Volume 77, Issue 11
December 2, 2005

The Gonzo Brand

By Peter Knox
Elm Columnist

'Tis the season...for tattoos. Contrary to its natural connotation with beachside parlors, the winter season is the perfect time to get inked. Caring for your tattoo means going a month without swimming, avoiding direct sunlight, and keeping it covered while it heals-plus longer clothing postpones breaking the news to your parents.

Despite the permanence of tattoos, I'd be far more apt to get another one before a piercing-they're personal, unique and I like to think they drive the girls wild. Having always wanted to be tattooed, I had been waiting for the right thing to explain to my grandkids someday.

This time I was certain. For more than a year, I'd been waiting to have Hunter S. Thompson's Gonzo Fist above my ankle. Call me a dork that I may be the first student to have his thesis topic permanently inked on his right leg, but you haven't seen it yet. It's cool. And when I saw the red giant two-thumbed fist atop a 150-foot cannon shoot my favorite author's ashes over the Colorado Valley, I knew I was ready.

Gonzo is more than the style of journalism that led me to write; it embodies the philosophy of "learning to fly on the way down" that I have embraced successfully over my twenty-one years. Now able to look at my ankle and see the reason I've thrown myself into these situations and survived, I'm glad I got the tattoo-but I'm getting ahead of myself.

I took a trip to South Street, Philadelphia, and visited the legendary Philadelphia's Eddies, the forty-year-old parlor that inked four of my friends. Once you build a relationship with a certain place, you keep coming back-with friends.

Two things worried me about my first tattoo: the strain on my skin and the strain on my wallet. They told me, "Good tattoos aren't cheap, but cheap tattoos aren't good." And while I had to take their word on the latter, the first part proved true, as I borrowed five bucks from a friend (ATM provided) to reach his price.

You tell them you want a tattoo, show them where you want it, they make up a number you pay ($150 and $120 for me), and suddenly you're sitting awkwardly having your leg shaved by a man with more tattoos than hair-but you wouldn't go to a bald hairstylist.

Once you give them the "OK" on the blue stencil on your skin, it's out of your control. And I won't lie-it hurts, but there's no way to explain the tattooing sensation to someone that's never been inked.

First comes the outline. It's a single needle that digs the deepest into your skin, and the pain reflects this intrusion. The electric buzzing fits perfectly with what feels like a constant bee stinging. Clenched teeth, Lamaze breathing, and sweaty hands are common reactions to this vibrating painful tickle called tattooing.

The outline is over before you're done grimacing, and then someone does the coloration. This is slightly less painful, as the needle doesn't go as deep, the repetition is more constant, and your body has already responded by pumping natural numbing agents through your blood.

Seeing the permanent color take shape on your skin is fascinating to watch, much like a child trained to stay in the lines and only doing a small area at a time.

Chemicals are sprayed, blood is wiped, and needles and gloves change as the job is finished. You express satisfaction and promise to bring friends next time. The artwork is bandaged and the process is over long as you're left with a permanent receipt.

The bleeding stops, and the best care you can do now is keep the tattoo clean with soap and water (ointments and lotions run the risk of losing color in the area).

The pain was temporary, but the strange two-thumbed black fist above my ankle is something I'll spend the rest of my life explaining.