Previously: In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Jason Ziegler evacuates New Orleans with his friend Brandin Bednar. They wind up in Washington. To catch up on previous episodes go to www.washingtonpost.com/adventures.
Jason Ziegler eases into an old dentist's chair and studies his left forearm, which is blank and pinkish. "You'd think I'd be nervous," he says. "My arm is about to change forever."
Chris Mensah, a D.C. tattoo artist, snaps and wiggles into a pair of latex gloves. After nine years of inking people, he says that he's never seen a woman pass out from the pain. But men, he chuckles, faint all the time.
For Jason, 26, the pain could be particularly intense. The tattoo he's about to receive -- a Japanese motif with a tall geisha and a fat koi fish -- will be massive, rambling over some sensitive parts: the knob of his wrist, the hollow pit of his elbow, his fleshy triceps. In tattoo lingo, it's called a full sleeve. Mensah slicks Jason with soap and, using a razor, swipes away copious arm hair. Jason flaps his unshaved hand. "Thanks a lot, man," he says to Mensah. "You left me with a nasty hair paw."
Tattoos, Jason says, are like potato chips: "You can't get just one." This will be his fifth. He got his last name pricked into his right shoulder at 19. That was followed by a dragon on each shoulder and a tiger on his right forearm. He liked body art so much that, for a while, he wanted to be a tattoo artist.
Drawing had been the only subject that interested him while attending high school outside of Seattle. But that wasn't enough to keep him from quitting school at 16. His mother didn't protest, he says, and his father had never been part of his life. "I got bored with school, so I got my GED and joined the workforce," Jason says. Work felt natural. He'd had a job since he was 13, pulling nails from boards at a construction site. "The foreman wouldn't pay me," Jason recalls. "He just gave me five packs of cigarettes a week . . . I guess I've always been kind of a bad boy. Still am."
After Jason left high school, he worked for a company that recovered bodies from crime scenes. He says his first assignment was picking a murder victim's brain matter off a wall. "God, that was terrible," he recalls, though he stayed with the company off and on until his 25th birthday. Then he suddenly developed a case of wanderlust. He'd spent most of his life around Seattle and believed his stagnation was getting him into trouble: His driv-er's license had been revoked because of a DUI. He moved to Arizona for several months, and eventually to New Orleans for a few weeks before Hurricane Katrina hit. Now he's saved enough cash from his construction job in Washington to buy something he's wanted for a long time: a full sleeve.
Mensah works his needle slowly up Jason's arm. They don't talk much, just listen to reggae, rap and Rage Against the Machine. Then Mensah starts pricking the soft pit of Jason's elbow. "Ohhh," Jason groans, "there's the sweet spot."
"I was wondering when I'd get a reaction," Mensah says softly.
After four hours, Mensah calls it quits. The outline of the sleeve is finished, but the color will have to be added in a few weeks, after the tiny wounds from tonight's session have healed. Jason rises from the dentist's chair and admires the art on his arm. He forks over $260 for the session.
Money well spent? Absolutely, Jason says proudly.
-- Tyler Currie