Kimberly Sheridan explores the world of tattoos in her column Tattoo Ink. In “Daredevil (The First Time),” she shares her experience getting that first tattoo.
When I was twenty-five, I got my first tattoo at Daredevil on the Lower East Side of New York City. My friend from art school had some beautiful work done there and, inspired, I made an appointment with her artist, the talented Seth Wood. I didn’t know what I wanted when I booked the time slot. Like many people, my decision to get one followed a big life event; I had gone through a painful breakup with a cruel cardiologist four months prior, and the gesture was a kind of reclamation. Instead of a departure from self, you often become more yourself by marking it. Although sometimes you have to let go of notions of who you thought you were or how you were told to be. I wasn’t completely conscious of what compelled me at the time, but I was choosing how I’d define myself.
I landed on a human heart, with a skull inside the left ventricle, surrounded by lilies. I made a little drawing for reference but, despite an illustration degree, I knew nothing about tattoo design, placement, or what did and didn’t work in this medium. Seth offered to redraw it and suggested it be four times the size of my sketch to fit in all the various elements. Fortunately, I listened and let the professional do his job. After hours in this quiet shop, I approved his bold new design. With the stencil placed, I straddled a folding chair backward while Seth worked on my upper back and told funny stories from his early days of tattooing at the Jersey shore.
(Kimberly Sheridan being tattooed by Seth Wood at Daredevil; photo by Alexis Trice)
I loved the new black-and-gray mark flowering on my right shoulder blade. It was made for me and felt like it belonged there. It was all in there: love and death and innocence and pain and rebirth. My piece seemed rich with symbolism, but maybe tattoos of all kinds are doing similar work by the nature of their existence. The brilliant artist and tattooer Don Ed Hardy states, “Tattoo is the magic word. It hits people in a way that no other visual medium does. And it is not simply visual, but visceral. Everybody has an opinion about it and everybody has a gut reaction. And because they are permanent, tattoos raise all these issues about life and death.” That may be why we fear getting tattoos or try to shrink them down to a tiny size or start with an area that can be hidden under a shirt and away from the eyes of others. And it’s also why we want tattoos—to seize being in a fleeting human incarnation, or to show the world who we are and what we value, or to rebel and give society the middle finger. Sometimes, like it was for me this first time, it’s all these things at once.
It’s why we want tattoos—to seize being in a fleeting human incarnation, or to show the world who we are and what we value, or to rebel and give society the middle finger. Sometimes, like it was for me this first time, it’s all these things at once.
Twelve years after this initial tattoo and no longer a New Yorker, I’d return to Daredevil, which is also a Tattoo Museum. The walls are covered in old flash sheets and framed newspaper articles. The owner, Michelle Myles, gives walking tours that start at the shop and weave around the neighborhood, an area abundant with tattoo history. On Division Street, just off Canal Street, Daredevil is mere blocks from the birthplace of modern tattooing. The first tattoo shop in America was on the Lower East Side (LES), opened in 1875 by a former sailor, Martin Hildebrandt, who learned the craft at sea. Samuel O’Reilly, also a tattooer on the LES, patented the electric tattoo machine in 1891, an invention based on Thomas Edison’s electric pen.
Only steps away from where these Tattooing Forefathers innovated, I had acquired my first permanent mark. I hadn’t known the area’s loaded lineage at the time, or that I was launching a lifelong fascination.
The historian and writer Rebecca Solnit notes, “Perhaps it’s that you can’t go back in time, but you can return to the scenes of a love, of a crime of happiness, and of a fatal decision; the places are what remain, are what you possess, are what is immortal. They become the tangible landscape of memory.” I could walk the streets of Chinatown, revel in the history that inhabits and haunts the streets, and remember my own formative experiences there. Tattoos are also a tangible landscape of memory. We can mark moments in time and, even if we’re not intentionally doing so, create a kind of personal cartography.
I asked Michelle about her first tattoo. She was also inspired by a friend from art school who had a tattoo she liked. A punk-rock, confident tomboy, Michelle wanted a panther she couldn’t afford, so, she settled for a $25 cat instead. I didn’t ask her if she thought she’d get many more at the time.
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Back in 2008, I hadn’t thought I would cover so much real estate. People always say tattoos are addictive and you can’t get just one, but that’s an oversimplification. In the beginning, it’s common to overthink, fuss over what and where to ink, and wonder if you’ll regret it or who might hate it. Like many things, it gets easier after the first time. But I don’t think of that first tattoo as the start of an addiction; it’s more like a closed door swinging open. You start to see possibilities beyond the cage your parents, your society, or your own self constructed. This new piece of art becomes a part of you, a part of your skin; you may often forget it’s even there; you may feel more yourself than ever.
After my initiation with Seth, it only took a year before I booked an appointment for a second tattoo. I’d get the next one while visiting a friend in Los Angeles, and I’d let the ink creep off my back and onto my upper arm. Over the years, various tattoo ideas would keep coming, the placements would get progressively more visible, and I’d discover talented tattooers I wanted work done by.
And when I left Daredevil the second time, after the informative tour and inspiring chat with Michelle, I only wished that I’d left enough time to mark that moment by getting another tattoo.