The young sailor walked into the tattoo shop and gawked at the seemingly endless illustrations of tattoos. The name of the shop was Painless Nell’s. It was 1970 in downtown San Diego.
The middle-aged woman behind the counter gave the ink virgin plenty of time to look. She smiled and said hello but, otherwise, let him go. She was used to gawkers coming in the shop. They came in often and walked out with their skin unmarked.
With his net pay being only $78 for each half of a month, the sailor was hesitant about putting $20 down on the counter for tattoo. Still, he wanted one. The question was which one?
Finally, he settled on a picture of a cutlass drawn to look skewered under the skin and back out again. It was embellished with a scroll that read Death Before Dishonor. The tattoo was mostly of black outlines with a little shading here and there to give the picture depth.
The only color fill required was on the handle and the hilt of the cutlass. There was green, yellow and red to fill in on that part of the tattoo. The sailor paid for his tattoo and, at the woman’s direction, stepped behind the counter and sat his slender frame down in the straight wooden chair provided.
Even with her customer in the chair the woman didn’t talk much. She washed the sailor’s forearm, shaved the blonde hair from it and laid on an outline of the image with a template. With her toe on the foot pedal the tattoo pen buzzed to life as the electric motor on top of the pen set the needle to vibrating rapidly in and out of the pen tip.
As the outline and shading was done the sailor sat calmly, experiencing only minor discomfort from the needle cutting into his skin. The yellow fill on the handle of the cutlass was a little bit painful but it didn’t last long. The dark green fill on the handle and hilt would have been reason not to get a tattoo had the young sailor understood, before the fact, what was going to happen.
The woman drew the fill-in needle back and forth, back and forth, back and forth across the sailor’s skin to fill in the green. The nerve endings under the skin’s surface screamed in response to each pass of the flesh piercing needle. The surface of skin was soon more than tender but back and forth, back and forth she continued, to fully embed the color into the young sailor’s skin. The tattoo pen went back and forth, again and again and again.
The sailor’s friend could see that his companion was hurting as he turned pale and his head started swaying, first one way, and then the other, as consciousness ebbed away. A young man and young woman, probably just curious gawkers, came into the shop and were watching.
The artist finished the green. There was only a little bit of red left to fill. The worst was over.
“Are you okay? The artist could see that her customer was struggling.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” He wasn't lying. His head started to come back to him, for the short time it took to prepare for last color. Then the buzz of the pen was in his ears again.
The young sailor’s sense of hearing was soon overridden by returned screams of assaulted nerve endings. Still, he was certain that he could get through this. The jabbing needle tip, however, did not relent. It continued dancing, like a jack hammer on concrete, to pierce and re-pierce the surface of his skin to receive the ink.
The sailor came back to consciousness with his face on the floor. Any of the three people watching this event, if they had been thinking about getting a tattoo, may have got over the idea about then. The woman expressed her disgust and turned for the door. Her boyfriend followed.
The sailor got back into the chair and the artist wiped the bleeding wound clean.
“I think that I’m done.”
It was hard to tell, with blood oozing through, where there was supposed be red fill. The woman didn't want to send her customer out unfinished but she also didn't want to pick him up from the floor again.
“If it doesn’t look right when it heals, then you can come back and I’ll touch it up for you.”
The red fill was never as rich as the green and yellow, in the tattoo, but the sailor didn't return for a touch-up. A few months later he got another tattoo, on the other, arm without an event as severe as the first.
As a civilian, in the years that followed, the former sailor sometimes wore long sleeves where displaying the folly of his youth might seem inappropriate. When he would hear young people speaking of getting a tattoo, he would roll up a sleeve for them.
“Just so that you know, this is what it will look like in twenty years.”
“What does it say?” The viewer would often ask.
That old tattoo had long since lost its sharp definition and color. The edges were blurred, the color was faded and the print wasn’t any longer legible.
Yet, another generation has passed and tattoos have become the trend among many circles of young people. The old veteran sailor isn't self-conscious about his tattoos anymore. He doesn't hesitate to show ink virgins what is in their future, if they take ink into their skin.
Another young sailor now walks the footsteps of her grandfather but she won’t find the shop where he was inked. Painless Nell’s became Ace Tattoo many years ago. Later, a downtown San Diego redevelopment, forced the shop from the downtown location. They’re now in Ocean Beach.
Wherever the shops are, this young sailor will find one and make her choice to be a gawker or a living canvas. Then, as she matures through her life, she will know her consequences, whether she realizes them now, or not.