Picture this: skin tricks

To tattoo or not to tattoo has been the question since I turned 18. So a friend and I had trial fly-by-night spray-on tattoos, just to get the feel of things. I was so aware of the tattoo and I loved it. But the novelty wore off.

To tattoo or not to tattoo has been the question since I turned 18. So a friend and I had trial fly-by-night spray-on tattoos, just to get the feel of things. I was so aware of the tattoo and I loved it. But the novelty wore off.

Having a tattoo is like having a child that never grows. You take it with you wherever you go and people need an explanation why you have it, why that symbol and why on that body spot.

And though I wrote the book on swimming against the tide, I took the Bible verse on the subject seriously. Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the Lord. - Leviticus 19:28

But a few good people have emerged in my life with tattoos - brilliant, sensual, sexy, profound and all things powerful. And they are not really wild ones but folks whose opinions I value.

My phenomenally accomplished and softly spoken best friend has a dolphin on her ankle.

My boyfriend has a Chinese symbol of peace, while our neighbour has a yin-yang sign on her pregnant belly.

"It symbolises my biggest 'aha' moment, in Oprah's lingo," she explains.

"I had this symbol done after I made peace with the fact that in life you take the bitter with the sweet and just make it work."

Granted, none of the people I know has dead roses inscribed on her cleavage or some ex's name carved all over them.

I don't have a problem that the Bible says no. I also don't spend sleepless nights that the pain is said to be unbearable.

I have a problem with the fact that one tattoo is never enough. Like needle freaks, many people get hooked and can't wait for their next session at the parlour.

Already on his third tattoo, my companion says: "It hurts so bad at first, the pain worsens as the machine hums and then when you give in, the pain goes away. Once you have proved to yourself you can endure pain, you feel different about yourself; you feel like part of a movement."

My pregnant neighbour says there is something liberating about taking the pain and coming out of it with your own addition to the creature you are.

"After the pregnancy I had to prove to myself that I could take the pain and affirm to myself I was ready for pare- nthood," she says.

The word pain surfaces far too often in these tattoo conversations. What is it with this seven-headed beast and its allure to the generation of spoils?

"You get an endorphin rush," explains Phoenix Mandy, a tattoo artist from Roodepoort. "You almost pass out. That's part of the rush and that experience is etched on your mind.

"And because it is voluntary pain, the mind remembers it and wants more of it."

He shrugs his heavily tattooed shoulders and adds: "I think."

His opinion seems to be echoed by clinical psychologist Fuziwe Mafuna.

"I wouldn't go to the extent of calling this an addiction because I believe these people know they can leave without more tattoos. They just choose to add on them. That's not an addiction. It's more subtle obsession.

"However, where traumatic pain is involved, the brain releases a chemical. This is nature's last resort for holding on to life. The brain might remember that and translate it as a craving to the tattooed person."

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