My First Tattoo

I love tattoos. I’ve loved them for as long as I can remember. Every one is complex. Even if the design itself isn’t detailed or complicated and the person getting the tattoo has no deeper attachment to the design than that they think it’s pretty, there’s something incredibly personal and meaningful about the process of getting it. You’re choosing to actively seek out someone and have them permanently, and usually at least somewhat painfully, etch something into your flesh. It’s one of the more absurd things humans do, but it’s also beautiful.

 

I always wanted to get a tattoo, but for a long time I didn’t think it was possible. I couldn’t come up with a good design. Then I thought of a design, but I assumed I couldn’t afford to get it done. Not that I had any idea how much tattoos actually cost. Once or twice I thought I might have enough disposable income to try getting my tattoo, but I didn’t really know anyone who could recommend an artist. The idea of doing some research and finding an artist on my own was daunting. I would search around online and find shops in my area, but then become terrified I would settle on someone and get the tattoo and it would be completely wrong. So I kept putting it off.

Then on a trip down the The Keeper’s hometown I found out that one of The Keeper’s close family friends who he grew up with was going through the process to get certifications or licenses or whatever it is you need to be able to do tattooing professionally. We talked a bit and this guy’s passion for what he was doing was obvious. He seemed a little distracted and wobbly when it came to other topics, but anything having to do with tattoos or piercings made him immediately perk up and speak with incredible passion and intelligence. I had found my artist. I started thinking about designs again, hoping I might be able to save up.

Fast forward to holiday season 2013. The Keeper and I were in his hometown again doing the Christmas thing and we learn that My Artist was planning on opening his own tattoo shop! We hung out with him for a little bit and listened to him gush about this new venture. He already had a huge client base from the time he’d spent working in other shops and he was excited about the other artists he was going to bring in to work with him. He was bouncing off the walls and telling us that if we ever wanted a tattoo we would have priority, just walk in and he’d bump his other customers back to do our ink.

Now I was getting excited. I’d just got a new, better paying job. I had a savings account again for the first time in nearly over a decade. I could do this! I still hadn’t asked anyone at any point how much my tattoo would cost, but I figured it would definitely be a few hundred dollars. Tattoos are expensive right? So I went home with a plan to save up, email the shop once it was up and running, and set everything up then come back down totally prepared!

Well, despite being super passionate, My Artist isn’t the most orderly, organized business owner I’ve ever known. I was expecting to exchange emails and get the design hammered out, schedule an appointment and then drive down one weekend and get it done. That’s not how My Artist operates. I’m sure there are shops that do things that way, but not my shop. My Artist is more of a hands on, on the fly kind of guy. And he’s far more interested in the designing and poking-you-with-a-needle parts than with checking emails.

I had no idea what I should be expecting or how all of this was supposed to play out, so when my expectations didn’t line up with reality when it came to the communication and the whole process I got super anxious. I probably could have communicated that better to My Artist. I’m sure he would have made an effort to explain things better if he knew exactly how I was feeling and how little I understood everything. Despite all of that though, I did eventually find myself sitting in The Tattoo Chair at My Artist’s shop at 11pm on a Saturday night.

My tattoo is a bracelet of celtic knotwork. There are three open spaces in the knotwork where I had My Artist draw in “charms”. The charms are a Super Nintendo controller, a ball of yarn with knitting needles stuck in it, and a 20 sided die. The first thing I learned while I was sitting in The Tattoo Chair was that it is surprisingly difficult to get a clean transfer of the outline of the design when you’re trying to put it in a band around a place like the wrist. You can’t just wrap the piece of paper around your wrist because the width changes the closer to the hand you get, and any little movement of the skin will mean that the two ends of the design won’t meet up in the right spot. My Artist tried to transfer the design 3 times before he gave up and called his wife (who is also a tattoo artist) over to help. And she tried twice before she gave up on getting a completely clean transfer and just drew in by hand the parts that didn’t transfer cleanly.

That is the point at which I made my first rookie mistake. I noticed much, much later that there are a couple of places where the complicated knotwork isn’t quite right. If I hadn’t been so jazzed up on “holy fuck, I’m finally doing this thing” excitement, and if I had prior experience with this sort of thing, I might have taken a long hard look and made sure the transfer was perfect before the actual tattooing began.

Once the transfer was on the only thing left was to start stabbing me with an inky needle. Over the years I had heard and read so many different things about how getting a tattoo feels that I kind of went into it thinking that it was going to be kind of like sex. Everyone is different and experiences sensations a little differently. Some people find it incredibly painful to get a tattoo. Some people find it pleasant. Everyone seems to have a different opinion on what places hurt the most to get tattooed. I tolerate pain fairly well, so I figured I’d be ok even though I was getting my tattoo done on one the places a lot of people agree is one of the most painful.

I was mostly right about how it was going to feel for me. Initially it was less painful than I was expecting. Just kind of a vibrate-y mild burning sensation. Then My Artist got to that little sort of bony protrusion on the pinky side of the wrist. THAT hurt like hell. And something that I don’t think I’d seen or heard anyone point out before- you can’t really get used to the sensation because it keeps starting and stopping. Tattoo guns don’t have, like, a spot for the ink bottle to just be plugged in. It’s like writing with a quill or painting, you have to stop every few seconds and dip the needle in the ink. Which makes the painful parts even more painful, because you can’t just grit your teeth and suffer through and then it’s done. It’s suffer, pause, suffer, pause, suffer, pause… It makes total sense and I’m amazed that I didn’t realize that’s how it would work beforehand.

Roughly two hours later, the knotwork was done. At around 1 in the morning. Now, this is where I made my second mistake… kind of. Once the knotwork was done My Artist did the research and drew up the charms I wanted. He showed me the drawings and got my approval and then we did the transfers and the stabbing again for each one. My mistake can be viewed from a couple different angles. Either I shouldn’t have gone in so late to get the tattoo in the first place, or I should have been extra diligent in checking to make sure the charm drawings were right since it was so late and I was very, very tired. Turns out, tattoo artists don’t just inherently know the difference between a knitting needle and a sewing needle. I know, weird right? So I have a little ball of string with sewing needles poked in it on my wrist now. Not hard to fix, there are knitting needles with embellishment so I’m just going to get some color added later and it will be fine. But still, that’s something I should have caught and I didn’t because endorphins and sleepy.

By about 2am it was all done. At that point I hadn’t noticed the mistakes so I was sleepy and ecstatic all at once. It was incredible. I had a hard couple of weeks afterward when I noticed the problem with the knotwork, but now that I’m on the other side of that I can honestly say that I love my tattoo and I loved the experience of getting it. I’m constantly trying to decide what/where my next one will be. Because I definitely want more. I’m one of those people. Can’t wait to get more.

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How To Design Celtic Knotwork By Hand

A couple years ago I decided to try designing my own Celtic knotwork. After some internet searching I found a website that explained with step by step instructions how one can design knotwork by hand as well as how to use knotwork fonts to create different designs. At the time I didn’t have the money to buy a knotwork font, plus I didn’t want my knotwork to look as perfect as it would using a computer program to produce it. My intent was to transfer my designs onto wood and then paint them, and I wanted it to really look hand crafted. So I chose the hard way and learned to design knotwork by hand.

A while back I went searching for the website where I’d learned this new skill and was unable to find it. That got me thinking- what if someone else wants to learn to do this and the other "how to" sites out there don’t work for them like they didn’t work for me? So, I’ve decided to put up a "how to" of my own, including some of the shortcuts I’ve found and examples of ways you can play with the basics to make more than just square and rectangular knots.

But we’ll start with the basics. You will need graph paper, a pencil, and tracing paper. Once you have these things, here’s what you do:

First you take graph paper and lightly draw diamonds inside the squares that are already on the paper. You can draw them each inside individual squares if you want a small, tight design or you can draw diagonal lines in four separate squares to make larger diamonds which will produce larger, looser knots.

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This is pretty easy to do for smaller designs, but can be a pain in the ass for bigger knots. Which is why I’ve used Microsoft Paint to make my own graph paper with the diamonds already printed in.

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Creating the Paint file is also a pain in the ass, but you only have to do it once (or, until you get it right anyway) and then you can print as many pages as you want.

After you’ve got your diamonds, either drawn by hand or with the help of a computer, connect the points of the diamonds along the outside of the area of your knot.

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Now comes the design part. You choose places inside the pattern of diamonds for there to be breaks. Breaks are added either vertically or horizontally between diamonds. The breaks ARE the knotwork. They’re the spots where the lines bend and loop, and if you choose bad breakpoints you’ll get a crappy knot. But it’s not hard to figure out through a little trial and error what will work and what won’t.

At this point, for the sake of showing variety, I’m going to add different breaks to each of the designs. By the end, the small design should look obviously different from the bigger design.

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When your breaks have been added, take a pen or a marker or just bear down harder on your pencil and trace around all the lines of the diamonds, curving away from the breaks and picking the pattern back up at the next straight diagonal.

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Once you have your design outlined, you need to flesh it out. In the instructions I used originally, this involved a bunch of erasing of the earlier, underlying lines. That didn’t work well for me though, so I incorporated tracing paper. Lay the tracing paper over your outline. It can be helpful to tape the tracing paper in place, but not always necessary. Then draw an outline of the design, following the lines along the outside of the design area. Do the same for the inside of each internal shape.

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When you’re finished, you should have the fully formed shape of the design.

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Now all you have to do is add the over/under markings. Choose a place to start on your design and connect a "string". Then follow that string throughout the design, alternately connecting the string you’re following and then connecting the next cross string so that it looks as though the string you’re following is weaving over and under the other strings.

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When you’ve connected all the strings in their over/under pattern, your knotwork is done.

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After you’ve got the basics down, you can experiment with different shapes.

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