The black walls of the Connecticut Convention Center match the Goth aesthetic of Tommy’s Tattoo Convention. Covering the convention center’s flooring about 200 booths sit lined up in rows divided by black drapes. Tattoo enthusiasts walk between the rows of booths as if it was their own darkened catwalk to display their decorated bodies: words, colors, games, TV characters, barbed wire wrapped around limbs, flowers, quotes, and animal tattoos. Since 2011, Tommy’s Tattoo Convention has been a welcoming place for tattoo enthusiasts to gather, get inked, and party.
A stage is nestled towards the back of the convention center’s floor next to a full bar. On stage, two men and a woman stand about five feet apart above a small audience. The woman stands pressed against a wooden board; she’s dressed in all black with her hair tied up in a very messy bun. Four red balloons hang around her spread-eagle figure: two above her shoulders and two under her armpits. The two men, one dressed as your average pirate and the other wearing all black with a mask that looks like it was pulled from a horror film, grab knives from the holsters attached to their hips to throw at the balloons. The pirate pulls a knife from his holster and flings it five feet to the balloon above her right shoulder. The woman’s bun bounces as she comes down in a giggle. The Halloween mask gasps too loudly for the audience to hear the popping of the balloon.
I circle my way past the wannabe vaudeville show and artists’ booths in search of booth 171, Ashley’s booth. We’ve been e-mailing back and forth for the past week or so discussing the design, size, words, all of it for my first tattoo. Even though we’re at a convention, our e-mail conversations felt as though they were made for an appointment at a tattoo shop.
Booth 171 gives off a more feminine vibe in the darkened convention Center. Lilac purples and blacks cover a table with a light purple tattoo bed parallel to it. Pictures of tattoos line the front of the table as purple LED lights string all over it. A light purple skull and small glittering pumpkins sit next to a purple Halloween candy basket with a binder labeled “Tattoos by Ashley.”
A blonde girl calls out my name: “Andreia?” She’s wearing a yellow tie-dye sweatshirt with a green alien head on it to maybe match her camouflage leggings. Her glittery Ugg boots leap out of her chair, and she gives me a hug. Behind her hangs a purple sign with a drawing of a Native American woman and the words written above it, “Tattoos by Ashley,” as well as her Instagram username on the bottom left corner.
After a quick greeting, she shows me the final design on her iPad. The intricate lines and script spark my excitement. We agree on the design, and she leaves to make the printout of the tattoo’s stencil. On the other side of the tattoo bed, in front of the drapes, stands yet another table filled with all sorts of clear plastic bins and rolls of paper towels. In the bins laid unopened packages of needles, microfiber towels, disinfecting wipes, boxes of Glad Cling Wrap, an autoclave, bottles of rubbing alcohol and alcohol pads, black and purple latex gloves, spray bottles, tattoo gun tubes, rubber bands, bottles of colored ink, razors, shaving cream, and an orange “Sharps” container for disposing of the used needles. An adjustable, portable light sits next to the table, maybe because it’s so dark in this building. Ashley comes back into the booth as I scoot over to make room for her in this small area.
I take my jacket off and roll up my sleeve as she runs towards me with a razor in one hand and folded up paper towels in the other. My eyes shoot to hers and then slide down to the razor in her hand. Her lash extensions almost brush against my arm as she brings the razor to my skin and notices the lack of hair on my bicep. She puts the razor down on the table behind her and wipes my bicep down with the paper towels. She spins around in her chair, grabs the stencil of the outline, and spins back towards me. Her warm hands press the stencil against my bicep, making me feel the onset of commitment. The blue ink feels like an electric current running through my veins as she pulls back the stencil and exposes the design of the tattoo. It’s really happening.
She gestures me to lie down and get comfortable on the neon purple tattoo bed sitting in the middle of her booth. Her eyes notice my shaking arm. “Are you ready?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be.” Ashley pulls back her hair, situates herself into position, and turns on the tattoo gun.
“The first tattoo that I ever got was this star right here.” She lifts up her sweatshirt with one hand and pulls down the fold of her pants with the other revealing a leopard print star on her hip. “I got it because my parents told me that I couldn’t get a tattoo. So, when I turned eighteen, I was at a tattoo shop getting a tattoo.” We share a laugh as my shaking arm shakes a little less and Ashley grabs her gun.
The continuous buzzing noise helps to soothe my nerves in an oddly calming way. Ashley dips the needle into the ink. She pushes the gun into my bicep and the needle slips out, pushing the ink under my skin. My skin saturates in the blackness while the needle drags along my arm and my eyes drift up to the lights hanging across the convention center’s ceiling. My arm stops shaking, and a feeling of comfort takes over. I guess Ashley must’ve noticed because she kicked the motor into third, showing no mercy. (I learn that artists pick up speed because they know the client can handle it.)
As Ashley continues to drag the ink along my skin, the dragging turns to gliding. It feels like cats are scratching my arm. Then pain numbs it, and my nerves calm. I blink as my eyes leave the ceiling’s lights and turn straight to Ashley. Her pulled back hair exposes a blue and purple flower covering the left side of her neck. The colors alternate petal-by-petal connecting to a yellow center. It’s yellow in the middle with one corner ending in a point, and the other ending in a straight line. A single black streak cuts through the center making it look more like a cat’s eye than a circle. The intricate design of Ashley’s neck flower distracted me, and when my eyes peered back to the buzzing sound on my bicep, the thin lines of the waves were imprinted sharply on my arm. The blue ink of the words, “a wave away” slowly turn to black as Ashley continues to fill my arm with permanent ink.
Tattooing waves on my arm eases the stress of living so far away from my family. It feels like they’re in a different galaxy. The trek from America to Portugal is about eight hours by plane, which makes it so difficult to see my family as much as I would love to. Long distance relationships are hard but long distance familial relationships are even harder. These waves will continuously remind me my family is just a wave away, and I shouldn’t carry all of that stress. Now the waves will drag along my skin just as Ashley guides the needle along my bicep.
“Alright,” she gestures me to sit up, “we’re done!”
“It looks so great, thank you so much!” It’s there forever, and I’m content. She spins around in her chair, grabs the box of Clingwrap from one of the clear bins, and spins back towards me.
“Keep this wrapped up for the rest of the day.” She opens the Cling Wrap and starts wrapping it around my tattoo.
“Apply Aquaphor on it two to three times a day for a week, and then you’re all set to enjoy your new ink!”
She finishes wrapping my arm, and we exchange our goodbyes. I walk past Halloween mask and pirate dancing on the stage before I leave to show my family my newest commitment.
Headline photo by Noah Hulton for Blue Muse Magazine