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Ink

Started: 2018-06-23 22:01:36

Submitted: 2018-06-24 00:50:39

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator gets a tattoo of the Golden Gate Bridge to memorialize his time in San Francisco

At some point in my frantic scramble to see everything I wanted to see in San Francisco before moving to Seattle this summer, at the phase where my todo list was growing faster than I could mark things off it, I got the idea to memorialize my time in the city of San Francisco with a tattoo of the Golden Gate Bridge. (I was probably inspired by our au pair, Sasa, getting a small tattoo, the text "seize the day", on her forearm.)

Golden Gate Bridge
Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge is, of course, the world's most beautiful bridge*, and an iconic symbol of San Francisco. A quick Google image search revealed a bunch of Golden Gate Bridge tattoos -- most of them not something I'd want on my skin for the rest of my life. The more I looked the more I became convinced that I could find something I liked. I wanted a permanent reminder of the city -- and a tattoo was ever-so-slightly self-destructive in a way that felt appropriate given the circumstances of the move.

[* This hyperbolic claim is a scientific fact.]

And, of course, I wanted to follow the Interview Rule**: tattoo on skin easily covered up by normal interview clothing. (In the liberal, most-anything-goes universe of tech -- especially in San Francisco -- this is less important than it might be elsewhere; but I didn't want to make any permanent mistakes that might come back to haunt me later.)

[** Three years ago, at Ann Leckie's appearance at the Tattered Cover Bookstore promoting Ancillary Mercy, I picked up a temporary tattoo and applied it to my arm. I removed it a week later (by which point it was fading and ready to be removed anyway) immediately prior to interviewing at Google -- since my placement of the temporary tattoo had in fact violated the Interview Rule.]

I looked up tattoo shops on Yelp! and tried to figure out how the process was supposed to work. I found links to the individual artists' Instagram feeds, where they all posted photos of the work they were most proud of, with invitations to e-mail them for appointments. (The whole process seemed like it would benefit from special software to make scheduling easier.) As I looked I decided that I liked the look of tattoo line art done with black ink. I exchanged e-mail with a couple of artists at various shops in San Francisco until I found Ryan Neri, at Ocean Avenue Tattoo in Ingleside (not far from my house), who doesn't have a lot of line art on his Instagram feed, but did have a bunch of people on Yelp! who liked his line art work.

(Along the way I found an amazing pointillist redwood tree tattoo -- and then thought about asking for a Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pine in the same style, to memorialize the time I spent hiking at and above treeline in Colorado -- but decided to stick with my original plan to get the Golden Gate Bridge.)

Ryan had time in the second week of June, so I headed to Ocean Avenue Tattoo after work for my appointment. It was the first time I'd actually set foot inside a tattoo shop, and I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. I was briefly confused when the storefront took me into a barber's shop, until I realized that the tattoo shop was behind an opaque door to my left. The shop was long and narrow and empty of people, with a wide variety of tattoo art on every surface on the wall, and a couple of tattooing stations running down the shop.

Ryan was waiting for me when I arrived, and showed me the drawing he'd prepared, based on my request: a line drawing of the Golden Gate Bridge, showing the design of the towers, and their subtle Art Deco flair, and the graceful arch of the suspension cables. I approved it immediately, and he gave me a waiver to sign. (The waiver included an acknowledgement that I was not under the influence of alcohol or drugs -- which was true for me, but I couldn't help but note that it might not be true for everyone who gets a tattoo.)

I wanted to get the tattoo on my upper back, between my shoulder blades, honoring the Interview Rule. Ryan shaved and sterilized my back, and applied something that would transfer the stencil onto my back so he knew what it was supposed to look like. This was when I first realized one of the potential problems of a tattoo on my back: I couldn't actually see it directly, and it was awkward to see it even in the full-length mirror on the wall. Ryan took a picture and showed it to me, and I approved the placement.

I laid down on the table on the tattoo stand, relaxing my arms and back, and Ryan got to work. He started with a short line near the top of the bridge, and when he brought the tattoo tool down onto my back it felt like he was tearing my skin apart. It was over quickly enough, and then he moved onto another line. Some lines hurt more than others, and I tried to adjust my posture slightly, in hopes that adjusting the way my skin fell across the bones on my back would affect how the needle felt.

The entire tattoo took about half an hour, and by the time it was done I was quite happy for it to all be over. Ryan took a picture and showed it to me, then covered it in moisturizer and plastic wrap to begin the healing process. I paid US$150, cash, and left the shop, bemused by the experience and hoping I hadn't made a terrible mistake.

Jaeger's Golden Gate Bridge tattoo
Jaeger's Golden Gate Bridge tattoo

When I took off the plastic wrap and washed the tattoo later that night, I discovered the other downside of a tattoo on one's back: it was nearly impossible for me to moisturize it myself. I can, more or less, reach all of my back, but with a single mirror it's hard to see what I'm doing at the same time I'm doing it. By the second day I asked Kiesa to help me moisturize, and it turned out she was far more efficient at it than I was.

I showed Calvin my tattoo the next evening, after I got home from work. He was bemused, more or less, though I'm honestly not quite sure how to evaluate his reactions to most things.

For the first day, the tattoo hurt like a sunburn. By the second day it started itching, and I tried very hard not to scratch it (because the tattoo after-care told me I wasn't supposed to scratch it, because I might end up scratching off a scab that goes deep enough to include the ink that's supposed to be below the top layers of skin). After a couple of days of itching constantly it started itching intermittently -- and I caught myself scratching it absent-mindedly before I caught myself. By now it has stopped itching, which I think means the healing process is complete.

I am still bemused that I got a tattoo, but I'm thrilled by the way it turned out -- and that I have a permanent reminder of my time in San Francisco.

When aiming for the lowest common denominator,
be prepared for the occasional division by
zero.