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Indelible Ink 

If you’re considering getting a big tattoo, the emotional impact might be more intense than you think. It’s a weight—and joy—that far outlasts the pain of the needle.

It was -20 Celsius on a Saturday in January, and the studio wasn't particularly cozy. The tattoo artist, Cory Ferguson, had done a mock-up of the design for my sleeve. I made a few suggestions on changes, and he drew it on my arm with markers in freehand. After a few more alterations, he prepped his needles and went to work.

Once the actual tattooing started, I asked him if he would consider other possibilities for variations, but he wasn't down with that. I got the message: Once the work starts, the collaboration ceases and I am but a canvas. A trembling, adrenalized canvas: Ferguson had to hold tight to my arm to keep it from shaking, from the cold and from sensation. Eight hours under the needle hurt like hell, especially in the elbow and near the armpit. I tried to focus on my breathing when it got bad. It never occurred to me in advance that the discomfort would be cumulative, compounded. Hours four and five were far more difficult than hour one. That's worth considering for anyone thinking of going deep, getting a big tattoo in long sessions.

It's still a little startling when I catch sight of the black curls up my forearm in a window's reflection. Don't get me wrong, I love it. I love how you can't see it all in a single glance, the variations in the design and the scale of the thing, from wrist to shoulder. But getting used to it took awhile.

I've wanted a big tattoo for years. Inspired by fractal designs and Victorian wrought-iron fences, I took photos of the Public Gardens gate as a reference. I like the idea of art permanently affixed to my flesh, something that, with a little maintenance, might remain beautiful longer than the body that ages beneath it.

I saved my money and found an artist I thought was right for the piece. Ferguson, who works out of Oakville, Ontario, specializes in tribal work. I first saw him in Halifax, working on the foot of a woman at last year's Maritime Tattoo Festival. I made an appointment for a summer consult and for ink six months later. It takes time to get in to see him given his busy schedule, a symptom of his popularity.

Amber Thorpe, of Adept Tattoos on Quinpool Road, has a black tribal tattoo, a hooked, Polynesian design---done by Ferguson---on the back of her right hand and wrist. "I thought it was dirty at first," she says. "I really like to have my hands clean and I thought it looked dirty. It took me about a week to get used to it. Now I love it."

I had a similar reaction to the results of my first eight hours under the needle. In the beginning I vacillated between "Wow, that's great!" and "What have I done?!" It took until it was healed, a few weeks, before I was entirely happy and at peace with the ink. I also knew, with a further 16 hours of work to complete it, it's still in the process of being.

Thorpe says tattoos beget tattoos: As more people see large tattoos, more want them. "I have four sleeves starting in the next month," she says. She's getting a second one herself this week. "And that's just in one tattoo shop. I bet the others in town are just as busy." Arms aren't the only place people want big tattoos these days: back work is popular, as are tattoos on the torso. Ferguson, who has tattoos all over his body, says the work he's had done on his ribs was "five times" more painful than anywhere else.

Sometimes having to do a big piece in stages can be problematic. Ashley Moran, a program coordinator with the Heart & Stroke Foundation, has a tattoo of a tree, crows and cityscape on her upper arm, inked by Thorpe. She wears short sleeves when she visits high schools, which she says makes her "insta-cool." And she loves it. "From day one it's been nothing but fun for me," she says. "I love seeing it when I'm getting out of the shower." If there is any anxiety for her, it's in explaining that it isn't finished yet, and that it'll take about six to nine more hours to complete. "It's a huge expense," she says. Thorpe charges $125 an hour, which is about the going rate locally. "I didn't have that conversation in advance about the time."

Ferguson told me that he can tell as soon as his clients walk into his studio which of them will freak out. Sometimes it's a fear of the permanence of the thing, sometimes it's a fear of the pain of the process. He said he's seen tears, breakdowns and has had clients faint during the process. (I'm proud to say, though I bled and perspired and shook like a leaf in a hurricane, I stayed conscious.)

"Just the other day a girl came in to get a tattoo and cried through the whole thing," says Thorpe, who says her client was 18 and had waited until she didn't need her parents' permission to get the ink. "I'm an artist and I don't want to cause her pain, but that was her emotional reaction. Then there are those who come in and are like a rock."

Liesl M. Gambold is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Dalhousie who, while at UCLA in the 1990s, did her masters thesis on tattooing. At the time it was just taking on a new profile in the culture, moving beyond prisons, bikers and butterflies on the ankles.

Her research involved interviewing subjects about their life histories, working up to their decision-making around tattooing. She saw, and continues to see, how significant in a psycho-emotional way this ancient art form is in the lives of people choosing it.

"In terms of the idea of permanence, there were two sides," she says. "One was that people would say, 'Nothing is permanent, not even my tattoo. It is merely flesh. When I'm gone my flesh is gone. I tell my mother or my father, it's just my skin.' The other side was, 'I've got a big, huge ass because it runs in my family. My hair is frizzy. I've got all these other things [I don't like]. I haven't had much control over other aspects of my physical presence. The tattoo is the one thing about my body that I have chosen.'"

Thorpe says these days people are better educated about tattoos. Whether they want traditional work (skulls and hearts), new school (big, bold colours), realistic (portraits) or tribal (lots of black), they go out and find an artist who does the style they like to suit the idea they want, the way I did. "Ninety-eight percent of it is collaboration," says Thorpe, who instructs clients on what will or won't work---often the design concept is too intricate to be done on a small scale so it needs to be simplified or expanded. "They come in with an idea and I make it happen."

"In some ways the depth of thought that someone has put into the tattoo might be related to the size of it," says Gambold. "The people who are going to invest their emotional energy, their money---it is not inexpensive---and their time, they'll be more willing to take feedback from the experts. For example, if you're getting a sleeve, you're going to listen to the [tattooist]. Whereas if it's a portrait of your grandfather, just put it on the shoulder."

Gambold has also spoken to those who consider themselves art collectors, their bodies a gallery space. "You have the people who were waiting a year-and-a-half for something by Ed Hardy, they'd say, 'I don't care what it is, I just want his work.' That came with the shift of the recognition of the art value of it."

To me, Ferguson is an artist, someone with a genuine and excellent body of work, but I chose him for his skill rather than his notoriety. When we sit down together this weekend for a second eight hours on my sleeve, I'm looking for his ability to create something unique and resonant---informed by my ideas.

One other detail might be relevant if you're considering getting ink. Years ago, after the application of my first piece---a sun symbol on my calf---and a deep discussion on the history and modern cultural and anthropological significance of tattooing, the artist said this: "Tattoos are magic. Your life will never be the same again."

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