Yesterday, as a sort of celebration entirely separate to our potatoversary that, as any regular reader will know, we’re so fond of, I (Blip) had an 8-hour tattoo session. This was exactly a week after Pop had her first tattoo. As such, I thought I’d talk about the powerful effects that elective pain can have on the mind. I’ll also end with some pictures of what we’ve had done.
People without tattoos often ask, rather naïvely, why on earth someone would put themselves through pain for mere body art. Anybody with tattoos will probably giggle in scorn at this question because the answer is so obviously apparent once you’ve had it done but so utterly ungraspable to the uninitiated. Like Scientology but without the intergalactic wars, atom bomb volcanos and unnerving terror tactics employed on unpaid members.
The simple version of the answer to this question is that the pain isn’t a deterrent. To a person who at least semi-regularly has tattoos done, the pain is an important part of the process. It wouldn’t mean nearly as much if it were painless. And especially if it weren’t permanent. As an aside, that’s another gripe people have with tattoos: The permanency of them. ‘How will they look when you’re old?’ they spout with a familiar air of superiority. To them I say ‘How will your skin look when you’re dead?’
Anyway, I’m focussing now on the pain question. Perhaps another time I’ll go through in greater depth my thoughts on the other issues. Not now though.
Around the world and across the ages, there have been, and are still, many firewalking ceremonies that, rather eponymously, involve the walking over something very hot. Usually this is burning coals, though other materials can be used and sometimes the fire itself is extinguished first and the hot ashes are used. Either way, this ceremony tends to have massive cultural and even religious significance. The walk is largely used to symbolise the arduous journey through life’s difficulties and the eventual triumph over them awarded to the brave and the hardy. Moreso, how unscathed you can be by what threatens to burn you. Now does anyone honestly think this ceremony would mean anything if unburnt coals or cold ashes were used? Why not just walk over concrete slabs or linoleum?
The pain serves as a confirmation of the symbolic place of the ritual itself. The elective nature of it forces you to confront the self-evident truth that you’re willingly and constantly putting yourself through this. It isn’t a necessary evil that you must face in order to overcome an obstacle. It isn’t for a greater good of saving your life or furthering your goals and it isn’t because of a pre-agreed commitment that you can’t cancel. You can jump from the coals at any moment and save yourself; the only thing keeping you from doing so is yourself and, more importantly, what you stand to gain from continuing isn’t found at the end of the track, it’s found in the heat of the coals themselves. What I mean is, you’re gaining the benefit while walking over them, not afterwards.
Naturally, you can see I’m drawing a parallel here. There are many similarities between the firewalking situation and having a tattoo done. It is elective (so elective that you have to sign a consent form and hand over money) and it can be prevented or stopped at any time easily. You can cancel up to the very last second and, if you don’t like it, you can stop even after it’s started. You can stop a minute before the end if you so choose and never have any more. Sure at the end of it you get a tattoo, which, given some originality, some intertextuality, some thought and consideration and some skill and artistic contribution from the tattooist, will look very cool indeed but that isn’t necessarily the prime benefit. Going through the process itself changes you. You’re not the same person as before you had the work done.
Just to clarify this point, I’m a firm believer that most people are idiots or that most people are relatively ignorant to themselves. They don’t spend time analysing themselves, how they feel, how they think, why they think like that, how and why they ‘see’ the world the way they do etc. As such, contrary to the belief of a good many people, I do think that it’s possible for other people to possess more in-depth knowledge of you than the knowledge you yourself have. I think, given the correct capacity for paying attention and the careful and uncertain analysis of the results of this perception, you can know more about a person then they know. Relate this to what I just said about the changes that having a tattoo confers to you and what I’m saying is I think many, if not most, people go through this change whether they realise it or not.
Knowing that you can cope with far more pain than you’d imagined is a powerful thing. It makes you feel strong. Well actually it makes you realise your own strength, which was present before, just slumbering untested. Coping with the pain, as I said earlier, is one thing, but putting yourself through it willingly at every step is life-changing; it’s nothing short of a kind of deep, perhaps primal, pleasure. Now those who are somewhat scared of such a prospect will dismiss me at this point by calling me a masochist, which I won’t entirely (or at all) deny but that does nothing do the bare truth in such pain. It’s glorious to feel.
It’s not that it feels good; it isn’t like there is no negative feeling. It’s that it’s so horribly unpleasant that makes it so great. You are stripped back layer by layer until you find yourself in an unimaginable abyss filled only with the pain and a kind of unspeakable bliss.
The connection you form with the tattooist is inevitable and powerful. This connection has nothing in common with boring, everyday relationships with parents, friends, lovers, shop assistants etc. The connection is that of the giver and receiver of pain. With their mind concentrating on their work, they’re not thinking about your pain in the slightest, they’re focusing on the joy of causing the pain and that’s ‘the best thing you can do for a true masochist!’
This is no mere Stockholm syndrome, this isn’t the building of feeling between torturer and victim. It won’t lead to early afternoon coffee breaks together or a ‘deep’ conversational rapport while you opine over philosophies of life and death. You may never see them again and they may never have any idea of such a connection. If anything, they’re less likely to notice the connection than you are. To the tattooist, you’re a canvas and you’ve left with a piece of their art on you. (As a demonstration of this, when Pop and I went in yesterday for my tattoo, our tattooist came right over and picked up Pop’s arm to check how hers is healing with the forthright comfortability of an artist checking his work.)
Once you leave, they will be working on others. They’re potentially masters at what they do, causing pain to many people over many hours in the day. Or, if you have a long enough session like mine yesterday, maybe you take up one tattooist’s entire day but that doesn’t change how little they notice the revelation of what they’ve done nor does it affect how powerful the change can be to the receiver.
In many ways, in my experience and in the experiences of others I’ve spoken to or heard from, the pain is not only not a deterrent but is in fact the opposite. There is a calm in such agony that no sexual experience can rival.
Pop’s Hermit Crab ‘Nubby’ (named after the Hermit Crab family Coenobitidae and genus Coenobita):