Much Ado About One Gal’s Tattoo: City Leaves Its Mark

When asked why I got my brand-new tattoo, I like to say that New York made me do it. The single, two-inch-long wing on my left hip—gracefully angled to the slant of my hipbone—isn’t a product of a drunken night, or a dare, or even a breakup-induced clamor for clarity. No, this lovely piece of inked art owes its new home, in part, to the city where its canvas now resides.

A transplant from Minneapolis, I moved to New York two years ago. It immediately felt like home: a place where I could take risks and chuck caution to the wind because, hey, it’s New York. Successfully employed? Check. Successfully settled in an overpriced apartment? Check. Successfully smitten with my new city? Check and double-check.

But back to the tattoo.

I’m not your obvious inking candidate. I generally play by the rules and come across as anything but rebellious (living on the Upper East Side will do that to a girl). But I like heavy-metal music and mosh pits, and I’ve been told I have a quiet willingness to try almost anything. Why, as a 29-year-old New Yorker, did getting a tattoo seem so natural? Because as a 19-year-old Minnesotan, I never would have done it. Minnesota ushers you politely through life. New York hunts you down and demands to know why the hell you’re not moving faster.

So on a Friday night in early December, two days after my birthday, I marched into the Andromeda Tattoo Studio on St. Mark’s Place with one of my best friends and the idea that I wouldn’t leave until the deed was done. It was anything but a snap decision. I’m still an analyzer to the core. My move from the Midwest went down after several months of contemplation and numerous consultations with every valued human I knew. And so did the Tattoo That Would Be Mine.

I’ve come to the conclusion that unless you’re a Hells Angel, deciding on a tattoo can be tricky. Having a symbol or word or full-length serpent inked into your skin for all eternity takes a little thought. In my world, a tattoo should reflect, but not define; make sense, but not bow to cliché; be mysterious, but not confusing. (Did I mention I tend to overanalyze things?) As an editor at a high-end lifestyle magazine, I couldn’t really swing barbed-wire roses snaking up my arm. So after mulling over a few ideas, including a constellation and a German abbreviation for the word “between” that I swear made sense at the time, I kept coming back to wings: a clean, elegant ode to my fanatical running habit (I’d just run the New York City Marathon) and passion for all things physical. As for placement, my mind kept settling, for some reason, on my left hip.

After filling out Andromeda’s required paperwork, and paying $89 to a man of very few words in the adjacent piercing parlor (literally not one word was exchanged), I flipped through the oversized portfolios of designs and couldn’t find a thing that hit the mark. Every wing was too elfin, too fairy-ish, too birdlike. I already had a picture in my head—discovered, appropriately enough, as I was loping through Central Park and noticed that the Angel of the Waters fountain on Bethesda Terrace had a pair I could work with. “All I want is a wing,” I lamented to my friend.

“I’ve been known to do a sketch now and then,” said Joe, a tattoo artist with a deadpan sense of humor, a neck full of squirrel “tats” and a seriously artistic nature. I explained what I was after. He sketched the perfect wing. We retreated to the back of the shop.

“Lower, sweetie,” he said, motioning to the top button on my jeans. “I’ve seen it all before.” I unbuttoned a bit more (completely willing, without a flinch), and he transferred the template onto my skin. After pointing out that a good tattooist will always open a new needle right in front of you, and that he met his wife while tattooing her, he got down to business.

“Now lie down and I’ll serenade you,” he said.

“That’s all I want, Joe,” I replied.

The buzzing began. I had promised to call one of my friends when the needling started, but Joe had his doubts. “You’re not gonna be able to talk on the phone, baby,” he said. I told him we’d see how it went. The needle touched down. I dug my fingers into my shoulder and forgot about my phone, yet couldn’t help but watch. It’s a real art, tattooing. And though the lines hurt more than the shading, just as Joe had promised, the pain was no worse than a particularly prolonged and uncomfortable Brazilian bikini wax.

“How’re you doing, baby?” he asked as he began the top part of the wing. “Um, the lines really do hurt a little,” I said, cringing. “You know why?” he asked, intently focused on my hip. “Why?” “Because it’s a needle, dumb-ass,” he said, and smiled. Then he told me of his grand scheme to laser all the art off his left arm and start anew. I was in good hands.

Twenty minutes later, I was off the table and staring into a full-length mirror at the new addition. I grinned. It was gorgeous. Maybe even a tad defiant. “Not bad,” said Joe. I kissed him on the cheek and left, deliriously happy.

For four days after, I diligently washed the little masterpiece several times a day as Joe had instructed and smeared it with A&D ointment. I was giddy, like I had a new toy. This must be how women who get breast implants feel, I thought. A new bodily acquisition practically begs its owner (no matter how conservative she might be) to show off the goods. And even though I’d purposely placed the wing in a fairly low-key spot, I realized that certain pairs of my jeans dipped just low enough to let the tip of it peek out. And if I stretched just right, more of it crept into view. I wanted people to catch a glimpse now and then—a slightly mysterious flash. It was as if a layer of my personality that had always been there finally had physical validation, something that it had never gotten in its pre–New York days. It felt good—very good.

A few weeks ago, my brother asked if I was still glad I’d gotten the tattoo. “Absolutely,” I told him. Regret has never crossed my mind. Not once. Just as when I finally landed in New York, I only wondered why I waited so long.