I am by no means a tattooed lady. I have a tire swing on my left arm and a black ink outline of a little girl with a big head on my lower back. At 19, when I got the tattoo on my back, my first, I was surprised by my willingness to trust a stranger with such a gruesome, heavy task. I was a sulky college dropout too deep inside her own head—an impulsive decision with forever consequences was the last thing I thought I could handle. It felt massively important; but in the end, it was no big deal. Now, six years and one big arm piece later, I wanted to find out if the same buoyancy and optimism could occur on the other side of the needle.
Duke Riley did my tire swing last March at his studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Duke’s a frank, laid-back, scattered guy who spends a good portion of his time sailing and swimming the East River. (In fact, he recently made headlines for taking a homemade submersible too close to the Queen Mary 2.) His back is a world of anchors, sea life, and sailor code. When I went in for a touch-up in July, I asked if he’d teach me how to tattoo.
“Aw, you know, it’s going to be a hard thing, teaching someone to tattoo in an hour.” He laughed and shook his head. “What were you thinking, you’d tattoo me?”
I never imagined another human being would let me tattoo them. First lesson joyfully learned: While tattoos are a big deal, a tattoo is no big deal. Openness to being tattooed is crucial.
“Yes. Please. I want to give you a tattoo.”
And he was open to the idea.
We meet at his shop a few weeks later, and play out the typical first-time tattoo banter. Duke teases: “So, is this gonna hurt?”
I tell him that depends on where he wants the tattoo, and that he seems like a tough guy who can probably handle the pain.
“But what if I get sick of it?”
“Well—” I feed him my favorite line about tattoos “—it will be a reminder of this moment in your life. It’ll help you laugh at yourself later on.”
“All right, all right,” Duke says, and nods. “You’ve got the bullshit talk down, at least.” He starts frantically browsing art books as he barks set-up instructions. The shop is sweltering. I wipe the sweat from my forehead with the edge of my tank top.
Step 1: Prepare the Work Area
“Spray down the counter with disinfectant, and then green soap. OK, lay out a piece of tinfoil and put a glob of Vaseline on it. Get some Vaseline on the caps and stick them to the tinfoil. Now spray down the stand. We won’t wrap it in Saran Wrap—we’ll do the tattoo ghetto-style.”
I’m starting to trip over things in the shop, and I’m worried that my anxiety will change his mind. But the situation appears to be speeding along with or without me. Duke is trying to choose between a picture of a scared donkey and a small bumblebee. I splash water on my face and loudly exhale.
Step 2: Draw the Tattoo
“OK. We’re going with the bee on the knee. Cause it’s gonna be the bee’s knees.” Duke points to a tiny bee—the design has shading and color, despite its small size. Better than a donkey on the ass, I think.
I attach the prongs of the cord to the back of the machine, and push down on the pedal. The needle begins to hum, and I feel it vibrate in my gut.
To make the stencil, we blow up the image a bit on a copier and grab a piece of tracing paper. “How good of a drawer are you?” Duke asks. Decidedly not a drawer, I nervously start tracing the bee.
“Ha. That’s really bad.” My stomach is in my throat. I’m sitting three feet from the door. If I dash right now, I could eventually live down the shame. Instead, I lean in close to the paper and draw with the determination of a second-grader learning cursive. After I’m done, Duke approves my work, and after wrestling with a broken carbon copier for a while, he decides we should trace the bee in ink and transfer the design onto his leg from the tracing paper.
Duke opens a couple of beers with his teeth, and we get ready to put the bee’s outline above his knee in washable ink.
Step 3: Transfer the Image
In order to get the picture onto the knee I first have to shave the area, then put KY Jelly on the spot, pressing on the KY until it becomes tacky. I pull on a pair of latex gloves, then start shaving. Once I’m done, I begin applying the KY, but getting the right consistency proves problematic because of the heat. We spend what seems like an hour trying to get the image transferred, pressing it into the knee and trying to make the outline darker with a Sharpie.
There is groaning on both our parts, and fussing (me), and knocking over of the tool tray (also me), before we achieve a faint trace of the most pitiful bee I’ve ever seen. “Can you see those lines?” he asks.
Technically, I can see them, but can I follow them with a tattoo machine?
“Yeah, sure,” I gulp.
Step 4: Prepare the Needle
As the wimpy bee blinks back at me, it’s time to set up the machine. Duke shows me how to thread the needle through the tube and hook the back end of the needle onto a prong on the machine. Since I’m going to do the outline of the tattoo first, we’re using a skinny needle. The four-inch-long tube is about as wide as a cigar—yet deceptively heavy. When hooked to the machine, its balance and weight take a minute to adjust to. I attach the prongs of the cord to the back of the machine, and push down on the pedal. The needle begins to hum, and I feel it vibrate in my gut.
There are three caps of ink: black, yellow, and gray (for the shading). I dip the needle into the black ink and position the machine over the spot where I’m about to draw the first line. Duke explains what to do: “So, what you want to do is follow the line, and then bring the needle up before the line’s going to end.”
Step 5: Outline the Image
The first line does not get drawn, as much as grazed.
Duke: “You’ve got to be sure to stretch the skin tight when you do it.”
I try stretching the skin, but the outcome of the second swipe is not much better.
Duke: “You’re not going to be able to see the needle when it vibrates. You want to tilt it so the corner of the tube is against the skin.”
This gets results—but not many. I hover close to try one more time.
Duke: “WAIT! Fuck!”
I bolt upright, wide-eyed.
“This isn’t going to work. Let’s just do an anchor or a star or something simple like that. The bee is too complicated for a first tattoo. It’s going to take too long.”
He quickly wipes away the bee and draws an anchor in its place. All I can do is nod: Uh-huh. OK. Whatever you want. I’m actually relieved that my stare-down with the bee is over.
The anchor’s drawn and there’s ink on the needle. I wipe the sweat from my forehead and start in on the new design—but I still can’t tell when the needle is going into the skin. Suddenly, Duke has another change of heart.
“You know what? We’re doing the bee.”
“It’s going to feel like you’re going in a lot deeper, but don’t worry. The skin isn’t going to let you go in too deep.”
“Yeah. You gotta put the bee on the knee.”
He re-transfers the image, this time slightly lower—to avoid the skin I’ve already mangled. I roll the chair up beside him, take a deep breath, and put on my serious face: “Dude, you’ve got to let me try this for at least 10 minutes without getting frustrated. Just bear with me.”
He shrugs. “I’m not frustrated. Go ahead.”
And he’s not—and now I’m not either. I press the pedal, hunch over his leg, and outline a wing. Duke lets out an exaggerated but greatly appreciated cheer. (“That’s great! Great job!”) The wing is crooked, not at all solid, but the line is there. He gives me a quick overview of what to outline and reminds me not to go backward if I miss a part. And I’m off.
There’s a good amount of talking, sighing, wiping away excess ink with a paper towel, and admiring, but the bee is finally taking form. I start to relax into the tattoo and enjoy concentrating as the design emerges. I get used to the rhythm of the machine, and find I’m even stepping on the pedal instinctively, taking its vibration for granted. I complete the outline and go over all the spots I missed. Then we change machines, switching to a bigger needle to fill in the bee’s body.
Step 6: Fill in the Image
“When you fill in the body, you’ve got to make tiny circles.”
I worry that this will be harder than the outline.
“No way—so much easier. It’s going to feel like you’re going in a lot deeper, but don’t worry. The skin isn’t going to let you go in too deep.”
After we add yellow to the bee’s body, we begin shading the wings. Making horizontal lines with the needle, I press heavy at the edge of the wing and then lift the needle up as I draw the line. I fill in the darker part of the shaded wing at the end. Duke assures me the gray will fade over time.
Adrenaline and zeal have replaced my fear, and the bee is there, every line of it mine. Duke is affirming, though likely embellishing: “I’ve seen people apprentice for a year before giving a first tattoo that isn’t as good as this.”
I’m beaming through my sweat.
At Duke’s suggestion, I add some white to the eyes, then lean back to look at my work. The wings are lopsided. The body’s distorted. But after an hour of set-up and a little more than an hour of tattooing, it’s finished.
“I gotta go call my mom and tell her I got a tattoo,” Duke says with a smile.
I’m euphoric, but starting to crash the same way I did after getting the tire swing on my bicep. I look down, expecting to see the bee on my own knee. Duke wants to get home, and his voice cuts through my daze.
“Now you gotta clean.”
Step 7: Clean-Up & Finish
Gloves still on, I hurry to spray down the counters and throw away our garbage. We close up the shop and I stumble into the street, where it’s at least 15 degrees cooler. I ask Duke if he’s ever given a crappy tattoo.
“Sure. Everybody gives crappy tattoos. But before I gave other people crappy tattoos, I gave myself crappy tattoos.”
I fall into the passenger seat of Duke’s pickup, and spend the ride home thinking about what unfortunate tattoo I want to give myself.