First Ink

Probably since my early twenties I have tossed around the idea of getting a tattoo.  I was pretty into the heavy metal and punk scene with a lot of friends who not only had tattoos and piercings, but often did their own!  So it is really surprising that I haven’t been inked several times over already.  Really it came down to two things that kept me from doing it earlier in life.  One – the pain, more accurately the needles.  I never liked needles; I have almost a quasi phobia about them, so when I found out that is how tattooing works I pretty much dismissed the idea whenever it came up. Two – what do I want on my body forever? I tend to over think a great many things.  But I don’t see that as a bad thing when it comes to what to get permanently drawn on my body.

Fast forward to about a year ago.  My wife Karen and I decided that after running 11 half marathons it was time to put on our big kid running shoes and tackle the quintessential distance in running  – a full marathon, 26.2 miles of ‘fun’.  We also decided that after we cross that finish line we will get tattoos to commemorate the accomplishment.  After months of training, we successfully completed our first full marathon by crossing the finish line of the Philadelphia Marathon on November 22, 2015. I pushed through pain, self doubt and exhaustion to cross that finish line…can I legitimately say I can’t take a ‘little discomfort’ of being tattooed?

I agreed – it is a go. Now what to get inked and where?  Karen has never let any grass grow under her feet for a decision. She had her ideas and placement picked out in no time – ‘Vegan’ in a cool script on her wrist and a cute ‘running girl’ with 26.2 on her ankle.  I, on the other hand, constantly went back and forth with ideas. Though all along I knew I would like the logo of my first half marathon, The ODDyssey, and the logo from my first full, the Philadelphia Marathon. I wanted to incorporate the distances, perhaps in Roman numerals, and probably the dates.   I also want to show that I completed these as a vegan runner, which is important to me.  I want to represent the vegan athlete,  to show we can accomplish  the same things and achieve goals without bringing harm to other living beings. This lead to more thinking, do I get a third tattoo? Do incorporate it into one of the logos?  Both of the logos? Perhaps it was time to stop thinking about it and go find an artist to help me.

After reaching out for a few recommendations from the online Philly vegan community which didn’t pan out, my friend and coworker Janae, who has a few tattoos, said we really need to go visit the shops.  It is the best way to get a feel for the shop and the artist. Especially with it being our first time, being comfortable with the person, the work, and the setting really should be a priority.  While we were going to dinner one night close to home, we noticed several tattoo places along the same street – so we figured why not stop in talk to some artists.  The first couple places were a bit dark and dreary and the guys we talked to about our designs seemed only semi interested in helping first timers. Also, they really had no clue, or even an inclination to find out, what we meant when we asked – ‘How vegan can you make this process?’

I wasn’t holding out much hope for a place close to home but there was one more shop still open and we decided  to go in – American Saints Tattoo.  There we met Cody Dean Swieder. Even though he was tattooing someone when we walked in, he greeted us right away asked how he could help. We explained what we were looking to get, that it was our first time and that we wanted it to be a vegan process.  He took a break from working on the girl in his chair, she being a very good sales rep for him already, telling us how much she enjoys his work!  She showed us what he did before and what he was working on and it looked great.  Cody then went over the process with us and was attentive to our need to ‘veganize’ the process.  Thankfully it seems like the process with him will already be pretty damn vegan!  He uses Fusion Ink, Spirit Paper to transfer the image onto skin, Stencil Stuff for transfer adhesion,  After Inked lubricant and after care – all are vegan friendly! We talked a little more about the designs and he encouraged us to talk to as many artists as possible to make sure we are as comfortable as possible with who we select. We took his card and exited the shop – almost immediately we looked at each other said ‘Yeah I like this dude and would be very comfortable with him tattooing me.’  We looked up his work on Instagram and the quality is great with enough variety in styles that we knew whatever we came up with, it should look great.

In the weeks that followed the initial visit I emailed Cody the logos, Karen’s designs and some thoughts on how we could incorporate ‘Vegan Runner’ into my design.  He said he could blend the two logos together along with a finish line banner or a more traditional tattoo style banner for the ‘Vegan Runner.’ A couple days later, the day of our tattoo appointment I received the design in an email.  f590e10c-37ad-4708-bc10-e1ce78ab0bd1Right away I loved how he incorporated the logos together and I liked the more traditional banner.  Originally I wanted the dates of the races along with the distances, but after looking it over with Karen and Janae we all agreed that the dates can be ditched.  I also wanted to see if he could incorporate the distances in the scroll of the banner – so I emailed him, he said that isn’t a problem and we can tweak the design in the shop tonight.

We got there a few minutes before our appointment time and Cody was finishing up with another customer.  It is a pretty chill atmosphere in  the shop and they play good music!  We hung out and talked with another couple who were waiting for their artist to put some finishing touches on a design. Cody was finished cleaning and prepping his area and was ready to get to work on us…Karen was up first. IMG_4030Her designs were one color and pretty straight forward. First up was ‘Vegan’ on her wrist. Cody sized it and placed it where he thought it looked best, transferred it and started to work. I asked Karen if she wanted to hold my hand and she just shot me a look ‘I am pretty sure I got this covered.’  I know my wife is a bad ass but I had to ask right?  It took only a few minutes to complete and looked totally awesome!IMG_0285

So I get an early scouting report on how it felt.  Karen said not bad – like a TENS unit, little electric pinches. I guess it could be worse right?  So onto her next design – the little running girl on her ankle. IMG_4035Size and placement is set and off Cody goes again. This one takes slightly longer but still goes pretty quick. Karen however reacts a little more – she says it slightly more uncomfortable.  IMG_4038But after a couple of ‘Are you doing OK’s from me and she is all done! Once again this looks fantastic with such clean crisp dark lines!

Well this is it – zero hour.  No where left to go but on the table.   Karen said I will be fine, and even though her in ink is only a few minutes old, said she doesn’t even feel the tattoos now. I am still nervous, and Cody offers one last bit of insight saying, think of me drawing on you when you have a bad sunburn.  OK then!  I get about a 20 minute reprieve while he cleans his equipment and resets his stuff and also redesigns the Vegan Runner banner – dropping the dates and re-positioning the distances. Cody shows me the new design – Fantastic!  We figured the sizing and placement, on my right calf, which seems appropriate for a running  tattoo! IMG_4041 We also decide on the final color palette, he applies the stencil, we check it out and he nailed it on the first try! Now comes time for the needle to meet skin. He says he catches some heat from other artists for his choice of gun, which is small and extremely quiet. I on the other hand have no problem with it; to me this is a very good thing. IMG_0262

He starts his outlines and it feels like a warm discomfort but nothing that is unbearable.  Although I must have apologized a number of times in just a few short minutes for clinching up so much! The anticipation of the hurt was far worse then what I was feeling. Every now and then, seemed like when he would fill in or make the deep curved lines, the pain would be a little more intense. I alternated between trying to relax by breathing normally and clinching a pillow like a ‘hug buddy’ while checking emails and Facebook on my phone. However it the pain was only for an instant, seconds here and there, and certainly bearable. I did think about how I feel during a difficult run or hill repeats – ‘Yes it hurts but focus on the end goal and suck it up!’. The pain will certainly diminish and the end result is by far well worth it! My design probably took an hour and half to complete and I love the end result!


He wrapped it up in plastic wrap and gave me a vegan aftercare product and instructions on how to care for our new ink! It has been a couple of weeks and I still can’t get over that I went through with it and that I have a tattoo. My take is, the pain isn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be and certainly tolerable enough to start planning my second tattoo already.  As far as me over thinking a design, I have come to realize that tattoos are visual snapshot of a particular point in your life and that is just as meaningful as a lifelong struggle or commitment. I sort of feel like I am now part of a club and to be honest, a little bad ass because of it!

For those interested in getting a vegan tattoo, check out this Video from Emily – Bite Size Vegan that goes over how to best ‘veganize’  the process from start to finish!  And if you are in the Philly / Lower Bucks Co. area I encourage you to hit up Cody at and give him a try.  Very talented and super cool to deal with for sure! UPDATE 09/22/2017:  Cody is now a resident artist at Central Tattoo Studio in the NoLibs section of Philly.

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