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By Karon Liu

With beauty comes pain. More specifically, four handmade needles vibrating at 140 times per second, depositing ink a millimetre into the skin.

Tattoos are still a rather unknown territory for the masses. When my friends see my half-sleeve, they’re fascinated by the tattooing process, the reasons behind the design, the pain factor and how much it cost. Others look at me as if I decapitated a clown — amused but nevertheless horrified.

Either way, I secretly enjoy the gasps and shock value that splashes of non-soluble ink can bring. I also enjoy immersing myself in the inner sanctum of inked individuals whenever I go to Way Cool Tattoos on Queen Street West. Amanda at Way Cool has worked on my half-sleeve twice since December.

It’s a pale, gray-blue stained-glass design with a twisted iron border that goes from my left shoulder blade down to the elbow, inspired by the opulence of art deco. Embedded in the glass are flowers, resembling the white dittany species. (Dittany doodles litter every other page of all my notebooks since junior high.)

A dove swoops down along my inner arm to represent the end of a decade-long conflict with someone close to me. For a final touch, spiders, moths and beetles crawl along the stained glass to symbolize my need to breathe and find beauty in everyday life. Half of those explanations are bullshit. The flowers and iron borders exist as sketches because they were the only thing I could competently draw. Amanda added everything else purely for aesthetics.

I walk into the shop a third time and Amanda greets me in all her monochromatic glory: black tank top, black pants and black lace-up combat boots. As I close the door behind me, a breeze gently brushes back her long black hair to reveal two complementary portraits on her shoulders and a pirate-themed full-sleeve outlined on her left arm. Memories of my annual checkup seep into my mind as I lie on a padded table, covered with a lovely zero thread-count paper spread.

With vibrant blue rubber gloves, a heavy green ink-splattered rubber apron and the tattoo gun in her right hand, Amanda begins filling in the half-done, blue stained glass. The bulk of the pain came during the first session, during the outlining process. Since the outline is traced from a stencil, it has to be done all at once — all four hours. Don’t let the buzzing sound fool you, it doesn’t feel like a little prick going up and down your skin.

Rather, think of a thick sewing needle scratching the hell out of you. This time she does shading and colour, which still hurts, especially around the inner arm, elbow and shoulder blades where the flesh is thin. But it’s less painful than the first time. To distract myself from the minor discomfort, I catch up on things with Amanda like we’re girls at the beauty parlour. Blame my inquisitive journalistic nature (or rather the US Weekly reader in me), but I love asking people in the service sector what they think of clients and, in this case, which designs they absolutely love (or hate) to do. Beyond the obviously sexist, racist and hateful imagery, such as swastikas, most artists refuse to do, one particular design seems to be as annoying as the buzzing noise from the tattoo gun.

“Celtic armbands,” Amanda states firmly. “It’s not that I’ll refuse to do them but it’s difficult to do since it goes all the way around the arm and it’s usually hard for the person to keep still.” “It’s not so much that armbands are overdone,” says Way Cool artist Savannah, whose red track jacket conceals two large roses above her breasts and a strategically placed candle in between them.

“People never want to pay the price for them because they already have one or two little tattoos and expect to pay the same price. They start at $200 because they’re so hard to stencil and it’s tricky to go all the way around the arm.”

Prices vary according to the size, shape, colour and complexity of the design. My first tattoo was a tiger’s head from a National Geographic photo done in grayscale on my right hip. The 4-by-3 inch design, with detailed whiskers and shadows, set me back $180. Conversely, the phrase “No Regrets,” done in an old English font across my upper back, was 4-by-11 inches and cost $250, because text is relatively easier to trace and there’s no shading to do.

The half-sleeve is a custom design that’s quite intricate and large. Because it goes all the way around my arm, it’s difficult to stencil and outline. For large and complicated designs that take more than one session, Amanda charges by the hour (usually a little over $100). Including this session, she’s spent eight hours working on my arm and it’s a little more than half done. Whenever my friends see my tattoo, the first thing they ask is how much it cost.

After lecturing me on how I could have otherwise spent the money (tuition, books, pot), I tell them what Amanda says to her customers when money becomes an issue. “I have to eat you know,” she says with a chuckle while wiping off excess ink and drops of blood every 15 seconds. She sends Chris, the resident piercer, to get more paper towels from across the street. “(The money) also goes to the equipment, the ink, the space.”

Not to mention the one-of-a-kind artwork that takes skill and time to etch permanently onto skin. Money aside, Amanda and I discuss the ever-popular kanji (the Japanese word for Chinese characters). “You know, congee is Chinese porridge,” I say. Amanda laughs. “The next time someone asks for kanji I can say, ‘You want the Chinese porridge tattoo?'” If you want to get lettering in a foreign language, it’s important to make sure the character is the correct word or phrase.

Don’t depend on posters that hang on the wall with English translations; shops order them from online tattoo companies and it’s unlikely Chinese spellcheckers were involved. A coworker had the character for “earth” tattooed on his back. He wanted earth, the element representing wisdom and logic. Instead he got the literal word for earth, the third planet from the sun. My sister’s friend wanted the character for “love.” She ended up with “cloud.”

And the mother of all lost in translations: My high school teacher’s gym buddy wanted “strength” but got “con” (as in “ex-con”). Speaking of dull designs… “I’m not that into tribal (tattoos),” says Savannah as she fixes her Bettie Page hairdo. “It’s pretty, safe and doesn’t have to mean anything. Someone would come in saying that they want a hibiscus and a butterfly and I’ll be excited at how big and colourful it’s going to be. But then they tell me that they want it in tribal.”

She elaborates with a little pout: “I’m into colour and shape instead of something that looks like a stamp.” Indecisive people are difficult to work with, so have some idea of what you want when you go in. Abstract or literal? Colour or grayscale? Text or image? You would think most people already know that names are usually a no-no, but both Amanda and Savannah do them all the time. They also try to count the number of cover-ups they’ve done.

“Unless you’ve been married for 10 or 20 years, don’t get names of a boyfriend or girlfriend,” Savannah says. “Also think carefully about the size,” she advises. “Some people want to put a lot of detail in a design, but want to keep the tattoo small. It won’t turn out good aesthetically. “If they’re really young, or are getting their first tattoo, and want a very visible tattoo like on the top of their hand, I’ll sit them down and talk with them to make sure that it’s something they’re sure about.”

In the adjacent chair is Savannah’s next appointment. A tall, silver-haired businessman, who could pass for Anderson Cooper’s stand-in, fiddles with his BlackBerry as he gets his first tattoo: the symbol for the astrological Cancer on his ankle. The whole inking process took less time than it took for her to sterilize and set up the equipment, since the symbol was the size of a postage stamp. With that he rolls up his socks to conceal the bandage, puts on his black wool coat and goes back to the office.

A closeted rebel, I presume. On the other side of the spectrum are people who want to be seen. Enter Carlos: A built, middle-aged family man cloaked in leather and sunglasses, the sunlight from outside bouncing off his gold chain. Amanda puts down her tattoo gun, giving my arm a break, to help him.

He wants the crest of a Portuguese soccer team on his upper arm. “Why are you getting this tattoo?” I ask. “To support the team or something?” He takes off his sunglasses and looks as though he was just asked to divide 3 million into 14. “That’s a good question,” he replies, buying time as he thinks of a real response. “If it’s something permanent then it has to be something you really like.” He makes an appointment for the next day and Amanda goes back to shading in the iron borders of my sleeve.

“He wanted the crest to be in red and yellow, but decided to get it in black and white when I told him the price,” Amanda says. “It’s $240 with colour and $180 without. I told him that he could get black and white now and add colour later, but it’ll cost more.”

After three hours, Amanda bandages up my arm and disinfects everything she and I touched to prevent contamination. Another $300 gone, but I’m one satisfied customer. Perhaps Carlos should have been here when Savannah was giving tips to tattoo virgins.

“The best advice I can give is not to get a tattoo just for the sake of getting one.”

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