Fear and (self) loathing in the tattoo parlor

Fear-and-Loathing-In-Las-Vegas-6301As a teenager in the suburbs, there’s not a ton to do. Most kids wind up committing to being jocks or scholars shooting for the Ivy League purely from lack of diverse choices alone. Others just float along and enjoy youth, aka, look for trouble.

The laminate on my driver’s license barely formed a seal before I sped to the gas station to buy a pack of cigarettes. I’d never smoked before – not even just pretending to inhale – but I was an unsupervised, restless teenager who wanted to breathe fire. And in the 90’s, carding for cigarettes really wasn’t a thing. After all, most of the people working at gas stations were classmates from my high school.

I rolled deep in clichés as a teen. Cigs? Obvs. Egging cars? Check. Stealing street signs? Check. Sex, drugs, and alternative rock ‘n roll? Check, check, check. But that was just the tip of the iceberg.

I sat in study hall one Thursday morning, moping that my boyfriend was going to be out of town for the weekend. He was going to a rave, without me. My friend, Carla, and I talked about what we should do that night. Her mom was out of town and I was staying over at her house. To study for a big test, if my dad asked. (He didn’t.)

As we doodled idly on the bindings of our U.S. Government textbooks, we were simultaneously hit by the same light bulb in a cloud: we should get tattoos!

light bulb bright idea

We spent the next 20 minutes furiously scribbling ideas on paper – and definitively decided upon the ink that would be permanently scarred into our skin, without a further thought. YOLO was our anthem, although we still spoke in full words and sentences in the 90’s.

The bell rang and Carla and I probably shrugged our shoulders, shoved the crumpled doodles into our pockets and said, “Carpe diem, you, like, only live once, right? Let’s do this tattoo thing!”

Carla picked me up after dinner and we decided which tattoo parlor to visit. There was one, right in the middle of West Chester, that seemed like a good option. Assuming that all tattoo parlors would be open late on a weeknight – because that’s what seedy businesses do, even in the suburbs – we  didn’t head out until almost 9pm. By the time we got there, the murderers rapists criminals artists were packing up for the night.

Their eyes lit up like a well-rolled joint when two teens strolled through the door.

“You guys’re 18, right?” one of them asked, before immediately walking into another room to get some tattoo needles and ink. Carla and I didn’t even answer before the other guy asked, “What are we going to do today?” while stroking his mullet.

Carla and I pulled out the drawings we’d labored over earlier in the day and handed them to him. Carla got sent to the other guy, who would work on her tri-yin-yang tattoo.

“K,” mullet said to me. “Wanna beer?”

I shrugged my shoulders and popped open the lukewarm Miller Lite that materialized from the pocket of his sweatshirt.

Much like the design process, the tattoo itself only took a few minutes to complete. The “artist” asked no questions about why I would want to scar that design into my body forever, only what Carla and I were doing later that night. I skillfully evaded that line of questioning and waited impatiently for Carla’s tattoo to be finished.

We basically made it rain in the parlor, we threw our money at them so fast before hightailing it to Carla’s Honda. There, we reveled in our accomplishment without the benefit of a selfie stick, Instagram – or even a mobile phone – and tried to decide what to do next.

The answer was obvious: Denny’s.

We got a booth and drank 72 cups of $1 coffee, recounting our victorious moment. As various classmates rolled in and out of everyone’s favorite chain diner, we showed off our new body art.

I explained that mine represented my eternal love of Smashing Pumpkin’s Siamese Dream (to be fair, I still do like that album to this day). And that I had it drawn to look like a Sharpie marker, so my dad wouldn’t realize his innocent little princess had gotten a shitty tattoo on her ankle.

Smashing Pumpkins Siamese Dream heart tattoo

Yup. That’s *supposed* to be the Smashing Pumpkins heart with a daisy next to it. Riiiiight.


Smashing Pumpkins Siamese Dream heart logo

This is what the actual heart looks like.

Carla and I didn’t have to explain much about the poor quality of our tattoos, though. The real story was the tattoo parlor, which we’d managed to escape unscathed. The guys who tattooed us were total creeps, but I had just assumed that’s how all tattoo artists would be. I had no idea at that young, naïve age that most parlors hold higher standards and abide by the law.

Classmates were excited to hear about the opportunity for free beer, though I suspected those would only be given to female customers. Carla and I enjoyed the spotlight and hung out nursing our cheap coffee for hours, to the dismay of the waitress trying to make a living.

In West Chester, this was pretty much known as “another Thursday night.” There was always mischief or adventure to be had if you hung out with the right people.

When my boyfriend returned Sunday from his weekend rave adventure, he was unimpressed by my new ink (which, to be fair, was unimpressive). He was over Smashing Pumpkins, he said. Utah Saints was where it was at now, I’d see. Oh, and he’d also cheated on me with some fellow raver named Moonshine or something.


Weeks later, Carla asked me if I’d heard the news.

“What news?” I asked.

“Nighttrain tattoo parlor – it’s closed down!” she said.

“Well, there go our free touch-ups,” I said, closing my locker and walking to class.

“No,” she said, “You don’t understand. Those guys cleared out of there and are on the run. There was a dead body in the back room!”

It was true. There was a story in the local paper. Police found a body in the back room of the shop only weeks after we’d been there. Carla and I, who until that point had only been worried about Hepatitis, now counted our blessings that we didn’t wind up dead in the back of some seedy store.

We vowed to make sure our parents or friends knew where we’d be and that we’d stay out of trouble. At least for a little while.

Most importantly, we’ve both steered clear of dangerous mulleted outlaws ever since.


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