My First Tattoo

I’ve wanted tattoos for a very long time. It took me nearly 36.97 years to get my first one. It had to be perfect, and I couldn’t come up with something quite good enough.

I think

In March I read the book “Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species” for my science book club. It is a fascinating book that profiles many of the giants of scientific discovery, including Charles Darwin. I’ve read Darwin’s writings, and biographies of him, but when I read about his “B” notebook on page 40 it resonated. I had not known about the notebooks or seen the rudimentary phylogenetic tree scratched therein. I had certainly not known about its preceding note, “I think.”

Charles opened up a new notebook (“B”) and wrote on the title page in bold letters: “Zoonomia,” picking up where his grandfather had left off nearly forty years earlier and a theme he first read as a struggling medical student. He jotted his thoughts down as they streamed out.

And then, on page 36, after the declaration “I think,” he drew a little diagram that represented a new system of natural history, a tree of life with ancestors at the bottom and their descendants at the top.”

Darwin's notebook "B" page 36.

Here was arguably the greatest scientist the world has ever known writing his most profound idea. “I think” is, to put it mildly, very humble. To contradict God, and the accepted explanation for the diversity of life at the time–namely divine creation and a very young Earth–was a very big deal, indeed. Darwin had been on his voyage, conducted countless experiments and engaged in conversations with other great thinkers. He had the confidence of an abundance of empirical evidence and the humility of someone who hadn’t worked out all the details of a monumental scientific theory.

With two simple words Charles Darwin summed up the whole of science. We study, examine, postulate, hypothesize and discuss. In the end, we boldly proclaim our big ideas for examination and scrutiny. We don’t simply guess or pray or arrogantly declare. Mostly, we think.

The tattoo

I knew almost immediately after seeing the image of Darwin’s notebook that the declaration “I think” would be the subject of my first tattoo. All I needed was a tattooist.

I tapped into my Twitterverse to find out who is the best tattooist in the Portland, Maine area. Overwhelmingly, the response was John Biswell at Made-Rite Tattoo on Exchange Street. I visited John’s shop, discussed what I wanted, made an appointment and paid a $50 down payment. I was committed, and very excited.

On September 16, 2010, a few minutes before 16:30, I shaved the underside of my left forearm in the bathroom at work and walked to Made-Rite Tattoo. After telling John again what I wanted and giving him a copy of the page of Darwin’s notebook I had printed from Google Images, John got right to work. He resized the image on the copy machine and transferred it to special carbon-paper before putting it into a thermal machine that, essentially, made a temporary tattoo much like those my girls adhere to themselves.

After a final shave and a thorough cleaning and sterilization of the area to be inked, John used a red marker to carefully draw guide marks on my arm. It was to be approximately one-third of the length of my forearm and positioned in the center. John placed the temporary tattoo using the guides he had drawn and had me look in the mirror at the placement and size. It wasn’t quite right. He told me we would get it perfect–no matter how long it took–so I shouldn’t hesitate to make any changes I wanted. His concern for getting it right was very reassuring. I had him change the angle slightly, after which he made a new temporary tattoo and placed it according to the new marks. I stood up and walked over to the full-length mirror for a final inspection prior to getting the needle. Perfect.

Shaved and sterilized
Shaved and sterilized
Tattoo placement guide marks
Tattoo placement guide marks
The initial placement on the red guide marks
The initial placement on the red guide marks
Slight adjustment to placement
Slight adjustment to placement
Final placement before the needle
Final placement before the needle

After sterilizing the area and getting his equipment ready he told me he would do one line and then stop to let me wrap my brain around the process. I wondered aloud what he would do if I decided after the line that getting a tattoo wasn’t my thing, and asked if anybody had ever changed their mind after that first prick. He said nobody had. John turned on his tattoo machine and drew the long vertical line of the “k.” Surprisingly, it didn’t hurt at all. Admittedly, I was probably riding an endorphine high, but never mind, I wasn’t complaining. John and I talked briefly about the experience. He said most people who get their first tattoo report to him that it is far less painful than they anticipate.

John stayed true to the original design
John stayed true to the original design

John lined in the tattoo, which didn’t take long. He had taped to his arm table his tracing he had made as well as the original I had brought. After the initial lines he cleaned my arm of all the purple guide and carefully went back over the tattoo to thicken lines and add the imperfections of the original until it was true to Darwin’s quill pen. At times it was painful, but only briefly and no more than a child’s pinch.

Following the lines
Following the lines
Rough lines are tattooed prior to the fine details
Rough lines are tattooed prior to the fine details
A very steady hand
A very steady hand
Done!
Done!

When he was done he had me look in the mirror one last time. When I jokingly asked him to change the angle again–just a little bit–he said that would require a scalpel. John has a very friendly and light personality which made the experience comfortable and pleasant. He teaches tattooing and had an apprentice in the shop, which added to my confidence of his professionalism and expertise.

John Biswell of Made-Rite Tattoo
John Biswell of Made-Rite Tattoo

He wrapped my arm in plastic, gave me care instructions and I was on my way, elated to have just fulfilled a long-time ambition.

Plastic wrapped tattoo
Plastic wrapped tattoo
A few days later...
A few days later...
Pink around the edges
Pink around the edges
The pink is mostly gone, but it still looks embossed.
The pink is mostly gone, but it still looks embossed.
Tattooed area is raised quite a bit.
Tattooed area is raised quite a bit.
Dead skin on tattoo has yet to heal and the arm hair is beginning to grow back.
Dead skin on tattoo has yet to heal and the arm hair is beginning to grow back.

Do you have a tattoo? If so, what was it like getting your first? What regrets or advice can you share? If not, why not? Leave a comment.

8 Comment

  1. Kirsten Uhler says: Reply

    I THINK your tattoo is perfect for you. I love how it encompasses so much. It is simple, yet meaningful and profound. I like how you documented the whole experience; not just a description of the process, but your thoughts and feelings about it. I enjoyed the story.

    I have no regrets about my tattoos, and I’m looking forward to getting my third. I was a little apprehensive about getting my first one, but the pain wasn’t bad, and I quickly developed a tolerance to it. I appreciate tattoos when they are well planned and thought out, they have significant meaning, and they look good. I see them as a unique and artistic way of expressing oneself.

    You are badass. :-)

  2. Andy Sinnott says: Reply

    I’ve decided to get this tattoo and for the same reasons, it’s cool to know there’s a like minded person who appreciates how profound those words are and how they represent science. A great choice and seeing this has made me more confident! (it will be my first too!)

    1. Awesome! Send photos after you get it and I’ll post them in your comment.

  3. It’s taken me 50 years to find the tattoo I’d like – Darwins tree of life just flashed up immediately as THE thing to have for me. [ Lord knows what everyone else will make of it ! ]

    One thing I’m having a bit of trouble with is getting a hires image (of the ‘I think’ and the tree) – can you tell me where you found yours?

    Yours looks great!

    Kind Regards,

    Simon.
    England.

    1. I did a Google Images search and grabbed the highest resolution image from the results.

      Good luck with your tattoo. Post pictures. It will be awesome!

  4. Ells, inspired by this post, got a similar tattoo to celebrate starting a PhD program. Woot!

    Ells Campbell - "I think" tattoo

  5. […] was gone to have our book signed. It was great to shake his hand, share a few remarks and show him my tattoo. Kirsten asked him what tattoo he would get, hypothetically of course. He said he would probably […]

  6. Brent, what a great story behind your tattoo. I think it turned out fantastic and was worth the 36.97 year wait.

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