I am being hand-poked by a stranger in a messy incense-scented living room. A hungover housemate enters mid-poke with a small dog. As first-time tattoo experiences go, this could be the dream or a nightmare (depending on your perspective). I can hear myself explaining this to work colleagues and mums on the school run, and it doesn’t sound good. However, it was good.
At the ripe old age of 39, I had spent many a year contemplating getting a tattoo. Plenty of things were putting me off: bad tattoos (friends who had dolphins/tribal/Chinese symbols etc in the 90s), pain (I’m a wimp) and my fickle nature (if I can hate a pair of shoes I once vehemently coveted, how can I possibly get a permanent inking on my skin?). However, I knew what tattoo I wanted from around the age of 31, when my dad died and I felt like a meaningful inking would be timeless. He smoked a pipe and (although that’s quite possibly what gave him cancer), a pipe just makes me think of him in a very warm and fuzzy way.
Still the pain thing played on my mind. My tattooed friends and their descriptions of the needle dragging and scratching through your skin – er, thanks for that info – not something I’m up for.
Then one day (thanks to social media), I saw a hand-poked tattoo and read that it didn’t hurt. Now, I certainly didn’t believe that it wouldn’t hurt, however, I could see how a small hand-poked tattoo might be a much more bearable intro to inking than a standard gun.
And so I set about my (slow) process to get it done. Long story short, after dealing with a tattooist who stopped replying and one so popular the waiting list for a consultation made me lose interest, I found ‘the one’ or at least, ‘the available one’. We exchanged emails and it went well. I liked the way she sounded and I liked her sketches, she also had availability quite quickly so I didn’t have too much time to think about it.
And yes, as a grown-up, I always thought that if I did get a tattoo, I would arrive at a reputable establishment, have a consultation, come back for the real deal and leave with a set of elaborate instructions for aftercare.
Instead, I found myself hopping on a bus to a residential street, excited but still not entirely convinced I would go through with it. The tattoo would cost £65 and this is a valuable slot I’m taking… if I change my mind, can I just chuck a tenner at her and run?!
I pop to Small Batch to grab a coffee beforehand and that turns out to be a good move. Everyone has tattoos. They all seem happy. Their tattoos look good. I can do this!
I arrive at the house and I am not disappointed by Lily’s greeting (she hugs me) and in we go to sit and chat. It would be more dramatic to describe the house as a crack den (and I am sure that’s what people picture when you say you were tattooed in a house), but it’s just a typical shared house and they have a Christmas tree up. Lily is having a cup of tea.
Her tattoo equipment is fully packaged, so I see new needles opened from fresh packets and the Dettol is out so I’m feeling clean! A chat about placement and the stencil goes on – I still do feel like I can back out if I want to though. It’s relaxed.
Lily says that once she starts I will turn to her and say “Is that it?” and I do. Because quite simply, it doesn’t hurt. Ok, it hurts, but only slightly. We have a good natter, it’s a small tattoo but hand-poking does take longer than a gun. I guess it takes an hour or so and I do stop play for a wee-break, where I spy it in the bathroom mirror and I feel genuinely happy that it’s there.
Once we are done, it’s a bit of cling film and the advice to use cocoa butter or coconut oil for a couple of week until it heals. If any of it “drops out” (with hand-poking some bits might not take), Lily offers free touch-ups and off I go… Although, no, before the cling film we do the optional (I’m happy to) social media snaps outside for good lighting.
I didn’t actually tell my husband I was doing it. I asked my brother to babysit my two-and-a-half-year-old, telling him I was at a “work thing”. Once it was done I was happy, but my main concern was others’ reactions. My mother-in-law has been known to point out tattoos on people with a shocked/disgusted expression.
My brother (not the tattoo kind), was okay. He sighed a lot, tutting in a kind of did-you-really-have-to? way. My husband loved it. I don’t think he ever thought I would go through with it (I wasn’t sure I would either), so it was a big surprise. Even my mother-in-law says she likes it.
WAS IT WORTH IT?
As first times go, it was a success. Yes, I am that cliché and I do feel like I could go for more tattoos, but I won’t go mad, I have no designs on a sleeve. But now I know I can handle the pain of a stick and poke, why not do it again?
The kids (I have two), are very casual about my “drawing”. It’s really no biggie to have a first tattoo at nearly 40 and, if anything, I know more about myself and what I can live with on my skin that I did at 18. I mean, back then I might have gone for “Girl Power” or Damon Albarn’s face… neither of which would be that bad(!?), but I am pleased with my pipe and what it means to me.
Words by Victoria Baynton-Williams
Tattoo by Lily @in.k.a.rainbow