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I called my sister from my office during the lunch hour as I ate my usual energy bar and chocolate brownie while working at my computer. "Can you schedule me somewhere to get tattooed tonight?" I asked.

"Do you want me to call any shop, in particular?" she replied, not even inquiring as to why I wanted to get tattooed, but expecting such peculiar requests from me.

"You know people who know people - just find someone open tonight, but someone good," I said. "I appreciate your help on this one."

My time constraint was as much logistics as it was irrational. I had put off getting a tattoo - a very specific tattoo - for ten years, and at some point that morning, I decided that it had to be done that night. Sometimes I just have to make leaps of faith, and this was one of them. I had a lot in my schedule in the coming days and weeks, so I knew that I may not be able to squeeze in a tattoo any time soon, so it had to be that night. Plus, if my sister scheduled it for that night, I couldn't back out, no matter any creeping fear I might have.

"I'll call around," she said.

"Thanks, and bring your boyfriend with us if we get an appointment - I may need him to hold my arm from spasming," I replied.

Indeed, cerebral palsy added another twist to getting a tattoo - or not getting one. I could convince myself that my muscle spasms might make it impossible for me to get tattooed, unable to hold still while the tattoo gun required a stationary canvas to properly penetrate my skin with ink at a thousand times per second. Then again, I'd never used cerebral palsy as an excuse before, so I why should I this time?

My sister called me back a few minutes later. "We've got a 7:30 appointment with Ben - is that cool?" she asked.

"Did you tell Ben about the whole disability thing?" I asked, having no clue who Ben was, but not really caring, either - I trust my sister's references.

"Yeah, and he thinks it's awesome," she replied.


We stopped for Mexican food on the way to the tattoo shop that evening, and I asked my sister if I could do a shot of Southern Comfort to take the nerves off. "No way," she said. "If you've been drinking, they won't tattoo you."

"What about every drunken sailor who's gotten a tattoo?" I asked.

"That's old school," my sister replied. "Modern, clean shops adhere to ethics and practices. Getting tattooed when you're drunk makes your blood run, so they won't tattoo you if you've been drinking."

My sister, who has two or three tattoos, was clearly the resident expert on tattooing. "Fine," I said. "I'll do it sober, with cerebral palsy - just to show you how tough I am."

"You're hardcore," her boyfriend chimed in.

Rolling into the tattoo shop, it was both what I was, and wasn't, expecting. Three younger guys - twenties, maybe early thirties - we're jostling between the counter area, and a couched waiting area. One guy, in camo shorts and some sort of logo T-shirt, sat behind the counter, sketching. Another guy, arms covered in tattoos, sat on the couch, with a laptop, presumably surfing the web. A third guy stepped out from behind the counter, extending his hand to me. "You must be Mark," he said.

"You must be Ben," I replied, noting the huge, "gauged" piercings in his ears, then I glanced past him to the wall behind the counter, oddly vacant of tattoo artwork, but containing framed fine art prints.

"Nope, I'm Ben," said the guy on the couch, setting the laptop aside, standing up to shake my hand. "So, you're looking to do it, are you?"

"Here's what he wants," my sister said, pulling my artwork from my backpack, handing it to Ben.

The guy sketching walks over, and the three guys look at my artwork. "Now, that's awesome," the sketching guy says, with a strong accent.

"Where are you from?" my sister asks, a question he must be sick of.

"London," he says.

"How do you end up working in a Pennsylvania tattoo shop when you're from London?" I asked, knowing that it's yet another question that he must be sick of.

"I'm an apprentice," he replied. "I thought that I'd tattoo in the U.S. for a while, then go home."

"Being that you're from London, do you know what this is?" I asked, pointing at my artwork, my soon-to-be tattoo.

"Sure," he replied. "It's the wheelchair symbol for handicapped parking and such."

"See, once it's tattooed on me, there will be no explanation necessary, no matter where I go in the world," I said, and everyone laughed.

"I'm diabetic, so here's what I got," said the guy with the gauged-out earings, turning over his wrist, revealing a hypodermic needle and the word DIABETIC. "It's a truer bet than wearing a life-alert bracelet."

"Where do you want this?" Ben asked, scanning my upper body like a physician during an initial check-up.

"On my right pec or right shoulder.... Which hurts less?" I asked.

"Definitely the shoulder," they all answered at once.

"Shoulder, it is," I said.

One of the guys handed my sister and me a questionnaire on a clip board, while Ben ran my tattoo through a scanner, the blue wheelchair stick figure seen on handicapped parking spaces and bathroom doors shrunken to fit on my shoulder.  The questionnaire asked all kinds of sordid personal questions, much like the ones used to screen you out when you go to donate blood. Knowing me too well, my sister raced through the questionnaire on my behalf, checking NO to aspects like intravenous drug use and blood transfusions. If I were donating blood, I'd be tempted to lie on the questionnaire and check every box inappropriately just to see the horrified look on the phlebotomist screener's face when she reads that I claim to have engaged in unspeakable acts. But, I didn't dare goofing around on the tattoo shop's questionnaire and risk losing the chance to get a tattoo ten years in the making.

We moved as a group - my sister, her boyfriend, and I - following Ben past a wall of immaculate tattooing booths, peering in each one as I passed, noting that none were in use, and all were immaculately clean and organized. There were no other customers in the shop.

Once in Ben's booth, we watched as he readied his gear, putting on cloth coveralls and latex gloves, as if readying to perform a medical procedure. The tattoo gun was like every other, right down to his placing rubber bands around it, a requirement of every tattoo gun that I've seen, but I have no idea what purpose they serve. And, at that moment, I didn't care.

Ben wiped down my right shoulder with what I assumed was alcohol. "This may be a dumb question, but why'd you pick the handicapped symbol as your tattoo?" he asked.

"Because it's blatantly obvious - it requires no explanation when seen on my shoulder," I said. "And, I think it demonstrates a comfort with my disability. If I have the wheelchair symbol tattooed on my shoulder, I think it shows a clear acceptance and lightheartedness to my situation. I figure, when I show people my tattoo, it'll bring an instant smile - and hopefully it will be an ice-breaker if they have any apprehensions toward my disability."

"Here's how I suggest you play it," Ben said, readying a small plastic cup of blue ink. "When you're talking to a hot chick who has her own tattoo, ask about hers, then show her yours - and, you'll totally be in with her because this is the kind of tattoo that says everything that she needs to know about you. It's sincere, humorous, and original. Chicks eat that stuff up, man. That's what great tattoos are all about."

"You're terrible," my sister says, laughing.

"Are you ready, Mark?" Ben asks.

"Let's do it," I replied.

I tucked my body in the most stable position that I could, and had my sister steady my forearm while her boyfriend stabilized my upper body, creating a solid canvas for Ben. And, the tattoo gun began buzzing a strikingly similar sound to a barber's electric clippers.

As the tattoo needle began penetrating my skin with bright blue ink, it didn't feel in any way as others had described to me: It didn't burn or poke or pinch. In fact, I barely felt pain at all. At worst, it felt like someone was feverishly rubbing my skin with a stiff-bristled toothbrush, to the point of irritation - but, that was it. In fact, no one noted me ever spasming, as I quickly relaxed, undaunted as Ben outlined then shaded in the tattoo, only taking around twenty minutes.

Ben wiped off the finished tattoo with, again, what I assumed was alcohol, and it stung, burned like iodine on a cut. But, what it revealed was a perfect "handicapped symbol," emboldened on my sculpted shoulder - an unmistakable image.

My sister, her boyfriend, and I admired it, smiling and laughing, its finished product both poignant and hilarious all at once. "Simon, come check this out!" Ben yelled down the shop.

The tattooing apprentice from London popped in the booth, glanced at my tattoo, and began laughing. "Dude, that's F-ing awesome," he said, patting me on the back. "Man, I've got to give you credit for getting that tattoo. I guess anyone can be in a wheelchair, but when you're willing to get inked for life to represent it, you're the real deal, man."

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Published 6/09, Copyright 2009, WheelchairJunkie.com