Fashion designer Benjamin Cho is known for many things: His dazzling fashion creations, his outlandish drawings, his long-running Smiths/Morrissey party, and his uncanny ability to magically appear in magazine pages AT LEAST three times a month (Ben says, “Uh… Guilty as charged”).
What you may not know is that Benjamin is also a master of the ol’ stick ’n’ poke. Out of the gutter, los pervos! We’re referring to homemade tattoos: The old-fashioned, punk-rock DIY ones, done with a needle and thread. Over the years, Cho has performed dozens of these tattoos on his close friends (“And ONE random acquaintance,” he huffs), and he is here, along with 23-year-old makeup artist and willing volunteer Alexis Page, to show us how it’s done. Take it away, Ben…
First we’ll need supplies. Number one is a pin or needle. I thank God every day that I am a fashion designer, just so I can own so many pins. ONLY KIDDING! We all know there is no God. Anyhoo, there is an abundance of little pricks to be found EVERYWHERE. Hundreds of them. Occasionally even to be found penetrating my skin. Uh… That sounded completely ribald. We’re talking pins here! Any straight pin, gay pin, sewing needle, or safety pin will suffice. Other supplies you will need include: Cotton thread for harboring the ink, a cup of water (or in this case a teacup, which I couple with a matching saucer for an extra touch of class), a nonpermanent pen for drawing and redrawing the image or script, Q-tips or a rag, and a quality ink. Actual tattoo ink, I find, is the most effective as it does not have a tendency to bleed or fade. However it is not easily available, so I would also suggest using an India or a Sumi ink. Some people have said that they actually prefer these choices. Personally, I think it is only because they never actually used real tattoo ink and are being foolishly peremptory. Come to think of it, could I be doing the same thing? No way. You will also need one other very important thing: Live, willing flesh! (Note: Throw in a pair of latex gloves if you’re giving a tat to someone “live, willing, and positive.”) And finally, I reluctantly agree to allow prescription painkillers for said live, willing flesh. Alexis here decided to pop half a Xanax. I normally would not encourage any painkillers other than alcohol, because it seems a bit lily-livered and honestly I’m a bit of a sadist. OK, I’m an ABSOLUTE sadist. If I wore leather (yay Peta) and could grow ample facial hair (boo Korea), I’d be harnessed, studded, and replete with handlebar mustache. Daddy Cho Cho Bear. So anyways, I comply with the pills, imagining a potentially woozy, potentially drooling Alexis as a source of potential amusement. In addition, I thought the no-booze slant would add some responsible sensitivity to the half of downtown NYC denizens who are in “the program.” A tat is NOT worth a Zero Days. Now draw out what you want tattooed. In this case, Alexis has decided to get “Rosemary’s Baby” tattooed on her right hip. Alexis’s mother’s name is Rosemary and whenever Alexis was misbehavin’, her mother would say, “You really are Rosemary’s baby!” And… Uh… THEN, little clairvoyant Alexis would respond, “Well, that makes YOU Mia Farrow! And your future husband is gonna fuck AND Polaroid your naked adopted daughter!” Then her mother would one-up little Alexis by telling her, “Well, guess what?! YOU are adopted! Have fun!” Not to be outdone, Alexis would throw down the final words, “I know! I DO! I’m friggin’ clairvoyant!” Then they would crumple into a pile of laughs and hugs… And a touch of lost innocence. For those who seek the truth, heed only the first three sentences of the above.
So continuing on with the tattooing. Our next step is to sterilize the needle by holding it over a flame until the tip glows red. Unless you have the calloused fingers of a hot, hunky chef such as, say, Anthony Bourdain, hold the opposite end of the needle with a cloth. When the needle has cooled, begin wrapping the thread around it. Start at approximately 1/8" from the tip and continue along for about 1/4", wrapping back and forth until it forms a perfect ink-absorbing oval shape. Tie off.
Draw the tattoo on with a nonpermanent pen. Fortunately, my penmanship is UNBELIEVABLY flawless, miraculous almost, and REEKS of flair. Which is the only thing that reeks seeing as my shit don’t smell.
Ensure that the tattoo-ee is 100-percent pleased with the placement and size of the design. You can make that 80-percent pleased for those annoyingly indecisive types. Alexis was not that way, by the by. Pour some ink into the saucer, put on a movie you’ve seen before—we opted for The Dark Crystal, because… Hey, we should have put on Rosemary’s Baby! Meh… Whatever. And now, let the poking begin! Alexis is nervous. The first delicious poke. “Oh! That didn’t feel like how I thought it was gonna feel,” says Alexis. “It’s nicer than with a tattoo gun. The noise of the gun drives me crazy. This doesn’t hurt at all!” A tad cavalier much? The poking continues for a while, calmly. Suddenly Alexis sucks in her breath, then comes this exchange: Alexis: “OH MY GOD! What the fuck was that?!” Me: “We’re getting closer to your hip bone, and the skin is tauter. Does it hurt that bad?” Alexis: “I hate you, Ben Cho.” Hehe. I know. The first R is complete. “Jesus, that’s all we have so far?!” says Alexis. “I need a beer.” So much for Zero Days. Beer break. My technique actually changes depending on how inebriated I am when administering the tattoo. Here, I am being overly careful because I am completely sober and thus am fretting over each and every dot. This is because I cannot blame alcohol for any stray dots poked. Speaking of that, there was one late night in Miami when I gave a tattoo to my friend Dan Colen. It was 5 AM and a large group of friends had gathered in our hotel room and—let’s just say we were heavily on the tipsy side. Anyway, there were a few moments where I had pushed the needle in and we’d be hysterically laughing about whatever, then I’d look down and the entire needle, thread and all, would be in his chest! Then… Blood everywhere! But then we’d continue as if nothing happened. I blame the alcohol. Throughout the tattoo, l will go back and darken some lighter parts. When the skin begins to get puffy it makes the dots look smaller. Therefore, I wait until the swelling is more even before I go over certain parts. Alexis: “It feels like you’re giving me an abortion!” Me: “No, it feels more like your fifth abortion. You’re kinda numb to it, but it still hurts.” The beer and half a Xanax don’t seem to be doing the trick. We add some codeine to the mix. Barring a few dear sober pals (no pun intended… OK, intended), almost every time I’ve stuck and poked my friends, much liquor was involved, making them significantly and comfortably numb. Oftentimes it was the result of, say, an “emotionally rife” night out. Come to think of it, I believe all the tattoos I’ve given have been of loved ones, dead ones, or something personal and telltale. So, liquor, even as it makes one less smart, definitely makes it smart less. But in this case, Alexis had to resort to painkillers.
Alexis finally appears more relaxed. Then her mom calls. “Hi Mom, my friend is giving me a tattoo right now. It says ‘Rosemary’s Baby.’ Yes, it’s permanent.” I grab the phone and in an attempt to mollify Mama say, “It’s beautiful, Rosemary!” I think it worked! The first time I ever did a stick ’n’ poke was about five years ago in San Francisco. One of my bests, Brian Degraw, and I were out on the town with our pals Wong and MOB drinking vial after vial of a liquor called Underberg. Warning: Underberg is Damage Juice! It is a digestive alcohol that tastes like concentrated Jägermeister with hints of Band-Aids. While it may soothe your upset stomach, it will also continue to rape your brain repeatedly until you have a mental disorder. We unwittingly downed vials aplenty, then proceeded to thieve pool cues from the bar and use them to play drums on warehouse windows for several blocks down the street. After shattering our fair share of panes and playing trash-can djembe, my Underberg-eyes fixated on this orange construction netting, which I wrapped around my body and then rolled my way down Van Ness in. Ultimately, after such an impassioned evening, we were feeling the love, and we came home and tattooed each other’s initials on our arms. That was the first time.
Just one letter to go. After three hours, Alexis is successfully stuck and poked. Voilà and tada! The script I used is intentionally dotty, like a marquee. It looks starry and rather romantic and stylish. This is the way I did my very first one, and it has incidentally become my signature style. Pun intended. Ben: “Whenever I’ve tattooed someone, I feel as though it creates a unique bond.” Alexis: “I’m really happy with my new tattoo and I feel great. It’s like endorphins are shooting out of my body. I feel like going out and fighting someone!”