I’ve wanted a tattoo since I was a teenager—and I finally got my first one at age 39

On an uncharacteristically gloomy evening in July, I decided to just go for it: My first tattoo.

It took all of 10 minutes — actually, significantly less than that — to permanently ink the flesh on my forearm. It hurt. I didn’t like it. But finally, after more than two decades of hemming and hawing, it was done.

I was 39 years old, and my first tattoo was of a slice of pizza.


By some reckoning, I’m either the oldest of the millennial generation or the youngest of the Gen-Xers. (I was born in late 1979.) Other scholars put me in a “microgeneration” called “The Oregon Trail Generation” or, horribly, “Xennials.” No matter how I’m classified, I was a teenager in the ’90s, and tattoos were becoming mainstream. As soon as I saw how awesome and rock ‘n’ roll people looked with them, I swore I would get one the instant I turned 18.

This led to many notebook doodles and daydreams about the sweet ink I’d for-sure be getting. Most of my ideas had to do with U2, my then-favorite band: Icons and logos from their album artwork, or (really bad) designs I came up with myself.

My 18th birthday finally arrived and … I didn’t do it. For one thing, it cost a lot of money that I didn’t have. For another, I still lived at home and my parents would have absolutely lost their minds.

Those two problems had workarounds — get the tat in a place they wouldn’t easily spot! — but the larger issue was very simple: I just couldn’t realistically see myself with permanent artwork on my skin — a mark that offered the world a glimpse into my life and personality.

tattoo artist photo
Getty Images | Oli Scarff

In college I settled on piercings, attracted by their impermanence. I got two holes in my earlobes, a nose ring, a ring through the cartilage in one ear and an “industrial” (a piercing that goes through the ear at two points linked by a barbell) in the other. (These days, I only have the holes in my earlobes.) My dad didn’t speak to me for days after learning about the nose ring, so it was probably good that I didn’t get that tattoo at 18.

I had brief impulses to get a Radiohead “angry bear” tat, but the tattoo urge waned through my 20s and into my 30s. I told people it wasn’t the pain I feared, or what people might think of me, I just couldn’t make the commitment. I got a little smug about it, too, thinking I was somehow even cooler because I’d resisted the tattoo trend when so many of my friends didn’t.

Then my younger sister got into tattoos. And my little brother, too, who one day said, “Not having a tattoo doesn’t make you special. Having a tattoo doesn’t make you special, either.” Something clicked. Getting the tattoo for myself and no one else — the not-specialness of it — felt liberating.


From there, it only took one more little nudge. Just for fun, my sister bought me an Inkbox tattoo, a realistic-looking temporary tattoo that lasts for a solid week or more. She chose a cute, easily drawn slice of pepperoni pizza because pizza is eternally my favorite food. It was tiny, and fit perfectly just below the crook of my elbow.

My fate was sealed.

Within a couple of weeks, we made a date to go to the tattoo parlor together. She chose a shop where she’d gotten some good work in the past and I trusted her judgment. We did a walk-in since my little pepperoni slice was uncomplicated.

The young woman behind the counter was delighted to learn I was getting my first tattoo and hooked me up with a visiting artist who was just finishing up a client. He got my idea, though he had a little trouble understanding that I wanted it very simple and not realistic, almost like a child’s drawing of a pizza slice. He also balked at the size I suggested, saying he “couldn’t do it that small” because it’d just become a black blob in a few years. I assented.

Before I knew it, my skin was sterilized, the approved ink stencil was on my arm, and we were about to cross the point of no return.

“Ready?” asked the tattoo artist.

“Yeah,” I croaked, and the tattoo gun buzzed to life.


It took me a second to comprehend this totally new and extremely unpleasant sensation. The tattoo gun rattled my arm, hard, and the needle felt like a lit match. Worse, I could sense the needle dragging through my skin as the artist drew.

I jerked involuntarily at some point, eliciting a “whoa there” from the artist. As a result, my pizza is a tad askew, and one of the lines is slightly wiggled. Whoops. Rookie mistake.

Just when I’d forced myself to shakily take deep, calming breaths, it was over. The artist gave me a moment to check out his work, then carefully wrapped the area in a protective bandage.

Here’s me, minutes later, looking like I just got off a roller coaster.

Liz St. John

Here’s my pizza, still angry but very moisturized, a couple of days later:

Kathleen St. John

Truthfully, I didn’t love it at first. It was bigger than I’d wanted, and I obsessed over the small mistakes made when I moved. I hoped it’d look better when it healed. It didn’t, really, but I was resigned. The deed had been done.

My sister got an adorable, perfect tat of a sandwich (her fave food) from the same artist right after my session. I was jealous.

Kathleen St. John

My attitude changed once I got a few compliments. A lot of people thought it was funny. Some thought it was cute, too. I was told it looked like a drawing from “The Simpsons” — one of my favorite shows — or from “Peppa Pig” (one of my daughter’s favorite shows). Maybe people were just being polite, but I felt better. Over time, I also started to feel kind of badass, like I had something in common with the heavily-inked rock stars I’d admired back in the day.

It’s been more than five months since I got the tattoo. I’ve since turned 40. I thought seriously about getting something on my birthday, but didn’t get around to it. I’m eager to get another, especially with the lessons learned from my first experience: Insist on getting exactly what you want, size- or design-wise. If possible, work with an artist whose work you’ve researched. And for the love of God, stay still when that tattoo gun fires up.

Now I’ve just got to settle on a design for the next one. Hopefully, it doesn’t take another 20 years.


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About the Author
Kathleen St. John
Kathleen St. John is a freelance journalist. She lives in Denver with her husband, two kids and a fiercely protective Chihuahua. Visit Scripps News to see more of Kathleen's work.

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