The following is a true account of my experience getting a tattoo from Matthew Mattison at The Little Tattoo Shoppe in Portland, Oregon.
The first thing I noticed when I got in the cold dark car was how shaky my hands were. My arm was smarting and my heart pounding. What just happened I thought, what just happened? My breath coming faster, making a small circle in the foggy window. Then, Drive, just drive, quickly.
As I made my way down the avenue so many emotions flooded me. Shame, anger, confusion, hurt. How had I misread this situation so badly? How could I be such an idiot? So naive. Did I bring it on myself? My cheeks burned with heat, my eyes burned with tears. I felt responsible, taken advantage of, victimized.
I had been getting tattoos from this man for years. I had recommended him to friends and strangers. Just a month before, on the anniversary of my mother’s death, I sat with him as he tattooed a beautiful portrait of my mother on my arm as my dad and brother watched from the dark burgundy sofa in his waiting area.
Getting tattoos was never something I took lightly. Ever since I was a child I’d secretly wanted a tattoo. I thought they were beautiful and interesting, like wearing a story on your skin. But I knew that people had negative associations with tattoos. I waited until I was out of college to get my first ink. One day I hopped into my tiny white Toyota and drove down to Venice Beach. After rollerblading along the oceanfront, past street performers, drummers and wildly colored murals, I stopped at a tiny tattoo shop and had a dime sized sun tattooed on my ankle.
It wasn’t until years later and two cross-country moves that I decided I wanted another tattoo. I thought long and hard about what would be most meaningful to me, I discussed it with my husband, I researched tattoo artists and their different styles. Finally, after hearing M’s name mentioned several times I stopped by the shop where he was working at the time. As I climbed the long flight of stairs up to the attic where he tattooed, I could hear thumping music and the buzz of the tattoo machines.
M is a tall, broad man who usually wears black jeans and a black t-shirt. He has long black, wavy hair that is lightly streaked with silver strands. He has a broad face and light eyes. What I’ve learned about him over the years: we are the same age, born in the same month just days apart. He was a minority where he grew up and thus suffered a great deal of prejudice and, at times, violence. M was raised by his birth mother and stepfather. He learned to lie, and lie well, as a child to protect himself. He didn’t meet his real father until he was an adult and it was a disappointing experience. He is married and claims to be in love with his wife.
Every time I have sat for a tattoo with M, we’ve spent the time talking about his life, my life, and what it’s like to be a tattoo artist. I’ve always been fascinated by the tattoo culture. The last two times I saw M he told me about his more wild clients and about some of his married female clients who wanted to show him their breasts and offered to go down on him. That these things actually happened blew me away. I asked a lot of questions. How did these women justify this behavior? And, How do you go home to your wife after having some other woman go down on you?
M had all of the answers worked out. He claimed that these women just wanted to spice up their sex lives by having a safe extra-marital encounter. Would you feel guilty for getting a massage? he asked me as he outlined a flower on my forearm. What your husband doesn’t know won’t hurt him, he justified. I don’t tell my wife because I love her and it would ruin our marriage.
All of these conversations had always occurred during the day, while the shop was filled with people coming in and out requesting appointments, pouring over photos of his work. It felt safe. I thought we were simply discussing fantasies, and yes, I did share a couple of fantasies of my own, but always told him that they were just that–something I thought about in my imagination, something that made me want my husband all the more. Nothing I would ever actually do.
So when I went to M’s new shop in northeast Portland to have the finishing touches done on the portrait of my mother, I was unprepared for what happened. It was a 6pm appointment on a Friday night. I’d never been to his shop in the evening. When I walked in the tiny reception area was packed. There were two other tattoo artists finishing up their clients.
M said hello to me and asked me to remind him what we would be working on during this appointment. I told him we’d be finishing up the portrait and that I had a $100 to work with. He smiled and said, Well, we can figure out alternate forms of payment if you go overtime.
I laughed at M and waited on the sofa as one by one everyone left the shop. I thought This is weird, I’ve never been here at night and then, Oh it’s fine, it’s M. First mistake. There was the tiniest alarm bell that went off in my head and I ignored it. This is someone I’d known for years, someone who had met my husband, my dad, my brother. He had never given me reason to think he was not trustworthy
When everyone was gone, M sat down next to me on the sofa and put his arm around me. Again I thought Weird, what’s up with this? He said softly, looking straight ahead, I don’t know if you have enough money for this tattoo, but we can work something out. I laughed him off, stood up quickly and pointed to his work station. Let’s get to work, man.
I sat down at his station and M immediately steered the conversation toward sex and fantasies. At first, thinking that this was our usual banter, I played along. Second mistake. Before I knew it, M was sweating and fondling himself over his jeans. Would you ever suck my cock? he asked in a joking tone. In a terse voice I said, I’m sure it’s lovely, but no, I’m married and I’ve got three small kids and I’m not up for anything like that. No way.
I then tried to change the subject. I started talking quickly about my husband’s vasectomy and how it may or may not have been successful and about my fear of getting pregnant. Pregnancy, I thought, that has got to be the least sexy topic in the world. I’ll talk about that. I talked on and on about my kids and pregnancy and he continued to work on my arm as I kept my eyes away from the obvious bulge in his pants.
But again he steered the conversation back to sex and his proposition, urging me to try something new, telling me that my husband would never know, that it was no big deal. My feeling of dread and discomfort grew as I continued to try to talk about neutral subjects. My brain was telling me that this was not right, but my heart, the part of that had grown close to this man by both the hours of time we’d spent together and the intimacy of our conversations kept telling me that it was all a joke, this couldn’t be for real.
But then M handed me his phone and asked me to adjust his Facebook settings because his ringer was going off every time someone commented on his wall. When I turned over the phone I saw a collection of twenty or more videos of young women in various stages of undress giving him head. Most of the women were topless, some pierced, some tattooed. I don’t want to see this I said curtly, putting the phone down. Oh, come on, he said, it’s hot. And now you’ve seen my cock. That makes me so happy.
FUCK, I thought. Fuck, this is bad. I wanted to get out, but he had my arm pinned down and had a needle to my skin. He had locked the door of the shop and pulled the curtains. The street was dark, and the pub next door was loud. No one would hear me even if I screamed. Keep it light, keep it light, I thought. I was afraid that if I got up abruptly he would get even more aroused and come after me. I was afraid that if I got aggressive with him he would get violent. This person that I thought I knew was definitely not who I thought he was. My head was swimming.
Look, he said, why don’t you just sit there and watch me jerk off? I shook my head no. We don’t have feelings for each other, he went on, his forehead shiny with sweat, I mean, you’re a groovy lady and everything, but there are no feelings between us, so what’s the big deal? I said, M, just finish the tattoo. I’m not going to touch your cock, look at your cock or do anything like that, so just drop it. He stopped, looked at my face and said, But your lips are so pretty, and you have such nice teeth…
For another thirty minutes he continued to harass me. At one point he even started to unbutton his pants. I realized that this person whom I’d come to trust and to even think of as a friend didn’t care about me at all. I was just another object, another woman who might be manipulated into giving him sexual favors. All of the hours he’d spent telling me about his life, about his pets and his wife, were only to build trust, to make me believe he was a decent guy. But I could see by the sheer number of videos he had saved in his iPhone Vault app that there were many young women who fell for this manipulation. My heart hurt for these women.
The tattoo was finally complete. M followed me to the front door, asked one more time if I would just sit in the corner and watch him jerk off. I have never been so happy to feel the weight of a lock in my hands as I turned it and walked out of that shop
I clutched my arms to my chest, felt my arm that was covered with cotton and tape under my jacket. The tattoo of my mother’s young face, of her beautiful, warm eyes under my hand. I would have this experience attached to that portrait forever. I would have the memory of this betrayal forever. My hands shook, my heart pounding. I felt a chill on my hot face, saw my breath on the cold air. I got into my car and drove home.
After receiving vitriolic emails from Matthew Mattison’s friends that claim I fictionalized what happened at The Little Tattoo Shoppe and express disbelief that he could have behaved this way, I have decided to include in the comments section Matthew’s apology and admission of wrong doing.