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What it's like to get a tattoo at the Field Museum

What it's like to get a tattoo at the Field Museum
Photograph: Zach Long

When I heard about the Field Museum's “Tattoo” exhibit, I knew I wanted to get a tattoo done there. I didn't know how—spots filled quickly and the artists I coveted the most (Tine DeFiore and Stephanie Brown—one day I will have tattoos done by you!) booked their slots even quicker. But as part of an event sponsored by Sailor Jerry rum over the weekend, I managed to get a spot with Oliver Peck of Elm Street Tattoo in Dallas, Texas.

The flash sheet of Sailor Jerry-inspired designs included classic nautical-themed tattoos, like anchors, birds or a heart with a banner and your choice of name across it. There was also a small shark (which often symbolizes courage and will) that I fell in love with instantly. Feeling confident in my choice, I went to the Field Museum with zero doubts in my mind.

I have a few tattoos already, including some larger pieces, so a small 1.5-inch shark was no big deal. But, for some reason, I have this idea that getting a tattoo is a bit of a production. Which, in reality, is not true and has never been true of any tattoos I have. Getting a tattoo is a permanent (pretty much, I mean, are you gonna spend that much on laser removal?) addition to your body. And, yes, you've probably thought a lot about your first (or second, or third). I can look back on a few tattoos and wish that things were a bit different, but there's a level of acceptance in having a tattoo that doesn't quite fit your belief system or your ideologies years later.

This one, though, was less ceremonious than others I've planned out. Once I got to the Field Museum, I was quickly whisked to the exhibit, signed a few papers (okay, a few more than normal—the Field Museum has its own set of release forms) and 20 minutes later, I walked away with a shark on my arm. I like getting to know my tattoo artists, and Oliver Peck was lovely—he had just come off of a 24-hour tattoo marathon on Friday the 13th at Elm Street. He was tired (wouldn't you be?). We bantered, until I finally looked up from the table and realized I was surrounded by people watching me get a tattoo. “It's a little bit like being in a fishbowl, right?” Oliver said. A girl pushed her DSLR into the plexiglass on one side of the exhibit, photographing us and quickly making me realize I had become part of the exhibit. “It's like painting on your skin,” a dad remarked to his kid. While getting a tattoo seemed commonplace for me, being a part of a museum, showing how the process works for someone who isn't familiar, wasn't in my wheelhouse.

The exhibit imparts a visual history of tattooing, and I took the chance to walk through the collection after my appointment. Looking at how far tattooing technology has come and observing the shifting artistic trends is an enlightening experience. Tattoos may be way more commonplace in the United States now, but some designs hold deep cultural ties, from Russian prison tattoos to the numbers used to make concentration camp prisoners; it's easy to separate the way many of us view tattoos as art and a means of self-expression from what they've meant as a part of history. Would I do it again? Absolutely. When will I ever get to survey the history of tattoos and then get one, all at the same time again?

*The tattoo provided was free of charge as a part of a press event held by Sailor Jerry rum. Time Out Chicago received no additional compensation in return for this post.

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