Tattoo Road Trip

The Tattoo Chronicles >> Archives >> Chronicle #4

Tattoo Chronicle #4 ~ Ouch!

Photo by Bernard Clark. (l. to r.) Travelin’ Mick, Inia Taylor, Baxter, Keone Nunes and Captain Caveman

Photo by Bernard Clark. (l. to r.) Travelin’ Mick, Inia Taylor, Baxter, Keone Nunes and Captain Caveman


By Bob Baxter
People often ask me, “Does hand-poking hurt more than a machine-done tattoo?” The answer is simple: It depends on who does it.

Those of us who have decorated ourselves with ink are very clear: pain is a big part of the tattoo experience. It’s a kind of an initiation into the Brotherhood of the Inked, a coming of age, if you will. And those kinds of experiences always hurt. Experiences like circumcision, going out into the bush and killing a lion with a spear, that kind of transitional event. Some people, I am told, don’t feel the pain very much. Are they drugged or did they partake of some high-grade wacky tobaccy just before getting inked? Probably not. If for no other reason that most professional tattooists (and I emphasize the word professional) won’t tattoo anyone under the influence. It’s not smart and it also can inhibit how the skin accepts the ink. Being tattooed should not be a compromised experience. Pain is an essential ingredient.

When I was tattooed with a traditional down-the-left-leg Hawaiian-style tattoo by Keone Nunes, during my second trip to Samoa in 2002, I felt very little discomfort. Part of that was due to my surroundings. There I was in the virtual motherland of Polynesian culture, on the porch of a thatched-roof fale with none other than Captain Caveman, Inia Taylor and Travelin’ Mick in attendance. Who could ask for more?

My other major hand-poked tattoo (not counting the kanjis of my kid’s names that Japanese master Masayoshi inked into me at Billy Eason’s show in Richmond, Virginia) was an ankle band hammered into me with a rake-like tool (a fine-tooth comb made of boar’s tusk) by Paulo Sulu’ape’s brother, Petelo, at Freewind’s Black Wave Tattoo (formerly Leo Zulueta’s place) in Los Angeles, California. Freewind stretched while Petelo (who was in town for a visit) nailed the ink into my reticent skin. I remember quite distinctly: Music was playing, everyone involved was wearing a traditional lavalava (the Samoan version of a sarong), and I was on my back on the floor.

When Peteo tapped—make that hammered—the first image into my ankle, I yelled, “Holy shit!” Beside the jarring pain, a sound similar to a bamboo log being smashed with a sledgehammer filled my ears. Oh, my God, I thought. There’s four more fucking hours of this! I was right. It was an experience seemingly without end. Plus, every time Petelo considered bringing things to a close, he changed his mind and added a couple more lines. Actually, it was four and a half hours.

I have been tattooed by some of the legends in the business—Tennessee Dave, Bob Roberts, Greg James, Jack Rudy, Aaron Bell—but I have never undergone such an agonizing tattoo session, before or after. And why was that? Most people would think that the ankle is a relatively passive area of the body, as far as getting tattooed is concerned. Not like the ribcage or an armpit. Wrong. Take it from me, the ankle is where all your nerve endings come to gather. Petelo’s tattoo not only hurt like crazy, it swelled up like a pumpkin. I think I have figured out why.

Petelo is a master tofuga. Probably one of the best ever. It’s not his reputation or skills as an artist that determined how much it hurt, it’s how he held his wrist. While Keone Nunes, for example, uses the same tools and approaches tattooing in an almost identical manner, Keone manipulates the tapping stick like a drummer playing brushes on a symbol. With a light snap of the wrist. Petelo, on the other hand, laid in the ink like a roofer hammering on a shingle. Wham, pow, thunk!

I’m know that everyone has a different experience of tattooing. I know that some tattooists are thought of as painless practitioners of the art form. One female was even called “Painless Nell.” Fine. That’s another person in another time and another situation. For me, that day in Black Wave, with the music and the camaraderie and all that, was the hurtin’est day of my life. Ah, the joys of addiction.


As editor in chief of Skin&Ink magazine for over fourteen years, Bob Baxter guided the publication to a Folio Magazine Editorial Excellence Award, making it America’s most respected and educational body art publication. He currently edits and writes a Daily Blog at www.tattooroadtrip.com, the ultimate E-zine and resource site for international tattoo artists and collectors. He also has his Tattoo Chronicles series and the 101 Most Influential People in Tattooing right here @ Vanishing Tattoo. To ask questions, make comments or demand an apology, you can email Bob at baxter@tattooroadtrip.com.

Tattoo Chronicle Archives - Check out Bob's previous Chronicles

Who are the 101 most influential people in the world of tattooing? Click here to find out.

The Tattoo Chronicles >> Archives >> Chronicle #4