How I got an illegal tattoo at the tender age of 17.

A lot of things that seemed like a good idea when I was a teenager make me cringe in retrospect. For instance: Parting my hair down the middle. Buying a Limp Bizkit CD. And, of course, lying about my age to get a tattoo without my parents’ permission.

It all started with my friend Emily. We had a complicated relationship, in the sense that my feelings for her were more than platonic. Oh, and she had started dating my best friend a few months earlier. Anyhow, Emily got a new tattoo in the fall of our senior year of high school — a brightly colored goldfish splashing across her lower back. I didn’t know to leave well enough alone, so I had a self-righteous hissy fit about what a bad idea it was. After all, she was still 17, and any place that wouldn’t have checked her ID couldn’t have been very safe or trustworthy, and we were talking about needles, and so on and so on.

That winter, she added a second fish to her lumbar panorama, this one from a more reputable ink merchant. Since she already had a tattoo, and had brought an older friend as backup, they apparently hadn’t bothered to verify her age. By this time, I’d not only disregarded my earlier harrumphing, but I also decided that I wanted a tattoo of my own. I don’t want to label my younger self as a hypocrite, but I can’t think of another word for it. So I made plans with Emily to go have my body mutilated by a complete stranger.

I was a bundle of nerves as I waited for Emily to pick me up at home. In those days, I used to get nauseous on a regular basis; for some reason I just couldn’t handle the anticipation when something exciting was on the horizon. My mother once jokingly asserted that I would probably throw up the first time I had sex, particularly if it was with Emily — a bizarre and uncharacteristic observation for her, but probably accurate. On this day, I chugged some Pepto Bismol and avoided telling Mom anything specific about my itinerary.

Emily pulled up to my house and I rushed out the door. Before we even made it out of the driveway, I opened the car door and dry heaved a bit. I repeated the act once we’d driven a few blocks further, but eventually I calmed down and managed to retain my lunch.

Soon we’d arrived at Gypsy’s Tattoo & Body Piercing, identifiable by a garish neon sign: A pair of lips bisected by a protruding tongue with a barbell poking through it. There certainly was no mistaking it for an antiques store. The sign that caught my attention, though, was hand-written: Must be 18 years of age. Proper ID required. I hesitated, but Emily reassured me that they hadn’t even carded her. I walked into the waiting room, with its few rigid plastic chairs and a haphazard stack of old tattoo magazines.

I peered into the next room, where the only artist on duty had his hands full with an intricate shoulders-and-back job. The middle-aged customer was an archetype of the tattoo connoisseur, with his buzz cut and profuse facial hair, and his pale, reddening skin covered in ink. There was a bulldog on his left bicep, a barbed-wire ring around his left wrist, a charming Confederate flag on his right forearm, and an elaborate dragon design on his chest, as well as the name “Diana” across his throat. I wondered if he even spoke to Diana anymore.

The tattooed customer was clearly an old pro at this, but I watched in silent fear as his face contorted in a grimace of pain. He was clenching a white T-shirt in his fists and between his teeth, knuckles white. If this manliest of red-meat men was in such anguish that he could barely suppress his screams, what chance did I have? I’d probably start wailing like a colicky infant the second the needle touched my skin.

After sitting quietly for about half an hour, Emily prodded me to find out how much longer we’d have to wait. I summoned up my courage and shuffled over to the hulking, bearded tattoo artist. Shouting to be heard over the whine of the electric needle, I asked how long it would take him to ink my design — the Pearl Jamstickman” logo, a crude representation of a long-haired man with his arms opened toward the sky. Without missing a beat, he gave the printout in my hand a sideways glance and told me it would be about 15 minutes. That was a bit of a relief; even a dental checkup took longer than that. No matter how much it hurt, I could probably suck it up for a quarter-hour. The artist let me know that it would set me back $50; I had $51 in my wallet, so I couldn’t have tipped the poor guy even if I had known at the time that it was customary to tip for such a service. He told me that he’d be finished with his current project in about another 30 minutes.

Back in the front room, I killed time by checking out the designs on the walls. The most inexplicable featured a sultry-looking nun with her legs splayed, inviting all comers. (I’m not sure I want to know what kind of person spots that artwork and says, “I must put that on my body!”) In a surreal juxtaposition, I could just barely hear the Gen-X quips of the cast of “Friends” over the din in the next room. Finally, it was my turn. I took a deep breath and headed into the workroom to meet my fate. As I sat down, the bearded man pulled out a fresh pair of rubber gloves and unwrapped a brand-new needle and handed me the standard waiver. I skimmed it:

I realize that I may have an allergic reaction … I do not hold this business responsible … I am at least 18 years of age … I understand that this tattoo is permanent …

I stopped and asked the man if I’d read that last part right. I was incredulous that they actually had to remind people that tattoos don’t come off.

“You’d be surprised,” he told me.

I scrawled my name at the bottom of the form and handed it back to him. Without looking up, he asked me how old I was. I blurted out “Eighteen,” the back of my neck burning with guilt.

“Can I just see some ID?”

I froze for a second, shooting a panicked glance at Emily. Her own expression was baffled. Of course they hadn’t carded her — she already had a tattoo and got the benefit of the doubt. In a last-gasp moment of pure desperation, I slipped my learner’s permit out of my wallet and flashed it at the artist, strategically obscuring the month and day of birth with my thumb. All that was visible was the “82.” To my relief, he gave it a quick glimpse and went to work. I’d gotten away with the oldest trick in the book.

First he prepped my lower right back with a shockingly cold alcohol swab. Then he traced the design onto my lower right back in a temporary ink. I approved it, and he got to work. I straddled the chair backwards, and just after the familiar whine of the needle kicked in, I felt an intense burning sensation in my back. I tried to distract myself by watching “Seinfeld,” concentrating with all my might on sitting still. I wasn’t about to pay $50 for a stick figure with one arm much longer than the other, after all. Every time the pain seemed overwhelming and I was about to ask the artist to take a break, he would just happen to stop on his own to refill the ink.

In just a matter of minutes, it was over. I’d gotten an illegal tattoo, and no one was the wiser. I knew that I would catch hell when my parents found out, but whoever said they had to find out? After all, it was on my lower back, and I wasn’t exactly in the habit of walking around the house topless. I was extra-careful to keep my shirt on when I trekked from my bedroom to the bathroom each morning, and I’d sworn my sister to secrecy.

I got away with it for four months. In May, my mom took me to the doctor for a pre-college physical. She stayed in the room while my doctor, a middle-aged woman, asked about my recent medical history. Before I even realized what was happening, she lifted my shirt to check my breathing and said, “Oh, I like your tattoo.”

From across the room, my mother sat up with a start and stared disbelievingly.

“You have a tattoo?”

I gulped. “Yeah.” (What else was I going to say? “Wow! How did that get there?!”)

When it came right down to it, I guess I got off easy. My mother had the sense not to bawl me out in public, and when we did have the inevitable talk about it later that night, she was resigned to the fact that it was already there and couldn’t really be undone. If anything, her attitude seemed to be, “What next?”

She didn’t need to worry about that, it turned out. I had survived my encounter with Gypsy’s Tatoo & Body Piercing, and doing that once was enough.

Article © 2008 by Kevin Brotzman