The right to bare arms

Ashley Tattoo_3

For the first time that I can remember, I woke up this morning and put on a tank top without worrying about the fact that my bare arms would be exposed to the world’s judgment. And it’s all because of a tattoo.

That might sound melodramatic: The idea that my sensitivity about the fact that I have large, muscular arms might significantly impact a number of things, including my wardrobe, my self-esteem, and my aversion to warmer weather that tends to call for skin-baring clothing. I know the size of my arms shouldn’t really matter, especially when they’ve been shaped by nearly a decade of pole-vaulting and various other sports, including classes I now take at the gym four days each week. But there’s no rationalizing with the self doubt that lingers in the darker corners of my brain, forcing me to judge myself for things that shouldn’t and don’t matter, and imagining that other people will judge me for them as well.

That was just one of the reasons I decided to get a tattoo. There’s a lengthy list of these reasons, among them that I think that a well-executed tattoo is beautiful, I’m intrigued by the idea of the body as a canvas, the aforementioned shame about my muscular arms, and no small measure of curiosity.

What does it feel like to have your body marked in ink? How much does it hurt? How will I react to the pain? Such moments are, I feel, a good test of a person’s mettle. I don’t mean that a person is or should be defined by how much pain they feel, or how they react to this pain. Mostly, I think that in these moments you truly know yourself. Given that we’ve all evolved with survival mechanisms that deter us from seeking out pain, the decision to willingly and deliberately put yourself in a position guaranteed to inflict pain is completely illogical, makes no sense whatsoever. And yet people do it. In fact, most of the people I know who have tattoos describe the experience as something of a rush.

Several years back I accompanied my mom when she got a tattoo. She has a pretty high pain tolerance, and she managed the pain by chewing gum. When something particularly hurt, I could hear the snap of the gum in her mouth and I winced on her behalf. I also went with my boyfriend Colin when he received his second and most recent tattoo. He went into the appointment nervous and got a head rush when the tattoo artist finally started marking his forearm with the tattoo gun.

Then there’s the vulnerability. Even if you’ve met the person tattooing you (and I highly recommend meeting the tattoo artist, at least for a consultation before putting something permanent in your skin), they’re still going to see you in a way few of your family and friends ever will. They’re going to see parts of your body you might not always expose to the public; they’re going to hear the incredibly personal story of why you’re getting this particular tattoo, meaning they’re going to learn what matters to you and sometimes what hurts you (emotionally, not physically); and they’re going to leave you with a permanent mark. All of these things require trust. From a complete stranger.

Then–and this was the tough part for me–there’s the permanence. I’ve always had a problem with the idea of expecting anything to last permanently. It doesn’t matter how much I like something, if someone tells me I’m going to be stuck with it forever, I go into Lost Boy Mode faster than your cliche sitcom shitbag who jumps ship at the first whiff of commitment. Maybe it’s my generation. Maybe it’s just me. But I don’t like thinking that far out. It feels silly and futile to try to predict what will happen in five years, much less 50.

Plus, I’m terrified of needles. Fortunately, I don’t happen to view tattoo guns as needles, so I was able to walk into the tattoo shop without even a shred of fear. Is it logical that a trip to the doctor’s office to draw blood literally requires them to tranquilize me but I can face a tattoo needle for three and a half hours without flinching? No. But that’s the thing about phobias: They aren’t rational. Phobias are more like my horror over the size of my arms–debilitating without much substance to them.

Maybe it has something to do with recently turning 30, but I’ve been pushing myself lately to try new things, especially if those things intimidate or scare me or just plain make me uncomfortable. I’ve known that I wanted a half-sleeve for quite some time and had put together a file of 30-some papers with reference images and descriptions of how I wanted it to all come together. I found a tattoo artist whose work blew me away (Jillian Wefald at Traditional Tattoo in San Luis Obispo) and scheduled a consultation with her. Obviously I can’t speak for her, but judging by her expression when I handed over my file of reference images, most people don’t walk into their consultation with quite so many images and ideas. (Which scared me a little, because who goes into a tattoo shop and just picks something out of the book? OK, I know people do that, and I know I’m being unfairly judgmental, but it scares me that people would put less thought into something permanent than they do into ordering a pizza. End judgmental rant, I swear.)

We had to modify my ideas (which I expected since I am  not an artist) and finally scheduled a date to get started: Friday at noon. Because of the size and complicated nature of the tattoo, it took about two hours to get all the stencils placed on my arm. It was worth the time, though, because seeing the lines and images helped ease some of my nerves over the whole “THIS IS PERMANENT” aspect of what I was doing.

We got started and I have to admit that all of my attention was focused on assessing the level of pain. Which was, as it turns out, extremely bearable. The best way I can describe it is that moment when you’re being scratched and it burns briefly. Only, constantly, for several hours. (As I mentioned, the appointment started at noon and I left around 6:30 p.m. so Jillian worked on my arm for quite awhile, but she worked rapidly, which was rewarding for me because I got to watch the piece develop.) I think my least favorite part was when she inked in some words on the inner crease of my arm, but it didn’t take more than a couple minutes and, still, the pain never approached anything even approximating intolerable.

Ashley Tattoo



While she worked, Jillian told me about a piece she got done on her ribs and described the pain as having a scalpel dragged across her ribs. I hadn’t been planning to get a rib tattoo, but I’m definitely not planning on it now. Mostly though, I was pleased with my ability to distance myself from the pain, to convince myself that was happening somewhere else, in a place that didn’t really matter. We took a 10-minute break for me to eat a quick veggie burger and then were back at it.

By the time Jillian decided to call it quits for the day, I felt as though I had gotten the worst sunburn of my life. Also, my body was starting to tremble a little, and I definitely wanted a break from the pain. Even a bearable amount of pain tends to wear on you  after a few hours. Mostly, I wanted to curl up on my beanbag at home to sleep, but I was already late for my friend’s birthday party in LA so what I actually wound up doing was getting in my car and driving for three hours (totally worth it because I got to see some really good friends for the weekend, but I still don’t advise committing to a lone road trip after that many hours getting tattooed.)

Am I happy? Absolutely. We’ve still got some work to do–the jaguar shark from Life Aquatic on my forearm and part of a typewriter on my inner arm (yeah, it’s gonna hurt; yeah, I’m just gonna push through it), which should add up to two more (though shorter) rounds. But I already feel different–excited, proud that I committed to something, hopeful about the work that remains, and maybe just the slightest bit badass because I was unfazed by the pain.

Am I recommending that you run out of your house at this very moment and get a tattoo? That’s a complicated question. It’s a very personal thing, and I think that in order to get a tattoo you need to understand that your goal is to please only yourself; I’ve heard about people with tattoos getting flack about their decision from other people, who frankly have no business dictating what someone else should and should not do with their body. Mostly I think it’s a generational thing, though obviously that’s not the only explanation since my mom and a number of other people from different generations have tattoos and are very proud of them. If you really want one, my opinion is generally to go for it. But I think that applies to anything in life–a job, an opportunity to travel, a creative project. I got tired of talking about the tattoo I wanted and finally did something about it. And even though I still feel as though I’m recovering from the worst sunburn of my life (which is really saying something given my skin tone), I don’t regret a single second I spent in that chair, testing myself and exploring a new way to express my love of literature to the world.

(As always, photos by Colin Rigley. And I apologize of the photo below looks a little strange; I happened to be trying on a bridesmaid’s dress when Colin finally cornered me with the camera.)






  1. You really did like Cosmicomics, didn’t you?!

    • Haha! I was waiting for someone to recognize it. And yeah, I really, really did. I’ve always had a thing for the moon and that story was just kind of perfect. It’s not my absolute favorite short story, but it’s my favorite that could reasonably be communicated in ink on my body.

  2. I love it. I’ve been wanting a tattoo for the better part of 20 years. Not the courage or the money yet, yours is inspiring. 🙂

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