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Tattoo or not to Tattoo...
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Is there anybody under the age of 25 that doesn’t have a tattoo? It has become the guy’s earring of this era with just one difference – you can’t take it out. I know my indifference towards the current trend of arm sleeves and neck tats is a bit short sided, considering the fact that I have tattoos.

But I no longer want them, and unfortunately, they don’t just disappear. Wouldn’t that be a fantastic invention – the tattoo that lasts just a year, enabling that hardcore 19-year-old fan of the band One Direction to make a mistake and be able to move on a year later without a Scarlet A marking their lower back for life.

(And before I pull out my shovel and bury myself, I am in no way speaking about tattoos that honor a loved one or specific personal event. This column is intended to be somewhat tongue–in-cheek, and I can already sense the “How dare you…” emails being typed.)

Yet I digress...

I’m by no means an old fuddy-duddy waving his finger at the current generation looking to express their personality or spirituality via body ink. But I am saying choose wisely. I’m only 42, but feel multiple generations removed from this current culture that covers every inch of skin in a tattoo. 

I got my first tattoo in 1991 – not that long ago in years, but leaps and bounds away in tattoo culture. In those days, tattoos were still reserved for a more subversive culture, i.e. bikers, convicts and military men. (Once again, I’m not comparing someone in the military to a convict biker. I’m just clarifying who the people were that had tattoos 25 years ago. Continue shoveling.)

It was the summer of 1991 when me and three friends had just graduated from Manteca High. So obviously we knew what we had to do – get an apartment together. That was the first poor decision in a string of bad decisions that summer. There were four of us in that two-bedroom apartment. I roomed with friend Vic Morito, my second bad decision of the summer. I remember the day roommate John Koi came home with a tattoo. He wasn’t yet 18 if I remember correctly, but had gone with his dad to get it. A black panther crawling up his bicep. It was awesome. It represented freedom. It was something Vic and myself knew we had to have.

We woke on a Saturday morning and were resolute in one fact – today is the day we get tattoos. Vic’s cousin, Jeff Morito, and fellow Class of 1991er Matt Darcia were asleep on the couch. They were all too quick to join in and become part of a story that refuses to disappear from my back. 

Should be easy, right?

Just head to Modesto’s End of the Trail tattoo parlor, we thought. We fueled up – not just Jeff’s car – but ourselves, of course. And so with liquid courage in our veins, we headed out. Little did we know that a completely booked tattoo parlor and Matt Darcia’s announcement of “I know an older dude in Stockton that does tats; let’s just head there” would be words that still haunt us to this day.

We arrived at a house in the old part of Stockton. Mind you this was ’91 and this wasn’t the rejuvenated Stockton of today. It was all bad. We headed to a makeshift “Fonzie” garage-type apartment behind the house. This is where we all got to meet Jesse the Biker. I don’t know how Matt knew him, but nobody particularly cared. He was mid-30s, covered in filthy denim, and for all appearances wasn’t the type to be fooled with. As I’ve said in many a column, I grew up in Manteca so it would take more than a low budget Arthur Fonzarelli to frighten the Morito cousins and myself. Ayyyye!

Jesse did have one thing that instantly drew our interest. A collection of pictures detailing the tattoo work he done in the past, from dragons to old English-style names. The work was colorful and clean.   The man could obviously do good tattoo work. He began to tinker with the tools of his trade: Needle, inks, battery. 

Before we began, he tossed out the first warning at what was to come – one of many warnings we would miss. “Hey fellas, I haven’t gotten much sleep the last few days. Can I get a little cash advance to help me out?” he asked. I remember thinking, “Poor guy. Must be a construction worker with those long hours. Surely we can front him a few bucks to head to the store for Pepsi and a sandwich.”

(In hindsight it is obvious what he meant, but this was 1991 and meth was barely on the cultural radar. We had no clue.)

We gave him $20, and away he went. This was make or break time – who was going to go first?

I don’t know at what point in my life I became the go-first guy. I grew up in a strict Portuguese Catholic family, but I always enjoyed hanging out with the less-than-desirable crowd. Textbook rebellion. At some point I realized that the list of questionable characters I surrounded myself with were looking at me the exact same way. So needless to say, it was without question that I was going first.

I did have one thing going for me – I knew what I wanted for my tattoo. The Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. My mother told me when I was young my kindergarten teacher Mrs. Carr told her, “Your son has an odd smirk he wears on his face, sort of like the Cheshire Cat ... and his mannerisms aren’t far off.” Plus my initials spell CAT. It was an obvious choice.

Jesse returned with quite a bit of pep in his step. I told him I’d go first, and wanted the Cat from Alice in Wonderland. His response of “Wonderland? Is that up near Pleasanton?” should’ve put an end to the day. It did not.

“No, Alice in Wonderland. It’s a cartoon,” I said.

“I don’t watch a lot of cartoons, bro.”

We settled on a chubby-faced cat with a big smile. I had motioned to him I wanted it to be roughly the size of a bar of soap and on my shoulder blade. Away we went. It wasn’t 5 minutes into the pain that I remembered I’m a fainter. The first faint occurred. My friends reassured him I was OK and we continued. It was shortly after my third faint that Vic took a motorcycle helmet, filled it with ice and placed it on my head. Sweet relief. 

There was one huge problem. The battery was dying and I could feel the needle losing power as it drug across my skin. Faint No. 4 ensued. Not a problem for Jesse. The battery was hooked to his Harley, so he fired it up. “Keep it revved to about 1500 rpm. That’ll keep the battery charged.” Being able to control the tempo of the tattoo gun via the throttle only made it worse.

At some point he says, “This cat has attitude. Want to see what I’ve done so far?” This is when I realized he was only done with the head – and it is already as big as a bar of soap! “Sorry about the size, bro. If you want, I can put a little tiny body on him.”


I suffered for another hour as he put a body that fit the head size.

Vic sat on the Harley next. He’d had two hours to decide what he wanted, and boy was it special. It was the T-shirt he happened to be wearing – a Rusty Co. print of a dog choking a cat. (I’m not making any of this up. The day had lost its way.) Vic didn’t faint or cry, nor realize that the work was terrible. Matt went third, and halfway through his bulldog head – that looked much like a squished monkey – Jesse said, “You know what, guys. I’m not doing my best work. You should come back tomorrow.” For some reason, Jeff was quick to agree. (He later admitted he knew the tats were awful and was trying to devise an excuse before his turn came.) Jesse had let him off the hook. We gave him $40 more and left happy as pigs in slop. We thought we had the coolest tats on earth.

Vic and me woke in the morn and went directly to John Koi’s bedroom. The horrified look on his face said it all. He recognized what mine was supposed to be, but was stumped by Vic’s ink. What is that? “It’s a dog strangling a cat!” I have now heard Vic utter that phrase more than a 1,000 times in our life. Slowly our friends made their way to the apartment and slowly we realized we had the worst tattoos ever. Jeff showed up and we insisted that he return for his. Nothing doing. Vic and Matt have both subsequently had their tats covered, but mine remains. Mostly because I don’t like to faint, but also because I hope it will just fade away. Like that day in 1991.

Please choose wisely.

I have a friend that is a nurse who works in the field of hospice. We were recently having the tattoo debate, as she is covered in them. She mentioned an interesting fact. The people she cares for, most a part of “The Greatest Generation,” are rarely found with a tattoo. Those that do have a naval anchor or some type of military tattoo, honoring the cohorts they served with. There are almost no women of that generation with tattoos. I couldn’t help but imagine a scenario 40 years from now at a rest home.

Nurse giving sponge bath: “Oh wow, Mrs. Smith, a lower back tattoo. Is that an eagle carrying an American Flag? Were you in the military?”

Mrs. Smith: “No, that’s a dragon eating a Katy Perry T-shirt. I wasn’t military, but was definitely a first-class idiot.”

Be careful what you get tattooed on your body, folks, because unlike my marriage, they don’t just disappear. 

“It’s not Where ya do, It’s Where ya do”


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