Getting inked

Before my roommate, Cathryn, got her tattoo this past Wednesday, she drew her tattoo everywhere. At the time, I had no idea why I kept finding this odd, 3-pronged Celtic design scribbled on scrapes of paper and Post-it notes. I found little cut outs of it on our floors, in my room and on our bathroom mirror. After consulting my other roommates about the mystery, I found out that this was the tattoo Cathryn was planning to get.

On the way to the tattoo parlor, I talked to Cathryn about her tattoo and what it meant to her. This odd shape is a Celtic “triquetra,” which is most commonly considered a symbol for the Holy Trinity. But to Cathryn, the meaning is very different.

“I wanted to get this tattoo because a lot of things in my life come in threes. The things I always tell myself to keep me strong are in threes, like the quote ‘love of truth, good and beauty.’ Also, part of the original meaning of the triquetra is ‘mind, body and spirit.'” Cathryn’s reasons did not end there. “On the other hand, I like it because a symbol like this can mean whatever you want; your life can redefine certain meanings,” said Cathryn.

When we entered Gil’s Tattoo Odyssey in Northeast Philadelphia, the first thing I noticed was the gigantic 20-pound cat curled up on the floor. This was Sammy, just one of the many elements of Gil’s that makes the atmosphere seem more like a comfortable basement in the ’70s than a normal tattoo parlor you might find on South Street. And Gil is your gruff yet lovable, tell-it-like-it-is uncle. Tattoo Odyssey is only open to the public for making appointments on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, so the place was empty and quiet when we arrived.

Before Cathryn got inked, she had a conference with Gil. I sat in on their talk of exactly how the tattoo should look, where she wanted it and what colors she wanted. Gil was extremely helpful and patient while Cathryn explained her idea; he drew the tattoo perfectly in a matter of minutes. After their conference, Gil created a thermal print-out of his drawing, a sort of sticker that transferred the image on to Cathryn’s body.

Cathryn became very nervous just before the needle punctured her skin for the first time. “It’s so strange that this is going to be a pain I’ve never felt before; it’s completely unique to getting a tattoo,” Cathryn said before lying back on the table. According to Gil, “the pain might feel like an electric shock or bee stings.” But when the needle finally touched Cathryn’s skin, she was surprised at how little it hurt. “It didn’t really hurt at all. I actually wanted it to hurt more, then it’d be more like the complete tattoo experience package,” Cathryn said afterwards.

During the tattooing process, we talked with Gil on and off. I wanted to know what went on in his head as he tattooed someone.

“I get nervous before I start every tattoo, and I’ve been doing this for 21 years,” he explained. “I try not to focus on whatever is going on around me. I hear things, but I’m not listening. My focus is on the tattoo. And not the whole tattoo, just the section I’m working on at the time.”

As for Cathryn, her mind was clear as she got her tattoo. “I’m in a good place,” she said. “I feel like I’m in a zone.” Although he stays focused, Gil likes conversation “to take the edge off.” Our conversation ranged from the death of the Pope, to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, to the most over-done tattoos (the Tasmanian Devil was huge in the 80s).

The process of getting Cathryn’s one and a half inch triquetra took about two hours. Cathryn is pleased with the results of her tattoo and Gil is certain that “she’ll be back.”

“I can’t wait ’til I think of another tattoo idea so I can come back,” she said as we walked out the door.

Beth Huxta can be reached at

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