At this point in my life, I have so many tattoos that, from a concerned parent’s perspective, I’m kind of a lost cause. They range from intricate works of classic tattoo design to “shit I got when I was drunk” (most notably, a Drake-inspired stick-and-poke that a former coworker applied on my leg over over several painful hours while I was laying on the bed of a friend, who, coincidentally enough, I’d go on to work with at The Outline about five years later). What I’m saying is that if there were a line between “not-tattooed” and “tattooed,” I probably crossed it around the time I got 40 percent of my left arm covered in tattoo ink.
Rarely have I actually chosen the tattoos I’ve received. I’ve been lucky enough to get a pair of tattoos from Isaiah Toothtaker, one of the modern masters of the form, who explained that the way certain tattooers work — including him — is that the client books them for a certain amount of hours, and then they work out a design for you based on that timeframe. When we began chatting about getting my first tattoo from him, I initially asked if he could put my dog’s face on my arm. His response was something to the effect of, “No way man, let me give you a real tattoo.” Several hours later, I ended up with an intricate design of a rose atop a skull with alluringly bright gems for eyes — something that I’d never thought to ask for, and something that I truly cherish.
The next time he tattooed me, he gave me four choices of designs he’d put together; I opted for a Greco-Roman figure in profile that he whipped up and slapped on my forearm, a few inches below my skull and rose combo. I was initially nervous to have such a visible tattoo, but he said that he was really proud of it and wanted people to see it, so on the forearm it went. Again, I would have never directly asked for something like that, and I wouldn’t have asked for it in that position, but if I could go back in time and re-do that session, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Though I realize that standard-operating procedure for many tattoo shops involves booking a consultation with a tattooer where you discuss what you want, and then have them whip up a design based on your conversation, for me, getting tattooed is an exercise in trust. You are quite literally placing your body’s fate in the hands of someone standing over you, wielding a mechanical needle that’s repeatedly stabbing permanent ink into your skin. In my eyes, the amount of trust that takes is way higher than trusting them to put something cool on your body. Ultimately, skilled tattooers know what they’re doing even when you take yourself out of the equation. They have an intuitive sense of what looks aesthetically appealing, and they can quickly sniff out what a person won’t want on their body and adjust accordingly. At this point, when I get tattooed, I want as little input in the process as humanly possible.
For this reason, I became intrigued when Welcome Tattoo, a shop around the corner from where I live, set up a “get what you get” program (often shortened to GWYG). Such programs have risen in popularity over the past few months, popping up in shops in the Bay Area, Brooklyn, Chicago, Arizona, Ohio, Dallas, you name it. They work like this: You give the people at the tattoo shop some money, and then they give you a coin to put in a gumball machine that’s filled with pre-drawn tattoo designs. If you like what the gumball machine spits out, you get it tattooed on you; if you don’t, you can usually give them a little bit more money and take another spin.
While a “normal,” non-random tattoo at my nearby shop, which is run by a locally renowned tattooer named Kohen Meyers, has an open-ended pricing structure “based on size, detail, complexity, and location” that can quickly get into the multiple-hundreds-of-dollars range, its “get what you get” tattoos are relatively inexpensive. It’s $100 for a spin on the machine, $20 if you want a mulligan, and $50 extra if it’s not on your arms or legs (there’s an additional fee if you want a tattoo with colors rather than something black-and-white tones). All of this means that if you want a nicely designed tattoo from a place of Welcome Tattoo’s stature without breaking the bank, “get what you get” is an incredibly affordable temptation. And it’s one that, if you couldn’t guess, I recently gave into. For the sake of having options, I took two spins on the GWYG machine and ended up with these choices:
While I found the “devil-guy with earrings and pigtails” to be very punk rock and generally sick, I opted for the panther, in part because I was afraid of what my mom would think of me getting a devil tattooed onto my skin, but mostly because of the two designs, the panther spoke to me more. I’ve spent most of my life in North Carolina, home of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. While I was never a big football fan growing up, for a few months in 2003 and 2004, my 14-year-old self was obsessed with the Panthers, led that season by a quarterback named Jake Delhomme, who specialized in leading the team to come-from-behind victories and ended up taking them all the way to the Super Bowl. After watching game after game in which the Panthers, who’d only won a single game the previous season, made it seem as if anything were possible, the team ultimately lost the NFL championship to the Patriots (to be fair, everybody else lost to the Patriots in the Super Bowl back then, too). In a flash, I stopped caring about football.
Until I saw that panther, those months were a distant memory, one of many stretches in my life where I was really into something, only to stop caring as suddenly as I’d started. And now, snarling in my face, was a tattoo design that brought it rushing back to me. And soon enough, it was etched above my right kneecap.
The thing about getting tattooed that I always forget is that it hurts like hell. When my new friend Paul — pictured above — made the first few strokes with his needle in my leg, I nearly passed out with shock, partially because I didn’t have a ton of muscle in that area to dull the pain, and partially because I’m a gigantic wimp. The feeling of “holy shit, someone is dragging a knife through my skin at a glacial pace” was soon replaced by an overwhelming euphoria that reminded me of going to a really loud and intense noise concert. And as my body got used to the sensation, I began to accept that (a) getting tattooed is an extreme experience, and (b) I might as well get used to it because I wasn’t going to be getting up for a while. A couple hours of outlining (“ow” until your adrenaline gets pumping and you kind of forget that your body isn’t supposed to feel like that), shading (“this hurts so much less badly than the outline did that I’ve managed to convince myself it actually feels good”), and finishing touches (“arghhhhhh, can we wrap this up it’s hurting again”) later, and I was left with this:
As I write this, my panther has nearly fully healed and, as North Carolina closes out its naturally short winter, is ready to meet the world whenever I go out of the house wearing shorts. Right now, it serves as a reminder of that specific time in my life when I improbably liked sports, but when it comes to tattoos, meaning is malleable. With time, it may come to simply represent my connection to my home state, or the stretch when I lived around the corner from a tattoo parlor, or simply a reminder that it’s important to put your trust in the universe. After all, I gave the universe $120, and it gave me a tattoo that looks cool as hell.