Addicted to ink

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Exquisite pain: ... and even the Pope approves.
Exquisite pain: ... and even the Pope approves.


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FELLA approaches me in a bar, points at the fearsome demon’s head, all teeth and horns, that I have tattooed on my upper right arm and asks ‘did that hurt?’ ‘Sure,’ I replied, ‘but the pain was exquisite.’

I added: ‘But it was nothing compared to the agony of having a lizard inked on my right buttock.’ ‘Oooh, can I see it?’ was his response. As we were the only people in the place, and because the bartender, polishing glasses, had his back turned to us, I exposed it.

There was a long silence before he exclaimed ‘that doesn’t look like a lizard, it’s more like Godzilla!’

The moment I got home, I rushed to a mirror to see what he was on about – and was horrified to discover that time and the loss of skin elasticity had transformed the cute wee reptile into a bloody great monster.

Gone, alas, was the pert little butt that once won me the ‘Rear of the Year’ title in a gay nightclub competition 52 years ago.

My addiction to tattoos was triggered when my then partner, Brian, announced on our 15th anniversary 31 years ago that his gift to me was a red rose. ‘So, where is it?’ I asked. ‘Oh,’ he replied, ‘we’ve yet to get it. Put on some clothes and I’ll take you there.’

‘There’ turned out to be a tattoo parlour in Soho, London. Brian introduced me to Simon, the needle man, and showed me the rose he’d chosen for my left upper arm. ‘You’ll always think of me when you look at it,’ he said. And I still do, 23 years after I lost him to cancer in 1996.

Filled with trepidation, I let Simon get to work, and with the pain came a feeling of exhilaration that I’d before experienced. This, I later discovered, was because needles release endorphins in the brain.

‘Endorphins are your body’s natural pain relievers’ Lisa Barretta, author of Conscious Ink: The Hidden Meaning of Tattoos, says. ‘These chemicals come directly from the brain, flooding your body. Endorphins are ‘feel-good’ chemicals that help us realise on some level that we are more resilient to pain than we think. It can become a deeply therapeutic process, for that very reason.’

She sure got that right. Soon I was back to Simon for more, and in the process discovered to my astonishment that his biggest client base comprised New York Catholic priests. It started, he said, when one was on a visit to the UK, and was so pleased with the piece he’d had done that word spread like wildfire among his colleagues.

‘I’m guessing they all wanted religious tattoos,’ I surmised. Simon chortled ‘oh no, demons were mainly their thing.’ Seeing the look of surprise on my face, he confided that one – an archbishop no less – wanted his dangly bits coloured red and blue. Ouch!

Then I learned that, in 2018, Pope Francis told aspiring young priests ‘not to be scared of tattoos’ and to use them as a talking-point to encourage dialogue.

But what kind of dialogue can be encouraged by having brightly coloured testicles?

Your guess, dear reader, is as good as mine.

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