A bushel of needles prods the body repeatedly, depositing ink with each injection. The recipient of such treatment may wince, grimace, or remain stone-faced, having become familiar with or, perhaps, taking pleasure in the act of being stabbed. The assailant (read: artist)—stoic—tilts their wrist in intervals, crafting curved lines: pristine shapes comprising letters and symbols. As the treatment concludes, a picture is taken and a bandage applied in order to soak up and clot the inevitable outpouring of blood.
I first asked to be so mutilated when I was seventeen years old. The arrangement went as follows: in April of my Junior year of high school (2015) I came to an agreement with a friend, a senior. One day after school he would ferry me (in his mother’s blue-green mini-van) back and forth to a tattoo parlor roughly thirty minutes away. In exchange, I promised him a prized possession of mine. I promised that on his graduation day I would hand him the limited edition clear-vinyl dual LP of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly that I had come across in a record store just a week prior. A steep price, but worthwhile.
And so, with my older brother’s driver’s license in my pocket, Sutton Colefield behind the steering wheel, and a friend in the back seat (just along for the ride) we shot fourteen miles down Lancaster Avenue to Main Line Tattooing in Frazer. Once there I promptly lied about both age and identity, was accepted for service, and watched as a heavy-set, bearded man injected my underweight and nubile body with ink. As he did, he spoke at length about the time he met John Kennedy as a little boy.
The tattoo was simple. Three letters—initials—inscribed in black ink and cursive lettering on the left arm: “C.W.S.”. Another alternative considered: the initials in their proper order: “CSW”. This stands, of course, for Carl Stephen Watts. The same tattoo my brother has on his left wrist.
Or, potentially, the tombstone, bearing “Watts” in bold all-capital lettering engraved onto marble or limestone, framed just above the death dates for both of the departed (January and April of 2014, respectively). Ultimately, though, I decided, and “C.W.S”—mirroring the monogram my mother had had embroidered on blankets for every member of the extended family—was made permanent on my skin.
In hindsight later on, I would recognize this for what it was: the necessary adrenaline rush which comes after causing the body harm. In the moment it felt synonymous with closure.
For hours afterward I inhaled and exhaled every second or so and my heart pulsated wildly. In hindsight later on, I would recognize this for what it was: the necessary adrenaline rush which comes after causing the body harm. In the moment it felt synonymous with closure.
Two years passed and the need for bargaining dissipated. Every alternating storefront in Manhattan offers tattoos of dubious quality. Any potential buyer remotely interested in said quality would behoove themselves to do some online research, review the portfolios of any given parlor’s artists, and make an educated decision. I did none of the above.
While walking around East Houston and watching friends buy used denim for near-triple digits, I made the impulse decision to place a symbol on my chest. I walked in, explained the design, used my previous tattoo as a form of age verification, and made a leather doctor’s chair slick with sweat. A short and agitated man rotated in semi-circles around me, looking to find the proper place to begin.
As far as I can recall (my memory of this time period is shoddy at best) I had not eaten yet that day. The artist’s anger, the picture frame which fell and shattered halfway through the act, the general noise and tension of the shop, were all dulled by my fish-bowl senses brought on by hunger and fatigue. Shortly thereafter, when visiting two childhood friends at their college, they were more drawn to the sunken nature of my chest—“There’s a dip!”—than any design etched onto it.
The design, of course, was well thought-out: a symbol from childhood, a sign hung on the wall of every bedroom—of which there were many. It was a large wooden circle, painted in gold, navy and white. On it: a crescent moon, a sequence of stars, and a simple phrase, “I Love You To The Moon and Back” in twirling script: a sentence repeated to me at most every occasion by my mother.
For the following 72 hours, the outcome remained a secret. Masked under what, in this case, amounted to a garbage bag held still by duct tape, that tattoo remained unknown, invisible. In its place, a fitting mass of black plastic which I was left to analyze ad nauseum in my dorm-room mirror.
A tactic oft-utilized by those with dissociative tendencies: I look in the mirror frequently to remind myself that I am are still there, that I am still present. The body, my corporeal being, cannot elude me if it its visible. I’m often accused of narcissism for looking in mirrors whenever I can, for evaluating my appearance or checking my hair. In reality, it is a tic. In the same way one counts their fingers to see if they’re dreaming, I count my body.
It’s not until you find yourself in a situation where you cannot recognize “you”—whether it be through mania or otherwise—that this becomes deathly important. In enacting this behavior, the body becomes intensely powerful, and when one can exacerbate that power by reclaiming permanent ownership over the body, and imbuing the body with love, it becomes all the more powerful.
That is all to say: after removing the bandage for the first time, I cried.
That is all to say: after removing the bandage for the first time, I cried. And when showing my mother the tattoo in a crowded New York brunch establishment, she cried too (out of joy or frustration, it’s hard to say).
Five months passed and, for the first time in a while, I had money to burn. Having the spent the summer working at a restaurant in my hometown—in the time when I wasn’t battling both a concussion and mononucleosis—I returned to New York in late August with enough savings to act recklessly.
This began in Brooklyn. A friend and I had agreed to spend the day walking around Williamsburg and, after participating in the expected kitschy extravagances ( i.e. Smorgasburg), I convinced her to walk with me to a well-known parlor. Again a walk-in and again on impulse, I let a bonafide “artist” recreate a sketch on my right arm, a design ambiguous enough that he felt the need to clarify after, “It came out well, but you’re gonna have a lot of people asking what it is.”
It is the outline of a female body, with distorted features and a rounded mouth, seemingly fixed in a state of panic. Surrounding the body, which itself is marked by loose threads of splattered ink, are the outline of birds. At once a part of her body and not, they assault the woman from outside and within. She is trapped in a permanent battle against herself.
It was ironic, then, that starting shortly thereafter I would launch myself into one of the most intensive and long-lasting manic episodes of my life. Beginning in late August and culminating in an all-day affair in mid-October, the ordeal ended in the same way it began: a needle piercing flesh. This time, though, I felt an insatiable urge, a need to reassert my personhood, a desire to prove that I still controlled my body. I went, alone, to Greenpoint, and got a phrase on one of the most painful places one can get a tattoo: along the ribs and below the breast.
“Then all will be as before,” it reads. It operated more as a wish than anything else, and I recited it like an incantation.
At one point, in the Fall of 2017, I sat across from my therapist in her neatly organized office, occupying a side-room of her apartment. The room contains two leather chairs facing opposite one-another and a couch which I’ve never used. I mentioned the tattoo off-hand and she reacted with genuine surprise.
“That’s very interesting. Let’s dig into that.”
I asked for my body to be dealt real, tangible harm meant to be weathered and later assuaged by a bandage.
At some point in the ensuing conversation I compared the process to bloodletting, how doctors would purposefully drain their patients of blood in the belief that it would cure them of their sickness. I bled on purpose. I asked for my body to be dealt real, tangible harm meant to be weathered and later assuaged by a bandage.
And afterward, coddled in tape or cling-wrap, I experienced catharsis, as though my problems had evaporated into nothing at the hands of a temporary act. In that sense, it was a solution.
And if not that, then what?
The mind is forced into tumult when faced with the idea that there are no simple cures. In that moment, I dug my heels deeper into off-white carpeting and argued in favor of pain. As I did, I experienced a familiar feeling: the gentle fade as adrenaline seeps out of the tear ducts or fingertips, and I am left vulnerable.
I worked three days a week this past summer. On the other two weekdays, I laid in the grass on Christopher Street Pier and read. In my reading I came across the story of Blaise Pascal, the mathematician, who, during the final decade of his life, underwent a sudden shift in perspective.
A few years following the death of his father, Pascal experienced an intense religious vision. In it he claimed to have seen God for just about two hours while laying in bed one night. He recorded his observations immediately in a short note referred to as his Memorial. It started boldly and continued that way.
“FIRE,” he wrote—as though wholly overwhelmed—before launching into a description of God. Fire: assumedly a cleansing flame, ridding him of all unnecessary burdens. He dedicated the remainder of his life to theological writing, and carried that note on him until he died.
Tattoos are, inherently, a rebuke of the concept of time. If the act of living defies permanence at every opportunity—as the body fails and the mind fails, as the world changes and things become unfamiliar—tattoos, unless purposefully altered, remain steady: a constant reminder of an idea.
In part, this is why Pascal’s revelation stood out to me. If the earlier phrase, “Then all will be as before,” is meant to evoke the notion that pain is temporary, and that there are solutions to suffering, Pascal’s “FIRE” is an active argument in favor of permanence for those things which provide joy and clarity. An all-consuming instant in which one comes face-to-face with truth and is, as a result, imbued with certainty. Pascal himself writes in the Memorial, “Certitude, Certitude, Feeling, Joy, Peace.”
I went, with a friend, back to Greenpoint in July. The summer, more so than any other period of time, felt like a pivot point. My June behavior had been marred by isolation: wrapped in a feeling of apocalyptic dread. With script taken from the book, I requested a single word on my chest. Laid to rest with my back crinkling a roll of exam-room paper, I closed my eyes and hoped to see fire.