Cat on my Shoulder

Cat on My Shoulder
A ‘Cat the Tat’ story


For five years, I felt like a cartoon character with an angel hovering over one shoulder and a devil over the other.

The devil cackled: ‘Do it, Leigh – surrender to your wild side!!!’

While the angel would caution:  ‘No, Leigh – they hurt, and they last forever!!’

The subject of this indecision?  Tattoos.

From the age of 20, I yearned for one.  As an art form, they fascinated me.  There was something exquisite and rebellious about them; they seemed like the ultimate form of self-expression.  

But my boring old angel always prevailed – until January 2002, when I finally resolved to go for it.

I wanted a cat, on my right shoulder.  I had thought carefully about the location: ankles were too bony; arms too conspicuous (could scupper chances at future job interviews).  The shoulder was perfect: I could flaunt my unfading feline in strappy dresses or conceal it when the occasion demanded.

I selected a local studio from Yellow Pages and drove over one Saturday.  It was very important to me to get a feel for a studio and its staff, having heard horror stories of bleeding and pain from grimy needles administered by equally grimy tattooists in backstreet joints.

But I knew as soon as I entered the unassuming little building (which, from the outside, resembled a corner shop not unlike Arkwright’s) that I had made absolutely the right choice.  It was as antiseptically clean as a dentist’s surgery.  They were choosy too.  A sign warned potential clientele that this firm would under no circumstances ‘do’ faces, necks or hands, or ‘persons under the influence of alcohol.’

I spent a good hour leafing through the sheafs of designs.  There were literally thousands.  A wad of these laminated sheets was piled high on the waiting room table; yet more sheets concealed every square centimetre of wall.

Every conceivable taste was catered for.  One could have literally anything, from an obscene drawing to one of Winnie the Pooh (or an obscene drawing of Winnie the Pooh).  There were hearts, flowers, daggers, Grim Reapers….and there were cats.  Black, white, ginger, tabby, Garfields, Sylvesters; sitting, standing, with claws bared….

I hadn’t gone along with a particular design in mind, but plumped for a ginger, fluffy-tailed, grinning moggie, which the girl there informed me would cost £20 and take a bearable 15 minutes to complete. No appointment was necessary, I could merely return when I was feeling brave.  

‘Will it hurt?’ I whimpered, getting to the crux.

‘No,’ she insisted, ‘it’s more of an irritant than a pain.’

The shoulders, apparently, were among the least delicate bodily zones – the most delicate being the chest, bum and tummy!

When I spoke with my dad on the phone that week, his response to the news his only daughter was getting tattooed was merely ‘Oh’ – but a very loaded ‘Oh.’

In Dad’s mind, tattoos were the preserve of sailors, criminals and Ozzy Osbourne.  Then there was the danger factor.  But in this age of AIDS, I assured him, needles are sterilised and changed for each new customer.

Three days later, I drove back there after work.  Even as I parked my car in the grimy side street and strolled in, I could hardly believe I was there at all.  Was I totally insane?  Well, yes.  It was a completely out of character exploit for me.

As I walked in, at 5:30, a chap and the girl I saw previously were tattooing one customer each.  They operated on a first come first serve basis, and the man told me I would be looking at an hour’s wait for my ‘turn.’

It was on the tip of my tongue to respond, ‘In that case, I’ll go away and come back’ – but then leg it!  I imagined this comedic scene, with me leaving the building in one frame, and then the next sound to be heard being the cough and roar of my hastily departing car.  I came that close to bottling out – but somehow my legs propelled me across the waiting room and calmly guided me to a chair.

During my lengthy wait, it was all I could do to stop myself bolting for the door.  I was taking such an enormous, irreversible step!  I could not escape the thought that I would still have this distinguishing mark when I was 85.   Whilst my decision to have it done was hardly spur of the moment, it was still scary and kind of bizarre to know I was truly going through with it.

Sitting in that waiting room was torment.  The sound of the needle, a piercing, drilling drone that evoked images of torture instruments, set my teeth right on edge. 

I was in a prime spot for people-watching, though.  A girl who was also having her first tattoo, and also on her right shoulder, turned so queasy that she had to be given a cup of water!  This did not inspire confidence.  

After her, a little girl, no more than ten, had her belly button pierced (but she seemed to feel no pain).  Another girl had a Chinese symbol, yet again on the right shoulder (obviously a popular tattoo spot) and another had chosen a purple Celtic swirl for the base of her spine.  

There was a convivial atmosphere; reminiscent of a club, with members swapping stories: what they were having done, where they were having it, whether it was their first one, etc.

As the clock hands inched past 6:30, I knew my time was approaching.  Now was my final chance to dash for that door.  But I knew I would kick myself if I turned chicken.  I wanted this tattoo!  Even if it did hurt like hell, what was 15 minutes of wincing compared with something that was going to be there forever?

The girl having the Celtic pattern was in the chair now.   It was her ‘first time’ too.  She was around the same age as me, and just as jittery.  

While she was being done,’ I paced the waiting room, pretending to examine the designs that papered the walls; contemplating what I might have for my next one (supposing I survived this ordeal!).

I dispatched a shaky text message to my then boyfriend, now husband, which read simply: ‘OH GOD, I’M NEXT!!!’

Finally, at 7:00, the girl was finished.  Hers had hurt, she said, but mine probably wouldn’t because I had chosen a less bony location.

And now I was in The Chair.

I could almost hear the Mastermind theme music. 

The amazing thing was that once I entered the ‘surgery’ itself, my terror magically evaporated and all these positive thoughts were dashing around my head, pushing away the frightened ones. 

After all, I was there because I wanted to be – nobody was forcing me to have a cat permanently emblazoned on my shoulder.  I was right to be excited.  This was one of those momentous, anecdotal events that you remember for the rest of your life.

I WAS GETTING A TATTOO – wasn’t I big and bwave?!

The man imprinted my little smiling cat on to a tiny square of tracing paper and slapped it on my shoulder, leaving a black outline.  He asked me to check the mirror to make sure it was positioned where I wanted.  It was.

And then the needlework commenced!!

This was it!!!

That evil-sounding needle – which did not sound half so evil close to – was now touching my skin.  The chap used it to draw around the outline in black, then filled it in with a mixture of orange, yellow and red to give the moggie a ginger coat.   

The question everyone asks me is, ‘Did it hurt?’ – indeed this was the first thing I wanted to know myself prior to acquiring the thing.

And the answer is I wouldn’t say it hurt exactly – it was more of a sting, the kind you experience when you cut yourself.  The kind that makes you jump, but doesn’t make you scream.  My right arm was numb and heavy whilst the needle was touching me – but afterwards, I felt absolutely nothing.  

The tattooist slapped a sheet of cling film over ‘tat,’ which I was to keep on for just 40 minutes.  That was it!  No bandage was required, and I suffered no scabs or bleeding.  

Afterwards, I felt this enormous sense of pride – as though I had accomplished some truly heroic feat.   I harboured this mad urge to yell to the world: ‘I’ve got a tattoo!!!’  It was all I could do to stop myself hammering on somebody’s door to announce it.

As a postscript to the above: I originally planned to get another one, possibly a tortoise, but subsequently decided against it.  I figured adding another tat would take away the specialness of that one, and thus the ‘cat on my shoulder’ remains my unique piece of body art.