Imperfect masterpieces

I never talked about them here. I guess I don’t talk about it much in general. My tattoos. The story behind them, and/or, well, tattoos in general. But it’s kind of a fun/crazy story, so I thought it would be interesting to write about.

I have always loved the arts, and particularly drawing. When I was eight or so, all other kids in class would be drawing stick figures, while I was drawing up peregrine falcons or some shit, aiming for the best realism I could achieve. I never kept the drawings. Maybe they looked horrible – like bird versions of stick figures. Stick birds? We will never know. In my mind and memory they looked pretty cool, so you’d have to believe me. A few years later, high school came. In high school, many of my passions died a horrible death. For art class, I always drew things I liked, and how I liked them. Usually that was black and white realism – taken from photographs. That never was artsy enough for the teacher. Always telling me how I should oil paint things, instead of using my pencil. My work showed no diversity, and hence, no creativity, is what she used to say. I was uninspired, my grades went down, and I stopped drawing altogether. (The same happened with my love for reading, and for languages – high school was not the best environment for me.) After seven years of restricting my creativity and boring the life out of my existence, I got out of that prison hell hole with a diploma. For years, there was nothing that even remotely resembled creativity in my life, but now I read, write, and draw quite a lot.

Tattoos were somehow a ‘thing’ in my family. Tribals, tramp stamps. Poorly drawn roses. You don’t have to look too far to find them. I guess all of those had their prime somewhere in the nineties and early 2000’s. That wasn’t for me. However, I was always interested in tattoo realism, probably some relic from the past. This was before all the instagram hype, and before good work and realism was widely spread. I was always stuck to the screen when Miami Ink was playing. A horrible show, but with some artists that had some amazing talents, including realism. These terrible shows reignited in me a love for arts, and for tattoos in particular. I was hooked. But nothing happened, as I suffered from a life-long fear of needles. Trypanophobia is a real deal-breaker for getting tattoos. At least it was for me. However, it was not the only thing. Wherever I looked, I saw an abundance of shitty tattoos. To be frank, I would not want to carry most tattoos on me, even if I would be sponsored abundantly. What probably outweighed my choice against tattoos was my fear of getting something done by others, that would be against my personal preferences. If someone would put something on me, and I wouldn’t like it, I would probably need a cheese slicer or whatever. That was a big problem too.

So this was more or less why nothing happened between the early 2000’s and the mid 2010’s. However, some development was going on with the digital age blooming. Not only did social media popularize body art, and did it reduce the stigma that had long been attached to it, there was also an increase in the online availability. Of everything really. That included tattoo gear. Some of it with ridiculously low prices (and equally low quality material).

I never intended to tattoo anyone, when I bought a tattoo machine in 2017. I just wanted to learn the art of tattooing. I wanted to know whether it would feel in any way like drawing. At that time, some tattoo artists were beginning to share their work and more importantly, their work flows and techniques on YouTube. From watching hundreds of hours of YouTube material, I just started. I started first by tattooing oranges, lemons, then later fake rubber skin. Most of the ‘tattoos’ I worked on were insects. After a while of tattooing on this fake skin, I felt that I could do some reasonable work. I mean. It wasn’t perfect, but who cares. I wasn’t going to place it on anyone anyway. I don’t know what exactly pushed me to first tattoo myself. Having the gear in hand, even as a trypanophobe, made me curious. How would I ever be able to tell what tattooing was like, if I never tattood, or even had tattoos of my own. Without much of a drawing plan, but with a lot of ethanol, and some vaseline, on one evening I tattooed a triangle on the inside of my left ankle. This triangle symbolizes absolutely nothing, but it is still present, so it still is my first tattoo. It hardly hurt. So now at least I knew that.

Some random doodling on a lemon – too bad I rarely took pictures of the fruity stuff…
This is one of a hyperparasitoid – Gelis proximus – that I once drew and tattooed on fake skin. I still think it looks pretty cool.

For about a year or so, I continued drawing designs for potential tattoos that wouldn’t be all too difficult. Things that I wouldn’t mess up. I decided to buy high quality needles and high quality ink. Not to tattoo anything. Of course not. But when you tattoo a lemon, you also want to give the customer something that lasts through the years and ages well, you know.

All this time, I still wanted to get tattoos myself, but I was held back by the thought of anyone else drawing on me. The risk of being unsatisfied with the work was too high. I figured that if I would draw something myself, and I would tattoo it only half-good, I would probably be happier than if a professional would do a 90% perfect piece. I told myself that if I would start crying after two lines, it would be a good story to tell over a pint of beer (and who cares about two lines?). If not, it would still be a story, and if it would be a half-bad tattoo that was at least done by myself, I could at least live with it. So it was with that sentiment that at some moment I just thought ‘fuck it’, and just started stenciling a parasitoid on my leg. I based the drawing on a pretty ichneumonid photograph I found somewhere online. I positioned it on my right thigh, just above the knee – for no other reason than that it is an easy place to draw on and stretch the skin to pack in the ink. Full of good hope I started sterilizing the work space, my leg and preparing the sterile machine elements. Having worked in a microbial lab for several years, at least I know quite well how to keep a sterile work flow, so this was the least of my concern. Then followed the moment of truth. Here goes nothing… I immediately noticed there is a difference between drawing a 10-second triangle and a parasitoid roughly the size of a hand. I was also nervous as fuck, so all in all, the drawing turned into a series of very jittery lines. About ten minutes into the tattoo, I calmed myself down, and the lines became more solid, slightly less jittery. After the outlines were done, it looked as if a toddler had drawn a mosquito on my leg…

I wonder what my wife thought after I finished these outlines….

Yeah, that looked pretty horrible. I guess that needed a little touching up, and so I did. One week later, I mustered the courage to start filling it in. I somehow felt more confident that second time, and the ink packed in better. At the end of the session, it looked quite alright. Sure, this tattoo is still far from perfect, but I have seen plenty of stuff on others that looked worse to me. One thing I can be sure of, and that is that it is quite unlikely that anyone else on the planet has this design. A unique Robin Heinen ‘masterpiece’. I never touched it again, and I am still quite proud of it. I even was approached by several people at the European Conference of Entomology that told me they thought it was a cool tattoo. (Yes, I wear shorts and flipflops to conferences and I don’t give a damn.)

Fresh after filling it up. The black has held surprisingly well over the years.

I guess it was half a year later or so, when I started thinking of another tattoo. I had always wanted to get a piece of a monitor lizard. I love monitor lizards. However, no matter how hard I looked, I never found any cool monitor lizard tattoos. Do people not like monitor lizards, or what? What I did find was a lot of good photo material online. So I again started drawing.

(I think I made this a very cool drawing!)

I stencilled this one on my left forearm, and then had the original picture to somehow guide me through the process. From the get-go, this one went much smoother. A tricky aspect of tattooing your own left arm, even as a right-handed person, is that it is difficult to stretch the skin and pack some ink. I am quite satisfied with how it came out after all, but it has faded quite a bit over the past couple of years. I am still gathering the courage to one day pick up the machine again and touch it up. I think it should be possible to make it look more like the above, but maybe I need something or someone to help me stretch my skin.

So there you have it. I was too scared of having others put needles and ink into my skin, so I did it to myself. As a little disclaimer – I do not recommend anyone to try this out easily. I have watched hundreds and hundreds of videos studying techniques, and practicing on fake skin and fruits for a long time. It should be clear that none of this prepared me for tattooing myself. It is a very strange experience for the body to deliberately hurt yourself, while trying to keep a steady hand. Also, it is probably quite stupid. I have a background in working in microbial labs, and at least I understand how to work sterile and minimize risks of infection. Skin is a delicate organ, and requires delicate treatment. Inflammation of the skin due to a contaminated tattoo is no joke and can be very dangerous to your health and permanently scar you.

Having said that, I am happy with my own two (well, three) imperfect masterpieces, and I never regretted them. There will certainly be more ink in the future. And yes. The next tattoo on me will also be by me. (It is addictive)

Published by Robin Heinen

Father of two | Husband | Entomologist and Ecologist | Postdoctoral Researcher @ TUM | Traveler | Coffee Addict

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