Sunday Journal: A 61-year-old gets his first tattoo, for better or worse

Roy Peter Clark’s first tattoo honors his wife of nearly 39 years.

Photo by Karen Clark

Roy Peter Clark’s first tattoo honors his wife of nearly 39 years.

I asked Jack, from Atomic Tattoo, whether, at the age of 61, I was the oldest person he had ever inked. "Not by a long shot," he said. Within an hour, I had learned quite a bit from Jack and his pals about the popular art of tattooing.

I learned, for example, that although the tattoo business is not recession-proof, some people get tattoos when they are well off, others when they're down and out.

I learned that there is no part of the body that is not a potential canvas for body art. I may have chosen an old-school spot on my upper left arm, but other clients have paid for inky messages on the inside of their lower lips, on the bottoms of their feet, and in all the private areas of which I dare not speak.

Not every artist will "go there," as one woman explained, but "location, location, location" is not an issue when it comes to the marking up of human real estate. Where you want one, you can get one. One young man in the shop opened his mouth and revealed to his mocking friends a failed attempt the previous weekend to tattoo his own tongue.

I'm a bit squeamish, so you'd think that all this information might have discouraged me from getting my first tattoo, but not so. The shop was as clean as some rooms I'd seen in outpatient medical clinics. Sanitary protocols appeared in place. I was well informed of what the process would be, how long it would take, and what responsible aftercare looked like.

As I waited and flipped through tattoo magazines, I was encouraged by the sounds of one of my favorite British Invasion bands, the Animals. Even We Gotta Get Out of This Place did not discourage me.

I confess to a previous bias against tattoos, a feeling that people, especially young people, should not put anything in or on their bodies that will be hard, expensive or impossible to undo at some later date. I made this case with three daughters and a wife, and they all ignored me. So, for the record, I was the last person in my nuclear family to get an atomic tattoo.

I told Jack, who has a sequence of numbers tattooed on his right cheek (his face!), that I had been married for almost 39 years and that I wanted an image of a heart with my wife's name on it as a present for her 60th birthday. "Wow, 39 years," he said with genuine appreciation.

He walked me through a collection of images from the Old Sailor's school of tattooing: anchors, ships and stylized hearts bearing the word "Mother" or the name of a special girl back home. One heart struck my fancy and Jack redesigned it for me. An hour later, people were standing around looking at my arm with appreciation and respect. "That is one bitchin' tattoo," said a young man who was having about half his body covered with about half a dragon.

Maybe I'll do a dragon next year, but for now I'm quite delighted by a heart in six colors with the words, needled into my skin, "Karen" and "Forever."

It has been more than a month now, and the reactions I've received from far and wide boil down to a handful of questions:

Did it hurt?

It was annoying at first, like getting sensitive teeth cleaned, but I quickly got used to it.

How long did it take?

I was in the shop about 90 minutes, but the inking took about half that time.

How much did it cost?

Eighty bucks plus a tip, a lot cheaper than jewelry.

Why now in your 60s?

Why not? Any drunken sailor on shore leave can get a girl's name tattooed on his chest, but it takes a different kind of commitment to display her name in plain sight later in life — almost like renewing your wedding vows.

What was her reaction?

Total, jaw-dropping disbelief, exactly what I had hoped for. She was certain it was a fake, and it took her most of a day for the permanent reality to sink in. She thought I was incapable of such a thing, which made my decision even more satisfying. Two daughters loved it. But Emily, the sensible one, shook her head. "I'm totally disgusted," she said.

Um, no offense, but what if, God forbid, anything ever happens to your wife?

Then I'll have to start looking for another woman named Karen, I guess. Seriously, I have a pretty strong feeling that women will be generally impressed by a man who loves his wife deep enough and long enough to tattoo her name on his body after four decades of "for better or worse." Almost every woman who has seen it smiles sweetly at me and says, "Awww!"

When he is not being written on, Roy Peter Clark writes and teaches writing at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, which owns the St. Petersburg Times. He is the author of "Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer."

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. GUIDELINES

How to submit your story to Sunday Journal

We welcome freelance submissions for Sunday Journal, a forum for narrative storytelling. A lot happens in a Sunday Journal piece; someone might describe a driving tour of colleges with her reluctant 18-year-old daughter, or an encounter on a scary street at night. We want stories that take us someplace and make us laugh cry or just raise our eyebrows. The stories must be true, not previously published and 700 to 900 words. Send submissions to Sunday Journal editor Mimi Andelman at mimi@sptimes.com. Please include "Sunday Journal" in the subject line.

Sunday Journal: A 61-year-old gets his first tattoo, for better or worse 02/20/10 [Last modified: Friday, February 19, 2010 5:42pm]

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