I screamed for the last time. A long, loud, delicious scream. All my epidermal pain receptors stood at attention. I prayed that the isopropyl alcohol would do its job well. The piece of cotton emerged black from the excess ink, and bright red from the blood I shed. Then I vomited. My lizard, which I named “Liv,” meaning life, emerged from my pain, beautiful.
By Jhoanna Lynn B. Cruz
Posted by Bulatlat.com
Five years. It took me five years to finally gather the courage to go. No, not because I was afraid of the pain, but because of its permanence. For someone who is enamored with the idea of the mutability of things, feelings, ideas, the tattoo is a horrifying object d’art0: indelible forever, under my skin, in my blood.
In the studio of the tattoo artist, the process began with the choice of design. Knowing that for early Filipinos, the tattoo is talismanic, my design had to be my totem – the lizard. The lizard is much revered in the Cordilleras because it is considered a messenger of the gods; the link between the Spirit World and Earth. As a writer, I resonated to that responsibility. I had a preference for the tribal motif and the artist warned me that because such a style requires “blacking” the entire design, it would take longer and naturally be more painful.
At that time, no promise of physical pain could daunt me because inside I was completely battered, struggling with the death of a dream. In fact, I figured that perhaps the epidermal trauma would even give me comfort — a respite from the turmoil of the spirit. I also reassured myself with the lizard’s powers, which I believed I would imbibe in the process: the ability to cut off its own tail when in danger. And then grow it back. AUTOTOMY.
The artist began by transferring the design onto my back with an ordinary ballpoint pen. Light, graceful strokes, preparing me for the needle. The excruciating pleasure softened me, made me languid. Like a lover, a moist tongue on my back – a kind of foreplay, yes.
Part of the anxiety in getting a tattoo is the sound that the machine makes — like a dentist’s drill. You can shut your eyes and choose not to watch, but even if you try to cover your ears, you will still hear it, the insistent drone that warns you that the first blood will now be shed.
First, the outline. Accomplished with just one needle, the size of the hypodermic used to draw blood for an H.I.V. test. “Are you ready?” Dolfo, the artist, asked, smiling.
“No, of course not. Just do it.”
And he pressed the needle against my skin firmly. I could almost hear the skin break and the blood spurt — but maybe it was just my imagination. Nearing a bone, the pain doubled, and I shouted in defiance. He stopped, wiped the area of blood. He started again. I screamed again. It is not true when people say getting a tattoo is just like getting bitten by ants.
Dolfo knew that it was time for an anesthetic.
“Would you like a beer?” he offered.
“Is that allowed? My cousin, who got a tattoo in California, said it’s dangerous,” I inquired, wincing.
“They’re just overacting. We’ll never get this done if you keep screaming.” So he got me a bottle of Red Horse — 500 ml of strong, dark beer that I gulped in ten minutes.
Sufficiently numbed by the alcohol, I asked him to try again. Part of why I let him continue was the fact that it was too late to make him stop. When he was done with the outline, he handed me a mirror so that I could judge his handiwork. My half-done lizard was already striking — but my back was red and swollen. I could see the tracks left by the needle, and the blood that he kept wiping off with cotton dipped in water.
He changed the needle with 5 tiny ones to fill in the design. It was not that painful when he began again. Maybe it was the beer. Or maybe my skin had gotten so used to the constant battering that my mind did not register it as pain anymore. Is this how the hymen breaks with the first sexual intrusion? Does the constant beating against it eventually become pleasurable?
When he was done, he wiped the design with a cotton wad dripping with alcohol. The coup de grâce. I screamed for the last time. A long, loud, delicious scream. All my epidermal pain receptors stood at attention. I prayed that the isopropyl alcohol would do its job well. The piece of cotton emerged black from the excess ink, and bright red from the blood I shed. Then I vomited.
My lizard, which I named “Liv,” meaning life, emerged from my pain, beautiful. She looked almost alive, as if she were crawling up my back, onto my shoulder, every time I moved. The tattooing took three hours, but the pain of the wounding lasted three more days.
Already, I wanted another one. Northern Dispatch/Posted by Bulatlat
( In traditional Cordillera culture, tattooing was ritually done to keep a record of bravery, tribal seniority, and property. Today, many tattoo shops dot Baguio City’s landscape, proving that the tradition is alive and well.)