Motherhood

Bonding With My 15-Year-Old Daughter At a—Gulp—Tattoo Parlor


A decidedly unhip mom takes her very hip teenager to get pierced. And lives to tell.



My 15-year-old daughter, Cleo, and I had come to a small resort town in Wisconsin from our home in Chicago, for a mother-daughter overnight one frigid, windy February. En route to dinner, she asked if we could check out the local tattoo parlor, Slinky’s Ink (all names of businesses and people—aside from my daughter’s—have been changed). She is still too young to get a tattoo, but she has been planning to get two new piercings and wanted to scope the scene.

To get to Slinky’s Ink, one must climb a flight of stairs, the industrial-gray carpeting encrusted with mystery wads of gunk and coated in winter salt. We emerged, pushed past several young men in denim jackets to enter the crowded room, lights streaming in through the windows facing the street.

Maybe I just imagined that 20 heads turned to glare at us, as if to ask: Did you take a wrong turn? Cleo, with her hair dyed four colors, looked like she belonged there more than I did, because I don’t have any tattoos, visible or otherwise. My hair is a natural mousy brown. Even my trying-to-be-kind-of-hip leggings and boots suddenly felt ridiculous among these 20-year-olds in pink mid-riffs. And my ears boast exactly one piercing each, in the conventional spot: center lobe. Lame. I scream middle-aged housewife.

The guy at the desk was on the phone. I pushed toward him, undeterred by the stares. He was on hold. “She’s interested in having her helixes pierced. Do you do that here?,” I asked him. He held up his hand. A lit cigarette was dangling between his fingers like he was flipping off the “No Smoking” sign I saw on my way in. This was my first clue that they didn’t do things by the book at Slinky Ink.

A girl I’ll call Pink Midriff and a tough guy with a full arm sleeve were getting inked. When I saw the blood oozing from the needles attached to what looked like plugged-in Spirographs, I got woozy. When I was younger, I was the person who would literally pass out on the bathroom floor every time I changed my earrings, I was so squirmy around blood and needles. My mother had to variously scoop me up or spot me so I didn’t hit my head on the sink.

I have since become more stalwart, but as I watched blood leaking out of these customers’ torsos and limbs, I could feel my young squeamish self creeping back. The two artists administering the ink kept a white towel handy to dab off the blood every few minutes. The white towels were quickly turning pink. Nice.

A young woman came over to us. “What are you guys getting?,” she asked. We were surrounded by people perusing books of tattoo designs. The woman must have looked disappointed when Cleo told her she was only getting pierced. On her ears. Cleo told her the going rate for piercing in Chicago is $70 a pop—the young woman said a place in Janesville would do whatever kind of piercing we wanted for $5. Thanks, I said, I think we’re good.

I looked at Cleo. She was loving every second. I realized I had to pull myself together and act like a hip mom. Fake it till you make it. “Yeah, honey, this is awesome!”

I went up to ask about piercing rates. A nice young man at the desk had to go ask Slinky at his tattooing station. Slinky is in his 40s and has the mottled skin of a heavy drinker. He tried to answer the question but kept getting distracted and telling stories instead. I heard him list, with disgust, the cities in the U.S. with the most gay people in them. I glanced at Cleo and crossed my eyes to show her that I couldn’t take much more. Pink Midriff was nodding along, keeping the story going. I was eyeing the door.

But Cleo looked at me, pleadingly. So I nudged desk guy again, who cornered Greg. We finally got what we needed: a price and information on the documents we’d need. Oh, and it was $50 cheaper than in Chicago—per piercing. Cleo loved that part. What teen doesn’t love a bargain? What teen doesn’t love to hear their mother say, “You get what you pay for?”

We decided we’d sleep on it and return the next day. Piercing was all Cleo could think about. So the next morning, up the filthy stairs we went, returning into the bright parlor.

The daytime scene was much like the night: not as crowded, but still busy, still dense with smoke. Nice Young Man from last evening was tattooing a bow just above the rear waistline of a woman in her twenties, who had brought along her 2-year-old. Blotting the blood, blotting it. I was less squeamish this time. The little boy went through her purse, looking for toys, while munching Doritos. “Almost done,” his mother promised him, “almost done.”

The owner of the shop, Slinky, was working on four young women who had come in together, as a kind of bonding experience, but some of them were scared and needed one another for hand-holding to brave the needle. Slinky was a veteran—he’d seen it all—and waited for the ladies to hold still so he could get to work.

Three employees were pushing tattooing tables around the bright space—the tables look like gurneys with red plastic stapled to them. I wouldn’t want to die here, on a thing like that.

Wait, what am I thinking? No one’s going to die.

There was a problem with Cleo’s paperwork. We tried to sort it out with Slinky, who suggested having it sent to his account. My daughter was struggling to find an internet signal for her phone. I stepped away momentarily. When I returned, I noticed the words “One Big Dick” scrawled in red ink right on Cleo’s elbow. What’s that about?, I asked her. It’s Slinky’s internet login. Of course it was.

Did he really need to tell a 15-year-old girl that she should type “One Big Dick” to get onto his network?

Jesus.

But by this time, Cleo was in 150 percent. She’s not leaving this joint until she had some holes in her helixes. So we plodded forward. I was trying to hold myself together—I will murder that scumbag Slinky the second he tries anything funny with my kid. As her documents landed in his inbox, he went on about his expertise at tracking down people’s identities, often with the help of a private investigator. Now that he had her passport page, I was feeling queasier than ever. Nice Young Man declared, “Don’t mess with Slinky.” I nodded. It was all I could manage.

One of the men, Vito, took Cleo to a gurney. I hung back with the customers who were perusing the designs. My daughter did not want me to hold her hand. Cleo might be my baby, but she was not a baby.

I could see the back of her head as the very pierced, very tattooed Vito talked to her. Cleo peered over at me. “Did he do one?” I asked. “He did both,” she responded, a smile beaming from pierced ear to pierced ear.

I had to admit, the piercings looked good on my daughter. Being her mother, of course I was obsessing over whether the equipment was clean—I’m praying that it was. Vile images were running through my mind of piercings gone awry, the kind that land people in the hospital—images I’ve seen, where else?, on the internet. Maybe I shouldn’t have let her go through with it there, but I momentarily succumbed to optimism, to Cleo’s infectious enthusiasm … and got swept up into Slinky Ink’s orbit.

One thing I recently learned about tattoo culture is that the pain of getting the tattoo is a badge of honor—it’s part of its beauty. Life hurts. It hurts to learn, to be reborn, to become beautiful. And now my pain is a memory. I ask Cleo if her piercing hurt. She told me, “It was like a blood draw.” So yes and no, no and yes.

I walked away from Slinky’s Ink with a lot of questions. I was upset about the clouds of cigarette smoke. The internet password. The free-for-all atmosphere. I wanted someone to take proper care of that 2-year-old. But Cleo was a lot more forgiving. It was easier for her to step into that culture for a time, get what she wanted from it, and step out. She’s not thinking of murdering Slinky at all; she’s praising the artistry of Vito’s work as we walked away and returned to our lives. Only she’s a little more decorated, and a little more satisfied. So, I suppose I was, too: Thanks, Slinky.

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