Nes smiles. He refrains from rolling his eyes when I tell him what I want. I say, “I thought the AC/DC logo would look cool, but with my initials, and my girlfriend’s.” I beat him to the punch by adding, “I know you’ve probably done a lot of cover-up tattoos on names, right?” Nes says, “I’ve done names, and a year later, I’m doing a tattoo over that when they’re dating someone else. I say ‘I told you.’ ”
The few tattoo artists here tell me cover-ups look great. Certain things like roses work well, because there’s so much going on it obscures the original tattoo. They all agree that cover-ups of previous tattoos are among the most common thing they do.
The tattoo is going to have our initials “KB/JB” with a lightning bolt in between. I have a huge scar across my stomach, and I want the lightning bolt to start at the scar.
Nes goes in back and draws the logo, looking at one of the album covers I brought in. He draws on tracing paper, and asks me what I think, before it gets put on my skin.
He cleans the area he’ll work on and slips on latex gloves. I say, “I guess you don’t spell names wrong, if you’re showing the person it first.” He says, “No, I never have. I have heard of people that have done Chinese characters wrong, and it spells something completely different.” I mention the story of Britney Spears in 2002. She got a kanji (Chinese characters used in a Japanese form of writing) that she thought meant “mysterious.” It actually meant “strange.” No joke needed there.
A young African-American kid is standing nearby with his friend. He’s a graffiti artist that goes by “Oper.” He says, “There’s a funny clip of Tupac Shakur giving shit to someone in his posse. The guy had a Chinese character, and Tupac said, ‘You don’t even know what that means! It probably says “two egg rolls” or something.’ ”
I ask Oper if he wants to get into tattooing, and he says he does. He’s 19, and I ask how many tattoos he has. “I don’t have any yet,” he says. “I haven’t decided what I want. But Nes has tattooed my mom. She had ‘older sister’ written in Chinese symbols. I’ve drawn a few, like my cousin’s skull. It’s graffiti-style. And I did lilies for my girlfriend that he tattooed on her.”
I asked if artists like Peter Max or Banksy have work that looks nice tattooed. Neither of them know who Max is, but Oper says, “Yeah, man, Banksy is dope. He’s got great stencils.”
At this point, a liquid is smeared on my skin. It’s green soap, and every tattoo shop uses it, and smells like it. It’s used both in the prep process and to clean the area afterward. It reminds me of an aroma you’d get in the hospital.
The tattooing gets underway. Nes asks, “How is it feeling?” and I say, “Not as bad as I thought. But I’ve donated 14 gallons of blood, so needles don’t bother me.” He says, “Well, I just did a few little lines first, so we could ease into it.”
When he kicks it up a notch, I can feel a burning and pinching sensation. It’s odd to see so much stretching of the skin. I notice there’s a lot of scrubbing, too. I’ve broken my arms four times over the years, and they would do that to clean an area of the skin. In tattooing, it’s used to fill in an area with ink.
I notice the ceiling tiles all have different graphics. “That’s a good idea,” I say. “You can give people ideas for future work.” Nes laughs and says, “That’s more to take people’s mind off the pain.” I glance down and see blood, and I ask, “Do certain people bleed different than others?” He says, “Yeah. It seems red-haired guys with pale skin bleed a lot more.”
I ask about tattoos on various races, if it’s more popular in any one culture, especially with so many hip-hop artists and rappers sporting ink. “No,” says Nes. “It’s pretty much popular everywhere now. Maybe less so in Asian cultures.”
Nes doesn’t do anything racist or gang related.
Oper’s friend says, “Man, I can’t believe you’re just talking and taking notes while this guy is tattooing you.” Oper says, “Yeah. When people usually have their first tattoo, they’re clutching something or squirming a lot. But it’s good you aren’t. Nes won’t finish on someone that’s crying.”
I ask if it’s common for people to freak out over the pain. Nes says, “Sometimes. I once was doing a dolphin on this woman. She thought it hurt so much, she wouldn’t let me finish. I had just done the tail. I tried to convince her to let me at least do the outline of it, but she wouldn’t.”
One thing he doesn’t try to talk people out of is stupid tattoos.
“If people know what they want, they obviously think it’s cool. If somebody has a real elaborate picture I might [try to talk them out of it]. Not because I can’t do it, but if it’s something like a ship, with a bunch of intricate lines, they’ll eventually bleed under the skin and it’ll be mess. You won’t be able to tell what certain things are. Lines always end up connecting if they’re too close together. When you tell them it’s too detailed, they usually say that’s what they liked about it. Sometimes I’ll try to talk a woman out of having a fairy tattooed on her stomach. I tell them it’s not going to look so good after time.”
What are the most painful areas?
“Where you are getting it done, on the side and stomach, and any part that bends — like the elbow or wrist. The upper arm is probably the least painful.”
I look down again, and think he should be farther along then he is. I notice beads of sweat on his bald head and ask if I’m distracting him by talking. He says no, so I continue.