Ah, the smell of green soap
in the morning.
“You want to tattoo?
You’ll never make a living doing that!”
- My Friend Al
I knew as soon as I walked in the door and smelled the green soap and the alcohol it was all over. Or in my case, it was just the beginning…
I dipped the thread wrapped sewing needle into the Pelican India ink and proceeded to start the tattoo on my left hand.
I had seen a painting by David Mann in an issue of Easyriders magazine, and the biker in the picture had all the suits of playing cards tattooed on the fingers of his hand. I knew that was the tattoo for me, I don’t know how I knew, I just knew.
A month or so earlier a friend of my best friend, was showing me his tattoo. It was the Zoso logo from Led Zeppelin, he told me that he did it himself. Amazing I thought.
“You did this yourself, with a needle and thread? By hand? How long did it take you?” I asked him.
“Couple of hours” he told me.
“You’re an artist Frank, you think you can do one on me,” my friend Al asks me.
“Sure I’ll give it a try, it doesn’t look so hard,” I said. “What do you want me to tattoo on you?” I asked.
“A little “Z” right here on the side of my calf. Think you can do it?” asked Al. “Yea I can do it,” I told him. Amazingly I wasn’t at all nervous about tattooing him, I should have been. I guess I wasn’t really getting what I was about to do to my best friend. And a couple of hours later there it was, a little Z on the side of Al’s calf. The first tattoo I ever did, on my best friend, that will last forever and never come off. He’ll never forget me, I thought. And he hasn’t. A month and a half later, it was my turn!
I started with the first finger on my left hand, the diamond. Now I was nervous. My hand was shaking, my forehead was wet with perspiration, my stomach was flip-flopping, but I held on and started pushing the sewing needle wrapped in thread into my flesh, one dot at a time.
It felt like that first line took me an hour, but I persisted and finally got half of the diamond done. Only three and a half more to go, I thought. Easy.
Poke poke poke with the needle, one little dot at a time. “Oh this isn’t going so well” I said to myself, still shaking and sweating. By the time I got half the outline done on my middle finger, the spade, I knew I couldn’t finish it. I got out the yellow pages and looked up tattoo parlors, the next day I was walking into Peter Tat-2’s.
There I stood at the door of Peter Tat-2 not knowing that as soon as I opened that door, my path would change forever. I pulled the glass door opened and walked in.
The smell of green soap, vitamin A&D ointment and 70% isopropyl alcohol hit me in the face, my head started to swirl and…
No. Not really.
But that sounded good. I still love that smell though, if they made an after-shave that smelled like green soap and A&D ointment, I would be the first in line. Note to self: Develop after-shave for tattoo market!
I started looking at all the tattoo designs in plain black frames mounted on the walls. Harley- Davidson designs, black panthers, skulls, dragons, flowers, black panthers with skulls and flowers, roses with skulls, skulls with roses shaped like skulls. They sure have a thing about skulls in tattoo shops. And they had tattoo designs of just about everything else, and skulls.
The tattoo “artist” sat in the back room watching TV. And smoking a cigarette, so I waited… and waited. And then I waited some more. I finally got up the nerve to go to the half-door and get her attention.
“Excuse Me,” I said.
“Can I help you?” she answered as she blew her nose into a paper towel.
“Yes” I said, “I would like to get a tattoo fixed”.
“Come on back here and let’s have a look,” she said, still sniffling and whipping her nose with the snot soaked paper towel.
I showed her my hand. She looked down at my half tattooed fingers and with a puckered look on her face said
“WOW! Who did THAT to you?” Now I know this was only my second try at tattooing, but I didn’t think it was THAT bad.
“Umm…I did it myself, with a needle and thread.” I told her, thinking that maybe if she knew how I did it she would give me a break on the artisanship. Not a chance.
“Well we really don’t tattoo hands here,” she shot back.
“So you can’t fix it “I said. Always go for the ego when dealing with tattoo “artists”.
“OH I can fix it. Did you want to do it today?” she asked. I know. If you have to ask how much, you can’t afford it. But I was a poor collage kid on a limited budget going to an expensive art school.
”How much will it cost to fix?” I asked.
“Well our minimum is fifteen dollars, but hands are hard to do…so how does forty dollars sound?”
I had forty dollars, and I mean exactly forty dollars. Twenty single dollar bills. And twenty dollars in change. I hope she needed quarters for the soda machine.
“Okay. Can you do it now?’ I asked.
“Sure come on back and have a seat while I set up.” I walked back and sat down in what appeared to be a beauty salon chair.
“Sorry, but I have a cold from hell” she said. “I really shouldn’t be working, but I have a kid to feed“. Did you know that the health department says it’s illegal to tattoo while you have an infectious virus going on?
I know that now, I didn’t know it then.
She pulled out a bath towel and laid it over her lap, and then she reached in a metal tray, pulled out the needles, and began to put them into this square chrome contraption thingy.
“Is this going to hurt as much as when I tried doing it myself?” I asked.
“It won’t take me as long as it did you” she said “But it’s going to hurt, hands are pretty sensitive.” So much for bedside manner.
The walls in the tattoo room had picture frames all over too, but these were pictures of tattooed people, actual tattoos on people and what looked like awards for tattooing.
Plaques with the same chrome contraption mounted on them, only these were gold and had the name Peter Poulos engraved on them. There were six or seven of them all around the room. This Peter Tat-2 guy must be pretty good.
She put her chrome contraptions down and started to wash my hand. There’s that smell again.
“What’s that?” I asked her.
“It’s called ‘Tincture of Green Soap‘ we use it to wash the area to be tattooed,” she told me. She pulled out a pen and started drawing on me.
“Do you want these colored in or just black? Colors are going to cost you more.” She said.
“No. I just want them black,” I told her.
She reached in a small round metal container and pulled out what appeared to be a plastic plug they use in copper tubing. She wiped some Vaseline on the bottom of it and stuck it to a paper plate. Then she reached over and got a bottle of black ink and poured some in the little plug. Then she picked up the square chrome contraption thingy and plugged an electrical cord into it.
She stepped on a pedal and the chrome contraption thingy started to buzz! Sparks were coming out the top of the damn thing!
And I thought ‘HOLY SHIT! This is going to HURT!” She glopped some Vitamin A&D ointment on my finger and put the tip of the chrome thingy to my skin.
“Are you ready?” she asked. And before I could reply, away she went!
I held my breath and prepared for the worst. She finished the first line and started in on the second one. Is she going to stop, I hoped. But the more she tattooed, the more I relaxed Not so bad, I thought. I can deal with this.
“Okay, there’s your outline. Now we’ll fill it in,” she said. The whole tattoo didn’t take fifteen minutes from start to finish.
When she was finished she washed my hand off with some more of that green soap. Love that smell. And 70% isopropyl alcohol, slathered some Vitamin A&D ointment on my new tattoo and called it done.
“Keep it dry and out of the sun” she tells me. “Put some skin lotion on it a couple times a day and don’t let it scab over” And then she advises me to come back for a touch-up in two or three weeks.
I paid her my money, there’s that puckered face again. I guess she didn’t need quarters for the soda machine after all. I thanked her and walked out the door.
I had my very first tattoo, and my last I told myself. Little did I know, that tattoos are just like potato chips, you can’t have just one!
Continued next month!