The Tao Tattoo Experience

Part of The Tao Tattoo Series

  1. The Meaning
  2. The Experience
  3. The Background
  4. Tattwo

I decid­ed to get my Tao tat­too about a month before I actu­al­ly had it done. Choosing an artist was­n’t hard. Tiana, who’s awe­some bro­ken argyle tat­too reminds me of insou­ciant kites against a sky, had hers done by Jay at New Moon. After see­ing some more of his work, which fea­tures fine­ly detailed lines sim­i­lar to what I had in mind, I decid­ed to go with him as well.

The appoint­ment was short. A quick check to make sure the posi­tion­ing close to the wrist joint was accept­able, and to leave a deposit.

The recep­tion­ist asked me, “What does the kan­ji mean?”.

Kanji?”. I ques­tioned her assump­tion, and she quick­ly cor­rect­ed her­self. “Sorry, is it Chinese or Japanese or Korean…?”. I explained the char­ac­ter, and how it’s writ­ten the same way in Chinese and Japanese, the cal­lig­ra­phy being in a Chinese style.

Pat was with me when the day came. We sat down, and he asked Jay, “How long have you been tat­too­ing?”. Jay squint­ed at the ana­log on the wall, and said, “Ohhh…since twelve”, and his humour put me at ease.

He shaved my wrist (which I found fun­ny, cause I’m a typ­i­cal hair­less Asian), put on his smart-look­ing frames, and tried to align the car­bon trans­fer about fif­teen times before I was sat­is­fied with the posi­tion­ing and rota­tion. The area was already raw from the place sten­cil > remove sten­cil > repeat process before the ink­ing start­ed.

He pulled packs of nee­dles out of his draw­er, poured out black ink into an ink cup, turned on the machine, and went to work.

I did­n’t watch. When I was young, I once watched my pedi­a­tri­cian take vials of blood from my arm and soon felt queasy. For years I thought it was the sight of blood, but it turns out that it was the drain­ing of blood from my sys­tem because I’d still get extreme­ly light-head­ed when look­ing away dur­ing blood tests. I did­n’t watch Jay work any­way because I did­n’t want to take the chance.

We talked. About how he sort of fell into the busi­ness. About what the char­ac­ter said1. About the genius of Trailer Park Boys. About his band, whose sound is influ­enced most by ear­ly Pixies2. I want­ed to talk more about them: how Cobain thought he was meant to be in the band and based Nirvana off their sound, what he thought of Frank Black’s solo career, but did­n’t want to dis­tract him.

There were two framed posters of paint­ings of Mary and Jesus on the wall. Above Mary on the left was a car­toon bub­ble added on top that said, “Hey Pendejo!” and above Jesus was, “Nobody fucks with da Jesus!”, a ref­er­ence I guessed to The Big Lebowski.

Before going, I asked a cou­ple peo­ple if their tat­toos hurt. The most com­mon thing they told me was that it felt like a cat scratch or a sun­burn. They describe the pain as more annoy­ing than intol­er­a­ble. I did­n’t know what to expect since I have a very low tol­er­ance for pain, but it felt exact­ly like what it was: being stabbed in the wrist a mil­lion times with a nee­dle.

Every jab was dis­tin­guish­able.

Even though I did­n’t look, I could tell where he was on the char­ac­ter. It only real­ly hurt when going across the ten­don.

Pat said he saw my eyes roll back in my head from the pain a cou­ple times. I focused on not tens­ing up, and kept telling myself to breathe.

Halfway through, I stopped. I was get­ting hot so I took off my hood­ie, and I could feel beads of sweat form­ing of my fore­head. Jay told me to lie down for a cou­ple min­utes; his nor­mal pro­ce­dure when some­one starts to get warm.

In all, it was an hour from enter­ing to leav­ing. Jay was a super nice guy. He had a very steady hand (so Pat told me) and did jus­tice to all the sub­tle details of the strokes. Unfortunately, he stepped out­side before I could tip him per­son­al­ly, so I left the tip with the recep­tion­ist3.

Afterward, on the way back to his place for din­ner, Pat told me he was proud of me. It was strange to hear any­one say that. The only oth­er per­son who’s ever said that was my mom, but only about things she was proud of — my marks, my awards — and noth­ing that ever mat­tered to me. My dad was prob­a­bly proud of me, but he would nev­er admit it. It was heart­en­ing to hear Pat say it, like I was­n’t alone in the world, and some­one else cared about how I turned out.

Even Rockstar Jeff con­grat­u­lat­ed me at work when he saw it, which I found odd, like con­grat­u­lat­ing some­one for eat­ing break­fast.

I guess there’s a big dif­fer­ence between those who talk about get­ting a tat­too, and those who actu­al­ly get one.

Pat said, “If I told you in sec­ond year4 that you were going to get a tat­too, you prob­a­bly would­n’t have believed me”.

I agreed.

  1. He said he nev­er inked it on any­one else before, which was a very good thing. []
  2. Note to self: must check them out, because I love Where Is My Mind? off The Pixies’ sec­ond album []
  3. I still feel real­ly bad about that. I want­ed to thank him again. []
  4. When we met in uni­ver­si­ty []


  1. Yay I love the sto­ry. My hus­band is in love with those Jesus and Mary por­traits which is pret­ty unfor­tu­nate for me because now he always looks for some like them at flea mar­kets and antique shops.

  2. Hahaha…appropriate for a tat­too stu­dio but for a home, not so much. Unless, you know, you’re actu­al­ly into the whole reli­gion thing.

  3. Is the choice of posi­tion­ing based on the Chinese medecin’s empha­sis on the fate/life aspect from the pulse you can feel there.

  4. Nope, I want­ed it on a spot that was very vis­i­ble to me, so I could be con­stant­ly remind­ed. If it was more social­ly accept­able (i.e. not career affect­ing), I would have had it on my hand.

  5. Craig approves not of the tat­too idea.


  6. Good thing I did­n’t do it for Craig. :)

  7. Fabtastic, i have recent­ly came to the Tao and think i will rip off your tat­too, i just love it.

    However, and it’s a big how­ev­er, If you fol­low the way of the Tao you should keep it to your­self as men­tioned in the Tao De Ching and not infor the world of your belief. But then again as you said its for your­self as a reminder. Fantastic any­way.

  8. Yep, that’s why I got the tat­too on the inside of my wrist; it’s for me and no one else.

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