This week's Chicagoan: David Allen, tattoo artist | Chicagoans | Chicago Reader

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This week's Chicagoan: David Allen, tattoo artist

"I hear about their journey—thinking they're gonna die, losing both breasts. What do you do with that information?"


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A first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford.

"How much it hurts depends on the person. What pain have you experienced in your life? It also depends on the placement on the body. The worst places are your ribs, or the top of your feet, or the top of your hand. Your neck.

"Face tattoos are rare. If a tattoo artist wanted that, I'd do it. If it was someone else, we're gonna talk. I'm not your dad and not your therapist, but I'm gonna talk to you. You can't get a job at Taco Bell looking like that. Not that you want one, but you know what I mean. If you're the lead singer of a band, that's OK.

"Tattoo artists deal with people in pain all day. They read you. I know if you're under duress based on how you're responding. If you have to go to the bathroom, we can tell.

"If someone's in a lot of pain, I'll talk to 'em. I'll walk 'em through it. I'll lighten my hand a little bit, or if I've been in an area too long, I'll go to another area. I'll make sure I'm wiping 'em with a wet paper towel and not a dry one. Or we can take a break.

"My left leg is my practice leg. I have a Bernini sculpture, I have my French bulldog, and I have an X for my son Xavier. The first tattoo I did on someone else was on my old roommate. It was from a Tom Waits song, 'The Piano Has Been Drinking,' so it was a piano. I figured it was drunk, so it could be a little wavy.

"What someone is choosing for a tattoo, it's not my place to judge that. I won't tattoo anything hate-related, but other than that, it's your tattoo, not mine.

"While I'm tattooing you, the needle is two layers into your skin, just about. Your skin heals over it, and you're viewing the tattoo through the top layer of skin. Your body tries to eat it, but the molecules in the ink are too big. When people get laser tattoo removal, what the laser is doing is breaking up the size of the molecule, so your body can eat it.

"For some of the women I tattoo, I cover up mastectomy scars. A lot of them come in with their head down. I hear about their journey—thinking they're gonna die, losing both breasts. What do you do with that information? Do you just act like you care, or do you actually pay attention? That's a living, breathing person that matters. I tell 'em, 'Look what we're able to do, how we're gonna draw the eye away.' In our heads, there's a default round shape to a breast, so we'll create a swooping line, usually floral, that corrects the form.

"I'm booked for a while. About a year. I have an assistant. It sounds pretentious. But I'm really bad at scheduling, and she's not."

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