The fashionista is in: Needlework

Sorry, mom and dad.

Northeast tattoo artist Spencer Hodgeson tattoos a rams skull onto Minnesota Daily reporter Emily Evelands back on Monday, Nov. 11, 2013.

Amanda Snyder

Northeast tattoo artist Spencer Hodgeson tattoos a rams skull onto Minnesota Daily reporter Emily Eveland’s back on Monday, Nov. 11, 2013.

by Emily Eveland

I have a lot of bad tattoos, from a “Good Burger” stick-and-poke I gave myself with a sewing needle and India ink to a rat on my left calf, which someone once mistook for a snowmobile.

While I’ve been able to attach some nostalgic significance to my oft-absurd body art, I’ve come to value good-quality tattoos over the cheap, impulsive variety.

Finding a good tattoo artist is the first and most important part of getting a tattoo worthy of your precious epidermis — you don’t want just anyone flooding your skin cells with ink.

“You could be the most amazing oil painter in the world, but if you don’t know how to operate a tattoo machine, well, you’re not going to be a good tattooer,” said Spencer Hodgson, a tattoo artist at Northeast Tattoo.

Hodgson is a soft-spoken Wisconsin native who’s been tattooing around the Midwest for 11 years. I found him through a chain of friends who trusted his work, so I knew I could do the same.

Because Hodgson moved to Northeast Tattoo from 7th St Tattoo just last week, he was able to fit me in on short notice. A word to the wise: Don’t follow my lead on this one. Good artists are generally booked weeks or months in advance, so plan ahead.

When I talked to Hodgson earlier in the week, I told him I wanted a ram skull on my back, but didn’t provide pictures or specify details in order to give him breathing room to come up with a design.

“I was stoked,” he said of designing the piece. “I was listening to some, like, power fantasy metal.”

Hodgson started by cleaning my skin with antiseptic soap. I couldn’t see what was happening, but the feeling changed.

“Are you shaving my back now?” I said.

“It’s just peach fuzz,” Hodgson said. “I’ve had to shave everything. It’s not the best when you have to shave a dude’s butt.”

Hodgson then stuck a carbon copy stencil of the design to my back, akin to the purple ink plastic surgeons use. He took a picture so I could check the alignment.

On a small cart by his side, Hodgson had set out an array of black ink, a clear Vaseline-like substance, paper towels, needles and three different tattoo machines (two for lining and one for shading and coloring).

Just before we started, I asked Hodgson how he usually describes the sensation of being tattooed to first-timers.

“I guess the best way I would explain it is that it’s like a sunburn kind of feeling,” he said. “My old co-worker said it feels like being licked by kittens.”

Hodgson must have a high pain tolerance because to me, tattooing feels more like being mauled by a raccoon. The reality is that the feeling depends on the body part being worked on, the individual’s pain tolerance and the artist’s technique.

“You’re tattooing somebody that’s living and breathing and bleeding and moving,” Hodgson said. “You have to work with the client.”

Tattooing hurts the worst for the first few minutes, while your body is still warming up to the sensation. The cool thing about being repeatedly stabbed with needles is that it eventually triggers the release of everyone’s favorite drug –– endorphins! So while I was sweating, shaking and biting the plastic chair I was sitting in, I was still in a decent mood.

Hodgson was keen to remind me that I was good at sitting still, but I did pause midway through to complain that the feeling was like a kitten dangling by its claws from my back. He reminded me that it could be much worse.

“Just be glad I’m not [using the] old school Polynesian tattoo style, ‘cause they would use things like sharp teeth and ground-down bones,” Hodgson said. “With the advent of the actual tattoo machine in the late 1800s, it’s changed everything about what we do.”

In the last 30 minutes of my two-hour tattoo session, I managed to slide down as far as possible in my chair and was sweating from every available orifice in my body. I knew the pattern of scratches on the floor by heart and had even found a few smiley faces in the tiles.

Finally, it was finished. Hodgson rubbed a gel designed by the shop’s owner on my tattoo to absorb blood, ink and plasma. Tasty! When sprayed with another substance, the gel was activated and formed a “second skin” on my back. Though it stung like hell, it definitely beat having a trash bag taped to my back for three hours.

Hodgson has all the qualities I’m looking for in a tattoo artist: Humility, patience and caution. Plus, he didn’t rip me off like a lot of artists are inclined to do. Hodgson charged $200 for the piece, which was a steal considering the quality and size.

It’s worth the time and money it takes to get good work. Unlike the Blink-182 tattoo I gave myself, the ram skull is something I’m proud to have on my body. Before you commit to getting something permanently tattooed on your body, take time to think about the design, make sure you trust your tattoo artist and don’t get drunk before showing up — that is, unless you’re okay with the possibility of waking up to a Pikachu tattoo on your forehead.