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FAQs about Tattoos

At the Guatemala City Tattoo Convention


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A couple of weeks ago, we accompanied Luis and the folks from El Guato Tattoo here in Antigua (4th Calle near La Bodegona) to Guatemala City for a tattoo convention. It was my first, convention not tattoo. Truthfully, I didn’t know what to expect. Luis, my former Spanish teacher turned tattoo maestro, described the event as a bunch of tattooists drinking all day. He was just going to do one tattoo, he said. It would be fun.

As a few of you may know, and some of you will learn by the end of this sentence, my wife Emma has been doubling as a children’s teacher and regular at the tattoo shop. (In the off hours, she’s a homemaker.) She hangs out El Guato a few times a week, watching a lot of Guatemala TV, picking up the occasional nugget of wisdom and considering a possible future career in the inking industry. She even managed to flutter her eyes in such a way that I allowed her to do her first tattoo on my thigh about a month ago.

FAQ about Tattoos: Does it hurt?
Yes. Essentially, you’re subjecting yourself to thousands of needle pokes. Luis explains that, while tattooing, an artist must avoid sympathizing with the customer. To sympathize would result in not putting the ink deep enough, thick enough, or cleanly enough. “You’re getting a tattoo,” he points out. “It’s going to hurt.” Emma seemed slyly content as she tattooed my leg.

So, it came to pass that on the Friday before the event, Luis’s person-canvas backed out on him, leaving him less than twenty-four hours to find a new customer willing to get a bigass tattoo. Enter Emma. Suddenly, going to the convention turned into a new tattoo, Emma bringing home several sketches that evening and laboring over finding the right one as we enjoyed our Friday night Ramyon-and-movie night. Her main concern: Luis wanted to use “psychedelic colors”.


Saturday morning I arrived at the tattoo shop about a quarter to ten, fifteen minutes after Emma, who’d gone with Luis to the nearby supermarket to buy bottles of rum. By ten o’clock, we were on the road. The idea was to arrive early to get a good spot. Then, we could start drinking. A small piece, the responsible side, spent much of the ride thinking about a drunken Guatemalan (stereotypically known for unreasonable intoxication) tattooist (again, not stereotypically known as a group of saints) marking my wife for life and how we are going to get home after that. In the end, I concluded there wasn’t much I can do about it at that moment.

FAQ about Tattoos: Can I get drunk first?
This one seems fairly obvious enough. Many of us intentionally get drunk before getting tattooed. However, I’ve heard stories of thinned blood and excessive bleeding caused by alcohol. My guess is that this is an effort to dissuade stumbling idiots. El Guato has a beer fridge which I have taken full advantage of on several occasions now. See my calf, my arm, and my thigh. However, protocol is that one shouldn’t drink, and it’s even illegal tattoo the inebriated in some countries. In other countries, they frown on tattoos, booze or no booze.

We were at the convention center by noon, the table set up, and nothing else to do but eat and drink. There were maybe half a dozen other shops worried about getting there early, and soon pizza boxes and fast food bags began to appear at everyone’s station. We were getting into a bottle of rum as others trickled end throughout the early afternoon. Finally at about four, the first tattoo got underway and event-goers rather than participants began touring the stations. In the manner of about an hour or two, the room got thick with skin art.


It seemed every ink enthusiast in Guatemala had made the event. Most tattooists were busy in their stations, and beyond the nattering of the crowd, all excited about the artwork, the buzz of the tattoo machines hummed nonstop, literally giving the air an electric quality. Soon enough, Emma was laid on Luis’s table, her skirt hitched up to reveal her thigh, and a blue towel, something she was calling a diaper, wrapped around her to properly cover her knickers, something which I had to periodically check being done effectively.

FAQ about Tattoos: How do I (or how did you) become a tattooist?
Honestly, it’s a bit of secret hand-shaking club of snobbery. While many tattooists do start off as rogues, teenagers scarring up friends in their mom’s kitchen or something similar, the proper route is to apprentice. Expectations vary, but it’s long and hard and a bit like going through an extended hazing week for a fraternity. One of the classic stories Luis’s mentor, Tattoo Mike, told him was about an apprentice who was required to come in two hours early every day and stare at the corner. His mentor warned that if he missed a day, he was out.
Despite several months of hanging out at El Guato, there is still a lot of stuff Emma, not an apprentice, can’t be told.

I’d quietly wondered what the hell I was going to do for ten hours at a tattoo convention. I like tattoos. Though they seemed uncharacteristically meager compared to many of those around me, I have a few, so I’m not immune to the charms of vibrating needles being set to my skin. And, it’s always polite to sit with your wife while she’s having a vibrating needle (Does that sound right?) set to her skin. Still, ten hours? Luckily, it was much more than tattoos:

Live music competed with buzzing tattoo machines and made it necessary to have lean-in-to-the-ear, bar-like conversations. A nubile, Lolita-like girl was standing in nothing but panties, masking tape functioning as a modesty preserver at the tips of her breasts, and a guy was literally painting her while a few dirty birds stood watching for hours, taking a collection of close-ups. A bar opened with hot plate sandwiches and “yellow cheese” nachos, a la minor league baseball concession stands. Into the evening, there was a live pin-up girl competition with five contestants prancing around in sexy outfits, posing on chairs, and blowing kisses to the crowd.


FAQ about Tattoos: Can you use something to deaden the pain?
Several products exists, but no. Any tattooist whose spent due diligence becoming one, say staring at a corner for a couple hours a day for a year or two, is not going to lower the trade by doing this. Tattoos are supposed to hurt. If the pain deters someone from having a tattoo, then he or she shouldn’t get a tattoo. In some sense, going through the pain earns someone the right to bear the ink, even if said ink is a Mickey Mouse on the shoulder or a dolphin jumping through waves on the small of the back.

As the show went on, it became apparent that Emma’s new tattoo was amongst the highlights. Her design was not only full of detail but also somehow both classic and unique. People were constantly coming back around to see the progress of the piece, raising cameras with serious lenses to get shots of Luis in action (hands all over my wife’s upper thigh). Tattooist and enthusiasts alike would contemplate a moment or two in admiration before delivering a smile, nod, or thumbs-up of approval.

Nearly four hours into the tattoo, Luis tells Emma it’s time to stop. He’ll finish those psychedelic colors, not yet half done, in a couple of weeks. Her skin, fair and sensitive, is risen and red around the edges, but without a doubt, her recurring twitch of a smile explains how pleased she is. It’s a stunning piece full of swirls and paisleys; the color is bursting and not at all girly, as she feared. Luis looks as drained as her, proof positive of how focused he was on the task. We all imbibe a couple of beers before leaving.

FAQ about Tattoos: Do you ever regret it?
Regret is not the right word. For me, who has been so bland as to choose the theme of a lizard, all of my tattoos based around an animal I hesitate to touch, it’s never regret. Some of them are better than others, and a couple are downright disappointing visually. However, it’s the memory I enjoy. The story that surrounds the lizard on my foot (done in a Mexican jungle hut), the one on my shoulder blade (as a sixteen year-old in the kitchen of an ex-con convicted of murder), and a little solid black one on my thigh, one my wife was brave enough to do and I was brave enough to allow. I suppose everyone has their own reasons for getting the next one. Regret is for cover-ups, i.e. a different tattoo all together.

Posted by jonathonengels 10:27 Archived in Guatemala

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