Sojourning in the Heart of Modern Cool



It’s a September-trying-to-be-August Friday evening in Boston-is-just-a-big-college-town, and the tattoo studio is saturated with frenetic energy.  Other than the undiagnosed-depression manager, I’m the only being over the age of thirty in this space – I can’t vouch for the grey-pillow-with-legs-and-a-pink-vest therapy Pug sitting anxiously by the front door.  None of the late teens, early twenties, gonna-get-tatted customers sit-flops on the communicable-disease-friendly sofas for more than ninety seconds, competing three-sentence-long-rapid-monologues pass off as conversation, and around the huge waiting room – enclosed by rambling, matt black, walls, dotted with purple-black-silver-sharp-angled tattoo designs– phone screens are forsaken only as waves of sudden-anxious-preening reverberate across this sea of scantily-black-clothed humanity.  

Faux lounging on the, public-lounging-requisite, brown-cracked-pleather sofa, my body as taut as a plank, I am peerless in this mercilessly hip space as the Great-Big-Wad-of-Boringness: My entirely conforming haircut, not even rising to the level of a hairstyle; my crows-footed-visage; my faded-earth-tones-who-cares-it’s-finally-Friday clothes; my middle-class-judgmental-near-sneer, all confirm my role as a forsaken soul, from the wilderness where consequences matter, wandered into the Heart of Modern Cool.

Only two justifications exist as to why a Great-Big-Wad-of-Boringness such as myself would sojourn to the Heart of Modern Cool.  I could be there as an undercover Health Inspector: This is Massachusetts after all, where tattooing is so heavily regulated that up until relatively recently, only a Commonwealth of Massachusetts Board Certified Physician was allowed to approach your epidermis with a tattoo gun; and where, loving our Blue Laws as we do, up until a few years ago, Sunday off license sales of alcohol were prohibited; and, and – BTW – where that self-same Commonwealth still considers it “an act unlawful for a mourner to eat more than three sandwiches at a wake!”  This last one was very clearly a misguided Yankee attempt to punish Irish immigrants, who did not, in fact, waste their time at wakes “ating sangwiches,” but were instead “ating bottles of beer, to drink that soul all the way into Heaven!”  

The more likely reason there’s a Great-Big-Wad-of-Boringness, stiff a plank, on the brown-cracked-pleather-sofa, is that I’m the parent to a minor who “needs” a body piercing. 

At the counter, the absolute dominion of the undiagnosed-depression manager, a nineteenish year old man, all in black, viper tattoo curling around his neck, eyebrows-nose-cheeks-ears bristling with piercings – I’ve already been filially stern-glaringly admonished, twice, for calling such objects earrings – and delicate chains, tries bargaining on price for a nipple piercing.  

Despite the punitive diligence paid to getting all of our information – my daughter’s passport and my driver’s license whisked out of my hand, and immediately photocopied; raising my cranky-middleclass-anti-identity-theft hackles – just to get in line to get pierced, prices are not visible anywhere.  Even the piercings case reveals only the cost of the most expensive items.  Indeed, it would appear that, as noted in small-small print on the menu at our local Chinese restaurant: “Prices are subject to change without notice.”

“All I got’s these two twen’ies, can’t that just cover it?” the heavily-alloyed, young man shrug-asks, his eyes decidedly disassociated from currently reality.  “I mean it was just like bada-boom-bada-bing, and the artist’s done?”  

“Sir, titanium straights run around fifty dollars, plus the nipple piercing runs …,” she yanks open a drawer beneath the counter, rummages roughly through a pile of papers, gives up too easily, and raises her stare back into the disassociated eyes.  “It’s … like seventy five, so all in you’re looking at one twenty five – plus sales tax, of course.”

She stares hard into the disassociated eyes.

“But all I got’s the two twenties, an’, … an’,” he holds out the twenties, but draws back his bony shoulders, “I needa getta train back to Waltham.”

“Sir, if you do not to pay for the goods and services rendered, then that is deem theft, and studio policy requires that I immediately contact the Boston Police,” she says, woodenly – clearly an oft used script. 

“I ain’t thieving nor nuthin’,” he shakes his head confusedly, looks around, touches his black-black tee shirt on the left nipple.  “An’, an’ I on’y got the one nipple done, so youse can have t’other straight back.  What’s it then?”

The manager angry-fast-sighs, shakes her head.

“You know … that’s not how it works, … sir.”

They stare at each other for a moment, his eyes un-fogging as hers harden.

“Hey, Hank, hey,” he turns, waves a little too energetically

A group of Goths flopped over a once-upon-a-very-long-time-ago white, sectional sofa, crane their necks to see what’s the excitement.  They all simultaneously get the urge to run four fingers through their thick, ruthlessly, black hair.  

Down by the earring … eh … piercings sales cases, a full-tattoo-sleeves, black-black-muscle-shirted young man turns around deliberately.

“Sup bro?” Hank words, barely audibly.

Hank’s eyes are so disassociated that even from thirty feet away, on the brown-cracked-pleather-sofa, I receive a barely-moved-elbow-nudge from my daughter.

This is only my second time ever in a “tattoo studio.”  More than twenty years ago, on a rugby tour to Texas, a few of us wandered out of the Alamo and into Singapore John’s Tattoo Arcade.  Behind the counter a yellowing cardboard sign, in black, twelve-inch high letters spelt: “NO CRYBABIES ALLOWED.” 

“What ken I do for you fellers too-day?” John asks, welcomingly.

He sits, a husky man, on a swivel stool, stopping his work on the final panel of non-inked skin on his customer’s right shoulder, to smile up at us.  

The customer, a portly, fifty-something man, full-tattooed-sleeves, and just the one non-tattooed patch of skin on his back, sits cowboy style on a metal chair, grinning out at his sudden-gawking-audience.

“Just lookin’,” we answer, sheepishly.

“That’s fine, that’s fine, lookin’s good, lookin’s good,” John says, holding his tattoo gun at the ready above the pinkish skin.  “Just stan’ back now, less and y’all wanna get heet by the blud.”

We all involuntarily retreat a few quick steps.

John and his customer guffaw loudly, throwing their heads back.  

The customer’s open mouth reveals two missing front teeth.

For most of its history in the western world, tattooing was the province of manly-men, who laid down hard cash to get anchors, hearts, or swirly “MOM” tattoos on their forearm; and then went on a three day bender, waking up, deathly hungover, in a cheap boarding house, wondering how their forearm got bandaged.  

Now tattooing is the province of the generation trying to come to terms with our fucked up world: Fully a third of them get “inked” sometime before the start of their third decade.  Great-Big-Wads-of-Boringness, like me, almost never swagger into a tattoo studio and say: “Ink me up in a way that says, I’m cool-unique-edgy and have this completely mystical view of the world.  Oh, and include a skull, a knife, a smoking Harley, and wrap it all in voluptuous curves.” 

At the register, heavily-tattooed-Hank, mutter-grumbling about his friend in need, produces some plastic.  

The manager’s face creases into her well-worn, victory smirk, as she repeated, harshly swipes the card through the reader.

“And would like to give the artist a tip?” she asks, barely containing her pre-knowing, faux-pissed-off response.

Hank turns away and looks at his newly-nipple-pierced friend, who’s back at the piercing cases.

A twenty-something woman – short, deathly thin, completely shaved head, even the eyebrows have been erased, but with a replacement too-black, hair tattoo, that crimps in the narrow skinfolds at the base of her skull – stands in the middle of the waiting space, and calls my daughter full legal name, backwards – reading precisely from the photocopied passport.

She leads us to the ear.. piercings cases, where titanium is the alloy of choice. Accepting 0.000% input from her so-uncool-you-should-be-in-a-history-book father, my daughter selects her piercings. The employee leaves “to get these babies sterilized,” and we browse the rest of the case.

For $150 – each – silver, inch and half long twisted bull horn nose-piercings can be obtained, thereby preventing close-talkers from hovering in tight proximity to your face – could be worth it.  There’s an actual earring – I receive permission to call it that – that helixes around the whole upper ear in individual threaded gold loops.  We look at tunnel sets: These start like small, thick earrings, but then grow, in sixteenth of an inch increments until the ear lobes are opened large enough to push an index finger through.  My alien-from-another-planet gawking is interrupted when we’re ushered into an exam room.

I kid you not: The piercing room is a fully functioning medical exam room, outfitted just like your doctor’s office – probably even better, ‘cause the piercing artist doesn’t have to fight the insurance companies.  Massachusetts regulations “require” that I be present with my minor daughter for the piercings; but, thankfully, they don’t “require” that I enjoy it – ‘cause I don’t.  

The piercing artist is a good guy, thirty something, full-tattoo-sleeves, multiple piercings, including stretched-triangular holes in his ear lobes the size of throat lozenges.  It would seem that, other than the manager, “studio policy” keeps everyone over age thirty in the background to avoid displaying too much of the burnt-out-cool look. Tattoos and piercings are like fruit and vegetables, they sell better when fresh, perky and firm: The thirty-somethings’ sagging piercings and just-slightly-out-of-focus tattoos do not inspire further sales. 

As the artist explains the procedure, he pulls on a pair of black disposable exam gloves, letting them slap loudly into place.  He smears various bacteria killing lotions onto my daughter’s ears, and dutifully lies that it “basically doesn’t really hurt, just like a long pinch.” 

We both gladly believe his sales-lie.

The earrings are there, on a small stainless steel tray, just out of the autoclave.  Surgically bagged piercing needles, swabs and daubs, sprays and squirt bottles, a surgically bagged set of forceps, are all lined up like a surgeon’s tools on a stainless steel instrument tray.  In the corner there’s a good sized machine on wheels, with dials and power cords, and what looks like an attachment for a tattoo gun.

“Don’t we need that?” I say, pointing at it, trying to employ stupid-dad-humor to sooth our combined familial anxiety.

“Nah, that’s the eraser,” the piercing artist responds flatly.  “When people want to get a tat covered over, we use that first, to clean off the site.”

“Oh, so that’s a tattoo removal machine?” I’m genuinely impressed with how much technology it takes to remove the ink from your layers of skin.

“That too,” he kinda-sorta nods at such a remote possibility.

“Dad, if you wanna hold your daughter’s hand,” he waves me over to the other side of the room, as he snap-changes his black gloves for the second time.

I’m just about getting about my hand crushed into early chronic-rheumatism, when he’s already reaching for an earring, the piercing made.

We repeat the dosage on the other ear – and hand.

And it’s all over.

An audible sigh can be heard from the Center for Disease Control, Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and Boston Health Commission offices at the successful completion of another medical procedure.

In line at the register, awaiting our verbal beating, we sense, all around us, the growing Friday night energy.  The Goth women on the sofa, rapid-communi-thumb with each other on their phones.  By the piercings cases, two stocky young women, buzz-cuts, bomber jackets, hold hands and point, careful – as the sign commands – that they DO NOT TOUCH THE GLASS.  On the brown pleather sofa, a couple enmesh their limbs, and like a four armed being scroll through iPad tattoo images.

“Well you’ll be lucky to get a piercing this evening,” the manager tell-scoffs at the two young Goths guys in front of us in line.  “I mean, take a look.”

She waves her hand around.

“We only got another hour, and the studio’s bustin’ full.”

One Goth says something, but too low for eavesdropping.

“Tomorrow?” the manager’s face twists interrogatively.

The Goth nods.

“Tomorrow we open at ten.”

Again a too quiet response.

“We don’t do appointments, just walk-ins for piercings.”

More mumbled questions.

“Well there wouldn’t be any point coming in right at ten, I mean, the piercing artist doesn’t start until twelve.”

The Goths leave, shaking their manes of black hair.

We muddle through our payment, making just a dozen or so unforgivably stupid mistakes, each of which are punishingly corrected.

“Can we get those copies of our passport and license back?” I ask – quixotically. 

“No way!” the manager retorts, her eyebrow piercings drawing close together in genuine shock.  “Those are now part of Massachusetts Department of Public Health records. They’re almost … almost more important than your payment.”

She flashes a wry, now-you-understand-why-I-have-to-be-so-difficult, smile at me.

As we pass the, even more anxious now, grey-pillow-on-legs by the front door, I stoop to pat him on the head. 

“DON’T!” the manager screeches.  

We depart.

The door to modern cool swings closed behind us; my daughter’s ears hurt-tingling; my never-all-that-well-formed-self-image in tatters.

Outside on the strip, Friday night is gearing up strong.  

We walk past open-doors-and-windows bars, music blaring; on a ginormous TV screen, a life-sized, white uniformed, Jackie Bradley Jr. stands in the green of Fenway, glove unstressed-ready for a fly-ball.  

In front of a rolled ice cream store, two, tattooed and pierced, young men stand vaping, mouthing, through huge clouds of smoke-vapor, in the window to two mini-skirted, tight-haircuts, full-tattoo-sleeved, laughing young women.  

A homeless man settles his cardboard bedding in the doorway of a packed windows, urban hardware shop.  

A cop, blues flashing, lumbers out of his cruiser, sighs heavily, adjusts his gun-belt under his gut, and starts toward a white, New York plated van – ruined with unintelligible graffiti.

With every step my daughter’s ear lobes hurt less.  She’s happy to have gotten this “need” out of the way before high school starts.

With every step my unique status as the Great-Big-Wad-of-Boringness in the Heart of Modern Cool, gets diluted by the all consuming tediousness of living a human life, so that by the time we approach my old, blue Volvo, I’m back to my plain, old fashioned boring self.