The View From London

09.16.134:45 AM ET

The Girl With the Apple Tattoo

From Miss Kansas to Rita Ora, body art is everywhere these days. Emma Woolf reports on taking the plunge to get her first tattoo.

So, the deed is done. After years of wanting to get myself inked I’ve finally gone and done it. Yes, I have my first tattoo.

Body art is everywhere these days, but it wasn’t always. When I was a teenager I didn’t know anyone with a tattoo. My parents forbade me even to get my ears pierced until the age of 16, and I can still remember the furor when my younger sister came home with a small silver ring through her belly-button. In my 20s I considered a tattoo, but wasn’t sure what to get. When I think back over the unsuitable boyfriends’ initials which I might have chosen, the profound song lyrics, or smiley faces, I’m glad I didn’t have the courage. Until now.

So what changed? I blame social media … A few months ago I made a rash promise on Twitter, that when I reached a certain level of followers, I’d get a tattoo; and the idea gained momentum. But where on earth would I go? I had visions of dodgy tattoo parlors in seedy Soho, filled with men with ratty ponytails, dirty needles everywhere. I needed somewhere hygienic and safe, and I wanted a tattooist who knew what they were doing.

Eventually I found a groovy little studio near me in Hoxton called Nine Tails Tattoo. A beautiful Japanese woman called Kanae showed me various designs and told me about the Nine Tails Philosophy: they believe that tattoos are important personal items that will remain on our bodies for the remainder of our life. This way of thinking stems from the legacy of Japanese ‘shoku-nin’ or craftsmen, who devote 100 percent attention to every single piece they create, no matter how big or small. She told me, "we’re interested in creating works that stand the test of time and bring the wearer a sense of happiness and well-being for the rest of their life."

Kanae learned her craft under the tutelage of Makoto, owner of Hocus Pocus Tattoo in Shizuoka, Japan. I was reassured—she was a proper artist, and her own body decoration was tasteful and well-executed. So she designed my tattoo and the day of the inking drew near. Even as I paid the deposit, I wasn’t sure I’d really go through with it.

Tattoos used to be associated with sailors, Hell’s Angels bikers, and pirates, but in recent years they have become terribly mainstream, across the ages and social classes. Samantha Cameron, the wife of our current prime minister, has a discreet dolphin tattoo on her ankle. The actresses Sienna Miller, Helen Mirren, and Felicity Kendal are all painted ladies. Lady Steel, wife of the former Liberal Party leader David Steel, got a pink jaguar tattoo on her shoulder to celebrate her 70th birthday.

The craze is increasingly for highly visible tattoos: where upper arms and shoulders used to be the most popular placements, now it’s all about necks, lower arms and legs. I was reassured when my tattooist said they will never ink young people on their faces and hands—because let’s be honest: tats are not always tasteful. Last year the Metropolitan Police issued the following ban to its serving officers: "Tattoos on the face, or visible above a collar line, or on the hands are no longer permitted. All other tattoos must be covered."

A singer in the British band Girls Aloud recently revealed vast angel wings inked across her shoulder blades, along with the motto ‘Don’t be bitter, glitter’. Cheryl Cole, also in Girls Aloud, has just unveiled her 10th piece of body art: entwined red roses completely covering her lower back and both buttocks. And Rita Ora took a break from New York Fashion Week to get a mammoth pinup girl engraved on her ribcage. Call me a cynic, but I’m guessing that they may live to regret those.

So where should my tattoo go? Almost as important as the symbol itself was the positioning. I definitely didn’t want anything visible, so no arms or shoulders: I tried to imagine myself as a dignified old lady in evening dress, and somehow a tattoo didn’t fit into that picture. Nor did I want the so-called ‘tramp stamp’ on the lower back, which reveals itself in low-cut jeans. In the end I chose my right hip, a body part which is never on public display, except maybe on the beach.

T-day arrived. I woke up and told my boyfriend I’d changed my mind. At breakfast I changed it back again. Arriving at the studio I had to sign a sinister form, consenting to “permanent alteration of my appearance.” After that things are a bit vague. I remember lying down while the tattooist set to work, and then came appalling agony, as if someone was carving into my hip with a scalpel. I knew it must be a needle, not an actual blade, but I couldn’t bring myself to look. For nearly an hour I gritted my teeth, sweat pouring from my forehead, praying for it to be over.

On the other side of the studio a middle-aged man was having two massive tattoo ‘sleeves’ on his biceps joined across his back: soon his entire torso would be covered in snakes, dragons and other inky swirls. "It’ll be weeks before this is finished—then I’ll get started on my legs," he said, cheerily. All I could think was: how does anyone get addicted to this?

That was an awful day. I limped around like a wounded animal, my breathing shallow and ragged. I stood in line at the pharmacy clutching the diaper rash ointment they prescribe for tattoo aftercare. I forced myself to change the sodden dressing and tried not to look at this foolish thing I’d done. I emailed my parents that blood was gushing from my side—OK, a slight exaggeration—to which my beloved father replied: "You must have taken leave of your senses Emma. It’s no good asking me to drive you to A&E with self-inflicted wounds. Take some paracetamol and try to sleep." So much for sympathy.

I’m completely healed now, and very happy with the result. I won’t be getting any more tattoos, but I love the one I have. And what is it? A tiny red apple with a green leaf: my private badge of recovery from 10 years of anorexia; a memento of my first book. And a reminder that no one can live on an apple a day.

Read previous installments in The View From London here. Emma Woolf is the author of An Apple a Day and The Ministry of Thin. Follow her on Twitter @EJWoolf.

Emma Woolf