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On Skin and Scales

By Stephanie Holden

My tattoo parlor was called Electric Chair, which in hindsight seems appropriate.

The winter in Houston was colder than I liked – it always felt too much of a burden to me to wear pants for multiple months in a row – and I was back to living the stifled life of a child in my parents’ home. I hungered for the freedom of a reckless decision, and I had already cut off my hair. There was only one solution. I had spoken previously with my artist, who had designed a series of angry serpents to mar into my skin. We decided on a tangled sketch that wrapped around itself six times before the head and tail met on either side of a Peruvian sun I had gotten years before. Six hours, he told me. $400. We scheduled a session for five days after Christmas, a belated present to myself.

I had been to Electric Chair several times before, both to get my own piercings and tattoos and to accompany others in doing so. The walls were bright yellow and covered in catalogues of their artists’ work, and over the speakers played a constant stream of hip hop from the 80s and 90s just loud enough to distract someone who was there alone but not so loud that no conversation could be had. I went this day with my two best friends from high school, Eduardo and Connie, who thankfully thought nothing of sitting in plastic chairs for an entire afternoon while a man scarred my stomach. Eduardo had actually volunteered to come, so maybe that was some weird voyeurism on his part, but then again, maybe it was exhibitionism for me to invite Connie. Or maybe it was just a collective desire not to be alone. Perhaps those three things aren’t too far apart.

My artist, Joey, was probably in his late forties, with salt and pepper hair and a handlebar moustache that seemed like both an ironic decision on his part and perfectly fitting one. Despite his being swathed completely in ink and having inch-wide gauge earrings, he liked The Ramones and Fallout and generally seemed like the kind of guy with whom my dad would be friends. As I got comfortable in a reclined tattoo chair in a closed-off cubicle toward the front of the studio, Joey printed the slithering mass of ink onto transfer paper and applied it coolly to the pale, hairless skin of my soft belly. On the counter beside his stool laid a freshly re-needled tattoo gun and a small blue cap filled with black ink. He dipped the tip of the gun tenderly into the inkwell and held it just above my ribcage.

“You ready?”

“Go for it.”

Joey sunk the sharp blade of the gun into my sternum. The snake’s tail, so near the tendrils of the sun it would one day threaten to eat, wove slowly down to the waist of my bellbottoms. He began with the outline, winding in slow, smooth strokes around the left half of my body. By the time he had gotten to the scales of the thrashing beast, conversation had died down and my Twitter thread had been exhausted. I closed my eyes.

I thought of the spot in Uptown New Orleans where I got my skyline tattoo and the shitty feather on my side. We had tried all the gentrified studios on Magazine, but they overcharged, and it wasn’t my preference to get permanently marked by a middle-aged white man with a ratty hipster bun, anyway. We ended up at this place on Washington Ave where the bathroom had clearly been used as a hotbox very recently. Much more authentic. There was a woman sitting on the couch in the middle of the parlor watching a Tyler Perry show and occasionally doing rounds to see people’s tattoos.

The artist there had a bullet lodged under the skin of the hand he was using to tattoo my arm, and he let me push it around like a pinball between his metacarpals. Not that I want to be shot, but a slug would be a hell of a lot cooler to play with than the pendant I wear. The girl I was with – a friend’s roommate who I hardly knew – was clearly made uneasy that the man we were trusting to permanently mark us had been shot in the hand during what the news would call a “gang-related incident” and that he had been unapologetically eating a sandwich on the table he was now using as his tattoo surface when we walked in, but I felt much more comfortable than I would have at one of the places on Magazine, and he had disinfected the table, anyway.

He asked me about the skyline and told me he had never been to Texas except to visit family in Dallas years ago.

“I do not fuck with Dallas,” I said, with as much disdain as I felt but more than I meant to communicate aloud.

He laughed. “I respect it. How you feel about Houston, that’s how I feel about my city. We always got to look out for our people.”

That day, he followed me on Instagram (I have since removed him due to a string of unsolicited comments on my pictures) and charged me $60 for the skyline and the feather, which was technically a free design from one of those quarter candy vending machine whose plastic capsules had been filled with basic designs. A feather is a stupid thing to get tattooed, and it looked a lot more like an amorphous black blob, but it was always really about the story. Regret is for people who live in the past.

The phone rang every ten minutes or so, but Joey was the only employee in the building, and to answer the phone he would have to discard his gloves, tell someone they couldn’t come in right now, and then put on new gloves and pick up where he left off. Instead, he made an aggravated comment about his manager not scheduling two artists during this shift and kept working.

Eduardo saw some post that set him off about his university. It was an international school in Japan, so he thought he would be able to escape the tiresome reach of white men in salmon shorts, but white men in salmon shorts were apparently omnipresent. In this particular moment, a group of frat boys without the structure of an actual fraternity to back them was trying to prevent students from “doxxing” their peers by reporting incidents of racism they experienced on campus.

“Typical fratty bullshit,” Connie said. “Thinking accountability and consequences for actions equal oppression.”

“Frats shouldn’t exist,” Joey added. He must not have been as focused as I thought he was. I always forgot that tattooing was just a permanent game of coloring between the lines. “Coked out fucking rapists.”

My friends and I agreed. I generally tried to stay away from anyone in Greek life, except for Connie, who had joined Northwestern’s chapter of Kappa Delta and subsequently started a movement to disband the sorority for being irreparably racist and classist. As one of the few women of color in the group, she was the rarely-heeded Diversity Chair, and in just a few months she had become incredibly jaded about not only KD but Greek institutions as a whole. She looked indignant now, recalling all that she had been through in the past year. Even in the fluorescent light of the studio, rambling about the lack of accountability for fraternities, she was beautiful. I pushed my legs against the black leather of the chair. Pain was starting to seep through the pleasant intoxication of adrenaline. There was a painted skateboard attached to the wall next to me, but I looked through it and slipped back into my memory.

I went with Connie to get matching tattoos the day after my eighteenth birthday, which also happened to be the day before I moved into my freshman dorm at Tulane. It was her first tattoo, though she had been a legal adult for five months at that point, but my third (excluding the shoddy stick-and-poke Band-Aids she had punctured into her left and my right hip on the floor of another friend’s bathroom through sips of tequila-vodka-wine when we were 16). We drove to a place called Phat Boys, which was squished between a cellphone repair store and an Indian restaurant in a strip mall on the East Side. A man named Eddy asked us what we wanted done and didn’t card us, but the dandelion I had drawn was too intricate for the size we wanted so we ended up with something off of Pinterest. “Y’all are getting matching ones? Does it mean anything?”

“Not really,” I said. “Just thought it would look good.”

“That’s the best kind of shit.” I could tell Eddy meant what he said because his hands and arms and neck were covered in designs. I studied his right arm as he drew the dandelion’s fluff onto Connie’s ribcage but could make out barely any of the forms blazoned below his shirt sleeve. When Oscar Wilde called art “the most intense mode of individualism the world has ever known”, he surely was not thinking of tattoos. Yet the ocean of black ink overtaking Eddy’s large arm both meant nothing to me and told me a lot about him: he was a man who lived without regret, thought nothing of a WASP’s perception of him, and probably trusted his friends to hold a needle against his flesh. He also, I learned a while later in our time at Phat Boys, knew what to do when someone pushed her nose ring through both her nostril and her septum while attempting to pierce it at home. Eddy lived in a world quite different from my own, but for the few minutes that I knew him, I admired him.

The snake was beginning to take shape. Scratch lines of scales plated its silvery body. As the pain waxed in my stomach, I wished that my serpent’s armor was my own. Another artist clocked in – finally someone else in the building to answer the phone. He was younger than Joey and had his son perched on his shoulders. The two entered our cubicle to peak at my tattoo.

Escamoso!” The five-year-old pointed and squealed, deep dimples beaming on his chubby face.

Te gustan las serpientes? My pain dissipated while I spoke to the child, but his father soon swept him away into a cubicle of their own, leaving me physically hurting and, worse, rife with baby fever. Getting a tattoo was kind of like reproducing except less horrendous in every capacity, though I wouldn’t have minded an epidural to stop the spread of the snake’s poison. Joey half-apologized for his colleague’s unsolicited appearance, though I was sure he could tell I didn’t care about privacy, considering I brought a posse to the appointment.

I pushed my head off the black leather of the tattoo chair, tried to watch Joey’s gloved hand write my reptile into existence, and the neon yellow walls of the room around me began slowly to become sinister, to fuzz at the edges. I went with Eduardo to Electric Chair to get his first tattoo when we were still in high school. He wasn’t the first of our friends to get inked, but somehow the whole thing felt quite ceremonial – he had always been the kind of person who wanted to differ from the mainstream without being so different that he lost community. I suppose we all wanted that, really. The anointing of the body with the baptismal first piece of art was a rite of passage. The tattoo itself was ritualistic in some way; it was a vertical line of symbols – four of what looked to me like hands in different formations – down the back of his bicep. He didn’t know the source of the design, but he had found it on the internet years back and forever been enamored by it. There’s something about abstract art that captures people in different ways, I guess. At least the shapes couldn’t come alive when they were emblazoned onto his body, the way my snake seemed to. The flesh of my stomach rippled under Joey’s needle like swamp water did in the writhing wake of a moccasin. The hummingbirds on my spine seemed almost to flutter, to beat their wings in the hope of an impossible escape. It occurred to me then that I was introducing an apex predator, hungry already for the panicked heartbeat of the crows flying outward from my ribs.

I remembered the day my roommate got her bellybutton pierced in a back room at a sketchy-looking parlor in New Orleans. We had wandered for a while in search of a place that wouldn’t overcharge and wound up in a place that didn’t even ID. The artist was a bear of a man with wide, black gauges in his earlobes. He asked me my major, and I told him Spanish. The thing about having more than one field was that it created too many possible follow-up questions when I told people, so I usually said whichever one the person seemed like they’d be least interested in. The piercer laughed. “You gonna end up married to a motherfucker named Eduardo.” I looked over at him, scrolling through Twitter across the cubicle, and thought of the night we each wing-manned the other into a girlfriend. His black hair fell into his eyes and reached almost to the collar of his corduroy jacket. I almost laughed at the idea of us together in holy matrimony, our marital home a bachelor pad with separate bedrooms. It sounded alright to me.

I looked down at the snake growing steadily on my stomach, and my skin trembled from the pain. All the other tattoos I had were painless – the birds on my shoulder blades, the mountains on my hip, they were a ticklish type of catharsis. The snake seemed to writhe up from my torso and bite at my flesh. Perhaps it was karma for trapping the twisted beast under my skin, or perhaps there is just an inherent anger in being brought into the world. Or maybe I’m thinking too much into it, and of course needles hurt.

Joey went outside to smoke a cigarette at the three-hour mark, and I stood up to look at the coil of scales winding around my sternum. It was half-finished, headless, and yet still fully alive. Humans can produce living souls through art, if not through science. I know that because my body has become a landscape of breathing things. I hope that I am not imprisoning them – immortalizing them statically beneath my flesh – or at least I hope that I am a good enough companion with whom to spend eternity.

I was glad to take a break from the tyrannical scratch of the tattoo gun. Even without the needle slicing into me, my flesh – now pink from blood eager to escape – quivered as though in fear of Joey’s return. A thick cloud of nausea clung to the sides of my ribs, and the way my body bounced was making it harder for him to work, I knew, and I was embarrassed that I was being made to look like a little bitch by this bodily reaction outside of my control. But the reprieve ended quickly, and my body soon remembered only the slow anguish of needle against skin.

The low buzz of Joey’s gun transformed, at some point, from an almost unnoticeable white noise to a heavy, oppressive thing. It overpowered the sound of the radio and reverberated through my ribs in a way that made my sturdy frame seem fragile. I hoped that I hadn’t drunk all that milk as a lactose intolerant child for no good reason – those Got Milk? ads made it seem like these bones should have been absolutely solid, but a simple afternoon-long period of contact with an electric needle was making them prattle like a dancing Halloween skeleton. When the sound joined forces with my heartbeat in echoing through my skull, I began to worry.

Connie and Eduardo walked to a gas station around the corner to buy snacks, in part out of concern that I was on the verge of passing out and in part out of their own hunger or boredom or both. They came back with a bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos and a Nature Valley bar, both of which I dropped awkwardly into my mouth. Eating while horizontal is a difficult task under normal circumstances, but eating while horizontal and lightheaded and actively being tattooed on the stomach is outright dinglebrained. The majority of the granola dribbled in dry crumbs down my cheeks and onto the linoleum floor. The tremble of my stomach only worsened until Joey finally sighed and set his instrument on the counter behind him.

“Most of the surface of the skin has been broken,” he said. “I can give you some Lidocaine gel if you want.”

I nodded furiously. “How long does it take to kick in?”

“We’re about to find out.” He slathered numbing cream over my apparently thoroughly broken epidermis. Relief crashed over me immediately like a 100-foot wave. Muscles I hadn’t realized were flexed relaxed, and my bouncing skin calmed with a dramatic diminuendo from a jive to a waltz but did not stop entirely. All Eyez On Me played over the speaker, and I could not only hear it but focus on it for long enough to recognize the verses. Joey, satisfied with his slow-dancing canvas, dug the needle back into my stomach. I looked at Connie and Eduardo, still perched dutifully in those uncomfortable plastic chairs, and wondered just how long it would take for the wave to recede and leave me with only venom and an open wound.


Stephanie Holden (she/they) is a Halloween-loving queer living in New Orleans, Louisiana. She writes poems about love, trauma, gore, and the self. Her interests are fantasy books, body modification, and the South. She has two cats, a bearded dragon, and deep love for frogs.

Find her academic writing at The Journal of the Wooden O and The Kennesaw Tower, her poems at The B’K (forthcoming) and dipthong lit, her art at BEST SERVED COLD (forthcoming),or her narcissistic tweets at @smhxlden.


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