With the itching still fresh I am trying to capture the experience of getting my first tattoo. I had been contemplating a tattoo for several years as a way to mark my passage into manhood. It would be a completion symbol, a way of stating ‘I am now who I was meant to be,’ or as Jung would say, individuated. Individuated externally from others’ expectations of me and individuated internally from my Shadow or unconscious self-destructiveness. [MSOffice1] The individuated person lives in balanced, harmonious existence with themselves and the world around them. I chose to express this by creating a mandala. I wanted my tattoo to be special; after all it would be on my body forever.
I had been interested in mandalas since reading the works of Jung. A mandala, in the simplest terms, is a circle, often quartered. My mandala was a quartered circle with a smaller circle within. I have often drawn mandalas in times of transition and change in my life to make physical my psychological intention. In this case, the mandala was intended to be a symbol of my completed sense of Self and individuality. An expression of individuality that could be shared with those I wanted, so that a simple matter of raising my sleeve would reveal something about myself symbolically.
When I created the mandala, I focused on passing from professional training and personal development, into the expression of myself in the world. It was to be my rite of passage. Society had given me my driver’s license, diplomas, and [MSOffice2]license to practice as a doctor of psychology, but I did not feel as though I had arrived. It seemed time after twenty-some odd years of schooling to begin the work of being a mature-contributing-to-society adult (whatever that means). I had laid as strong a foundation as I knew how. I had developed myself intellectually, emotionally and spiritually as well as I could. Now I needed an entry point, a place to take the first step into the expression of my best self. The tattoo seemed a way to do this.
I arrived at the tattoo parlor, met the tattoo artist Tony, and showed him the mandala. He assured me that he could draw the design and that the circular design would look well on my deltoid. Tony was a younger man, somewhere in his mid to late twenties. He reminded me of Henry Rollins, the outspoken, angry punk rock singer. Tony had tattoos creeping up his neck and down his arms and had an air of intensity around him. He opened the door to the private tattooing stall and gestured to what appeared to be a barber chair. I stepped up into the chair.
We began by creating the environmental space. Tony asked what kind of music I liked. I looked over his collection of punk rock and hardcore and told him I enjoyed Tom Waits. He gave me an appraising look and said all his Waits albums were at home. It seemed a slightly uncomfortable moment before he decided on a punk rock artist that had since moved on to a more mellow sound. I was not disappointed with the choice of music, and felt at ease by his desire to make me comfortable. I was in the hands of someone who knew the importance of the occasion.
When doing therapy, the first or initial step is establishing rapport. This involves placing the client at ease, finding some commonalities and conveying a sense of care and hope. I was immediately struck that Tony was not simply going to perform a service, he knew he was taking me through an experience of change and wanted me to be as calm and relaxed as possible.
Tony began by placing a stencil of my mandala on my shoulder and discussing his struggle with managing what he called his light and dark aspects of himself. His openness and transparency set me even more at ease. Here was another struggling human being in transition. It occurred to me that in Tony’s small tattoo stall there was an intimacy and expectancy building. This was a place where change occurred not unlike the atmosphere I endeavored to create with clients. Something was going to happen here in a very real and physical way, but also in a subtler, psychological and spiritual way.
Tony continued to talk in an uncensored way as he prepared the ink and unwrapped the needles. He spoke about his belief in tattooing being a lifestyle, a calling and a trade, just as I had felt called to psychology. He was proud to have been trained in the old school way. He learned from the alley masters, who practiced their craft in the wrong part of town. I had interned with the mentally ill who lived their cast-off existence in the same type of alleys.
Tony was close to beginning now. He had unwrapped the needles, laid out the ink with ceremonial precision. He turned on the machine. The machine emitted a droning sound, a fast paced mechanized chanting. My rite of passage ritual was about to begin. I could feel my anxiety [MSOffice3]rise as Tony reminded me to breathe.
I have heard many people talk about getting tattooed as a painful experience. Since most rites of passage are painful, I had embraced this pain as inevitable. As a therapist, I also knew that before people changed a behavior, there was a period of psychic pain as the old way of being died, creating space for new growth. This was what I was hoping for, a new space to be filled with a more assertive, active stance in the world.
Most so-called primitive cultures used trance to facilitate a ritual. My training in hypnosis allowed me to enter such a trance. I began to breathe deeply. I visualized myself in the world standing straight, moving from apprentice to journeyman, from quiet study to quiet action, from tentative first steps to a confident stride.
The feeling of the needle piercing my skin was unlike any sensation I had experienced. It was not pain, and obviously not pleasure. There was a heat to it. I definitely knew something was happening. I continued to breathe and focus on the sensation, drawing it into myself, infusing it with as much intentionality as I could. Tony was the artist, but [MSOffice4]also the shaman. He was using his craft to give physical expression to my psychological intention.
The tattooing process continued for another hour. We talked about what this meant. A feeling of well-being pervaded me as the endorphins moved through my system. This was not a scary, somber ritual of transformation I had expected. Rather it seemed a joyous celebration of something meaningful and lasting. The work was soon over.
Tony was glad that I liked the tattoo since he explained that I would be walking out with it. He also explained that I would need to leave the bandage on for an hour and then treat the tattoo as an open wound. I thought about all the times clients had left my office in tears with their own open wounds. The only bandage available to them was my advice on self-care. I wished Tony luck with his struggle with the light and the dark, and reminded him that while change is never easy, the discomfort is often worth it.
My tattoo is scabbed over now, the itching tolerable thanks to the balm Tony gave me. The last remnants of my unmarked skin are falling away. The old way of being has passed, replaced by the expectation of future growth. Whenever I am lost and confused in the world, I can look at my tattoo and come back to my individuated Self. And it looks cool too.