By Léo Azambuja

Léo Azambuja

I wanted to write about traditional Hawaiian tattooing for quite some time. As a writer, I always appreciated Ernest Hemingway’s style; he would rather go through the real experience before he wrote about anything. So it was finally time for that long-waited plan I had of getting a third tattoo to become reality.

My tattoos were more than 20 years old. One is from a drawing by my father. It’s a dragon ridden by a mermaid on the inside of my biceps. The other, an Inca mail-bird on my left shoulder, looked like a blurred black nothing after thousands of hours surfing without sunscreen. So I sentenced it to be covered by my new tattoo.

I did my homework on who to pick for this tattoo, and it was really difficult because I discovered there are several talented artists here. While I decided pricing wasn’t going to factor, I soon realized everyone charges about the same. Fair enough. I talked to some artists, peaked through windows of a few studios, and studied many websites.

Ultimately, I asked Samuel Shaw, owner of Kulture Tattoo Kollective, to do my tattoo. He has been doing mostly Hawaiian and Polynesian tattoos for about 25 years. I knew he was fast and a gifted artist. And I knew a few guys who had tattoos done by him.

I went for a three-quarter sleeve. It’s not a traditional Hawaiian tattoo; but it’s a design using traditional Hawaiian and traditional Brazilian Indian symbols. To me it was a perfect combo, since I was born and raised in Brazil, and spent almost my entire adult life in Hawai‘i.

The hardest part was the excruciating pain during my first session. As Samuel drew first blood, my immediate thought was, “And I’m paying for this?” He said the pain would lessen after 15 minutes. It didn’t. It actually got a lot worse two hours into it. After four hours, I was seeing stars. Thankfully, we stopped then.

I think the pain was augmented by the fact that I went to the gym that morning, and worked out much harder than usual. With all that extra blood flowing, I think I shot myself in the foot and caused a lot more pain than I normally would have felt.

I returned two weeks later for a second session, but this time I cheated. I spread a numbing gel over my arm an hour prior to the appointment. The problem is that this gel somehow softens the skin and makes it hard for the artist to draw on you, even though it’s made for tattooing. Needless to say, I don’t think Samuel was too happy about it. But it did work for about two hours, when it started losing its effectiveness and the pain started to increase. This session only lasted two-and-a-half hours, and honestly, I kinda missed out on the pain. The tattoo will be on my arm forever; it has to hurt, otherwise it’s just like someone is drawing on your skin.

However, I wasn’t done yet. Samuel said I would have to come back a third time.

Three weeks later, I sat for another hour. This time, I put no gel. I wanted to experiment with something else, so I took four Ibuprofen pills. Some tattoo artists don’t like painkillers because supposedly they thin the blood, making it more difficult for the ink to stay put. Samuel said it doesn’t matter, so I got the green light.

I think it may have helped a little with the pain. It didn’t hurt as much as the first session, but it hurt more than the second one. The skin around the ink on this third session got really red afterward, which I suspect was caused by the Ibuprofen. I read in Internet forums that Tylenol was better. I had bought it just for this third session, but with all my bad luck I couldn’t find it before I left for my appointment, so Ibuprofen it was.

My advice is, pick someone you are comfortable with. Watching a movie during session gets your mind off the pain. Don’t use a numbing gel. Even if your tattoo artist doesn’t mind, it takes away some of the experience of getting a tattoo. Pain, not too much, is good; you’ll value your new ink a lot more. But I would still take Tylenol.