Considering tattoos: Pain and permanence are the price of admission of tribal membership

May 7, 2023 | 13 comments

Updated from September 5, 2021

It was yet another fortuitous day in Cuenca.

As I wandered along Calle Larga towards Inglesia Todos Santos, I realized that I had stopped in front of a store I passed a gazillion times without ever paying attention to its purpose, Tattoo Kawaz. I had never been in a tattoo parlor, although I was well aware of their popularity. Getting inked seemed foreign to me, but I never really thought about it until that moment, so I figured this would be a good time to see what was up.

I stepped inside to take a peek.

I was warmly greeted by a chipper young woman, Veronica Leiva Antibero, an expat from Venezuela and daughter of the legendary Leonardo Leiva Nazarewsky, an internationally famous BMX (dirt bike) stunt racer.

Veronica is an apprentice tattoo artist who happily agreed to be interviewed about piercings, tattoos and colorful hair. She was wearing what can only be described as business extremely casual; an Iron Maiden “t” shirt and billowy linen pants. Her long hair was worn straight, highlighting shades of color known only to the scientists at Jell-O. Her plugs were mildly understated, highlighting a “holier than thou” appearance; her grill work resembled the beak of a ‘55 Olds 88. I was immediately charmed by this sweet and enthusiastic young woman and wanted to know more about her profession.

I’ll readily confess that I was unprepared for the earnest conversation that followed and how committed Veronica is to furthering the message carried by her community of friends.

I began by asking, “Can I get a tattoo today?” She looked in her notebook briefly and suggested the following week.
“How about you come in one week from today at 11 a.m.? If you have a particular design already in mind, please send us a copy so we can prepare a copy to refer to.” I agreed to meet the following Wednesday, being quite amazed that the shop was booked a whole week in advance. I thought about it all week long.

I arrived on time. “My,” I said, “I had no idea that tattoo parlors are so busy that one would have to book a week out just to get a little ink into some skin.” She looked at me as patiently as a mother goose would her goslings and said, “We delay our appointments a week to give our clients time to consider the permanence of their actions. Getting a tattoo is a lifelong statement that you need to think about. It is much deeper than simply getting ink into your skin. Body modification is a very personal way to express yourself and you do not want to be hasty or come to regret your decision years later.”

My ignorance was clearly on display.

As we chatted, I was repeatedly impressed by the degree of solemnity practiced by the entire staff. I was reminded that tattoos and piercings are among the original art forms and that body adornment has always linked self-expression with membership within a tribe.

It was explained to me that the tattoo artist’s role in our culture is simple — to make people happy — but providing such a gift requires great sensitivity. I asked if there were any symbols that Tattoo Kawaz would not ink. I was rewarded with a dissertation on the merits of body modification, pain, and the challenges of self-expression in an era of social media domination.

When I asked if the studio would ink a swastika or blatant racist remark on someone’s skin, I was told yes … and no.
“We would never object to any form of expression or belief avowed by another,” Veronica said. “However, we also do not want to be responsible for someone losing a job or failing an interview simply due to a tattoo. We always ask them to reconsider. And, we actively discourage folks — especially first-timers — from getting inked on their neck or any other place that would be difficult or impossible to cover if the need arose. Again, we want people to be happy with themselves and their decisions.”

I was reminded that tattoos are beautiful in the eyes of those who desire them because they enhance the perception of one’s own beauty. It is an artistic way to empower yourself and proclaim your individuality; it is a way to overcome fear and notions of inferiority and isolation. Tattoos serve the unique role of presenting your originality to the world beyond the limitations of clothing or make-up.

There is also the importance of not ignoring the importance of pain. Too many folks attempt to inoculate themselves from pain as if it were a bad thing. It isn’t. Pain is the marker that proclaims intense feelings. It allows you to become closer to your own being by fully feeling the manifestation of living. Why else would one run a marathon or climb a mountain?

Inviting pain by indelibly marking your body has the added benefit of granting you membership into a community founded on the importance of permanence.

Veronica made another point regarding pain and permanence. She said that her generation was raised by parents who accomplished many great social advances, often through demonstrations and social activism. However, her generation also came to believe that the pressures of assimilation were too great and that the siren call of creature comforts was too enticing for most older people to ignore. They diluted many of the very accomplishments they had fought so hard for by turning their best efforts into a saleable product. Attention to karma was replaced with reliance on credit score.

“Our parents cut their hair, and Voila! All was forgiven and much was forgotten. A tattoo personifies truth in advertising.”

Tattoos are a constant reminder of the need to progress — to enact permanent change for the better, even though it requires enduring discomfort and irritation.

As I sat with Veronica mulling over what she had said, the tattoo artist on call, Cristhian L. Cawaski, called my name. The chair was empty. He reminded me that a tattoo is much deeper than simply getting ink into your skin. Body modification is a very personal way to express yourself, and you do not want to be hasty or come to regret your decision years later. He asked if I was ready to make a lifelong statement.

I said, “Let’s get happy.”

Robert Bradley

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