Branding Gender

So I got a tattoo last night and got schooled in gender normativity, all at the same time.

I get settled in the chair and I’m calm, like really fucking calm, and I think of my therapist saying: “Yeah, Wellbutrin helps with that.” Which, definitely, but it was more than that; it felt right, like I was doing something I was supposed to do. That I wanted to do. So I was cool.

The artist moved around, gathering needles and guns and vaseline, his wife moving through the room, too, breaking down, straightening up. And we’re bullshitting about this dude who’d just left, a random undergraduate looking for a full shirt tattoo–a fairly regular occurance, the artist tells me–and the design he’d described sounded like it’d come to him in a joint-fueled dream, or something.

And then the artist asks me: “Don’t you have any questions about the pain? About how much it hurts?”

I said, “Not really. I figured that it’s going to hurt.”

The artist’s wife laughs. “And that’s the difference between men and women,” she says, chuckling. “Men come in asking ‘but how much will it hurt?’ and women go, eh, ok, it’ll hurt.”

Uh huh. I want to take this as a sign of awesome, but the damn gender scholar in me is like: quoi?

A few minutes later, we’ve wound up to the pregame chat and the artist is telling me about a Virginia state trooper–big dude, he assures me, like 250 pounds–who was super concerned about the pain involved in getting a tattoo. “He asked me five times in like ten minutes,” the artist clucks, running disinfectant over my arm again. And then, the real crime: “And this was in front of his girlfriend! She was standing right over there,” he nods towards the wall racks of tattoo images. “So I tell him, no, I’m not tattooing you. And he starts whining, asking me why, telling me he really wants a tattoo.”

He pauses, positioning the stencil on my forearm. “Just about there? Ok.” He presses it into my skin, just like one of those fake tattoos you get out of a Cracker Jacks box, leaving a purple brand behind.

“So,” he continues, reaching for the stencil pen, “he says, ‘It’s natural for somebody to wonder how much it hurts,’ and I said, ‘Yes, it is, but you’ve asked me five times already, and that’s not normal.’ And I told him, ‘I mean, little girls of like, 17 and 18, get these everyday. So it can’t be that bad, right?'”

And I look at the artist as he leans over my arm, delicately winding an ivy vine around the stencil with his pen, and I think: yeah, I can see him sassing a cop. Not belligerently, but in a I know what the fuck I’m doing so let me do my job kinda way.

“And then–” he pauses, setting up the kicker. “Then, his girlfriend turns around and she says to me: ‘Oh ignore him. He’s a big baby.'” The artist sat back, his eyebrows arching. “I couldn’t believe it! I mean, if my wife”–who was safely in the next room–“if she said that about me, I’d be so embarrassed. And,” he added quickly, “not that I’ve ever given her reason to say that, but still. Still.”

So for the artist, the crime here was twofold: first, the cop was acting like a wuss–unmanly in the face of “little” girls who can stand up to the pain; and second, the girlfriend basically cut the dude’s balls off in public. Not that he hadn’t started to make a go of it himself, but still.

A performance that defied gender normative behavior, playing out in a tattoo shop. A performance in which all the actors were Iago, except the artist, fair Cassio.

Said design, settling in 48 hours after the fact.

Then the needles come out, and I look away and put my game face on and try to stay in my body enough so that I don’t twitch or jump or fucking breathe too hard and risk the needle straying from outside the lines that the artist had so carefully sketched on my skin.

And dude, it hurt, it fucking hurt, but not quite in the way that I thought it would. It wasn’t like a dagger leaping in and out of my skin, or like getting a shot–it was more the insistence of the needles as they flew, a feeling of momentum underscored by the buzz and hum and push of the machine that powered the gun. Like once it got going, the damn thing wasn’t going to stop until it got what it came for, until it had scored enough blood and flesh to rest easy for the night.

But I, damn it, was not going to be a wuss. I was not going to live down to the cop’s anti-example. And, all things considered, the pain wasn’t that bad, but I think my determination to be stoic about it amped up the pressure. I need my pain, damn it. I chose it, and I can take it.

So we go for awhile and he gets like 95% of the outlining done– “This is the worst part,” he assures me, “the coloring and shading hurts a lot less”–and he stops, turning my arm in his gloved hand so he can get a better look, and then he asks me if I want him to put numbing gel over the damn thing.

“I’m fine,” I said, and that was easier to believe now that the needle was still, the machine purring only to itself.

“No, really,” he said, “it’s ok.”

“No, really,” I said, setting my teeth. “I’m fine.”

He turned my arm again and sat back, stretching. Smiled.

“Well,” he said. “It does make it easier for me. See, you have a perfect circle, right? And those are the hardest tattoos to do. That and straight lines. So the gel will like, wipe away the stencil completely, and that’ll make it easier for me to see. To get it right.”

I considered this.

“I’m trying to be butch about this,” I said, and he laughed.

“You don’t have to be. Really, it’ll make it easier for me to see.”

“Ok,” I said finally. “But only as long as it’s all about you and has nothing to do with me being a wuss.”

He laughed again, shook his head. Reached back for the gel. Smoothed it over the tattoo.

“Ok,” he said. “It’ll take a few minutes to kick in. Let’s take a break.”

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2 thoughts on “Branding Gender

  1. Annie

    I can’t say I’m surprised about the cop, really. In my experience, the more macho a man’s job, the more often there’s a total wuss side to him that everyone, including him, readily acknowledges. Also, men are generally babies in the face of physical pain. Take care of one with a cold and be quickly reminded.

  2. Ok, see, that’s what I mean, here. I don’t think it’s that straightforward–that one gender handles pain “better” than the other. To me, this kind of weird social flattening of behavior as normative to one gender or another isnot accurate or constructive.

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