right now, is my life. This. I’ve just branded it as such. I alone am in control of the path down which it will travel, and if this is the end I want, then I believe it justifies the means. And I alone can make it happen.
Evolution is behind me on this, after all, singing like a Greek chorus as we all strive to be the fittest. To climb. To conquer. The whole point is to produce offspring to grow to produce offspring, an Eternal Return, and we’re hardwired to love and protect those offspring all-consumedly; a Darwinian sacrifice disguised as good parenting. He would love to have a baby. He would love that baby. I know he would.
What would Nietzsche do?
Will to Power.
I hope it’s a boy.
Shannon Frost Greenstein currently endures a day job while penning the Next Great American Novel. She resides in Philadelphia with her husband and heir, whom she aims to raise as a user of gender-neutral pronouns. Shannon has an unhealthy interest in Friedrich Nietzsche, Game of Thrones, the Summer Olympics, Mount Everest, and the Hill Cumorah Pageant. She was bitten by a koala during her Australian semester abroad. On the ear. Her work can be found, or is due to be published, on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, the Corvus Review Literary Journal, WHYY’s Speakeasy column, the Philadelphia Stories Arts Magazine, the Philadelphia City Paper, The Mighty, The Manifest-Station, The Philly Metropolis and the elephant journal.