Paying For Ink And Intimacy

by Sonya Mann

My first tattoo cost $300. So far, it is my only tattoo. Like most people who have one tattoo but plan to get more, I have a mental list of what I want, in what order: A rabbit drawn in the style of Beatrix Potter, on my left upper arm. The emblem of a rose window, imitating the glorious stained glass at Notre Dame, between my shoulder blades. More words and flourishes on my ribs. The conservative estimate for all of this body art is around $1,000.

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the lowest hourly expectation for tattooing, from a shop with five stars on Yelp, anyway, is $150. I think that’s reasonable, although bizarrely it’s less than you would pay an escort. Indelibly mark my skin? Hundred-and-a-half should be good. Deign to have sex with me? THREE HUNDRED. I mean, I understand why. As a tattoo artist, you’re much less likely to be arrested and/or ostracized because of your work. Or murdered by a customer.

I paid for two thirds of my tattoo. The extra $100 was kicked in by a friend. An older man friend, if you get what I’m saying. Although he wasn’t formally my sugar daddy, that was the role he played. We didn’t know each other especially well, but we had gone on several outings. Once on the Santa Cruz beach boardwalk, he cajoled me into doing karaoke and grinned while I sang a stilted rendition of “Hey Jude.”

I was only 19, so at the beachside bar he bought a shot along with his margarita; I surreptitiously dumped it in my Diet Coke. He told me about being bilked by a former mistress. I was sympathetic. I told him it was a shame that someone would do that to such a nice guy.

My first tattoo, the one partly subsidized by that “nice guy,” is a quote from my favorite book, positioned over a big pink bow. The bow is drawn old-school, like the pin-up mermaid on a sailor’s bicep. The words above it are plain capital letters, no fancy font. They read, “Lo. Lee. Ta.” Spelled-out syllables from the first page of Lolita, a beautiful and heartbreaking book about a despicable academic who kidnaps and rapes a young girl over the course of her early adolescence.

I get a lot of flak for this tattoo when people find out about it. The positioning — between my breasts — and the lush feminine imagery of the bow are read as a sexual celebration of Lolita’s evil protagonist, not as an ironic statement about being a woman and fetishizing your own debasement. You know, whatever. People are justifiably weirded out.

Thankfully the tattoo is easily concealed, so I don’t have to talk about it often. Suffice it to say: I think Lolita is a masterwork of literature, of language, of storytelling. As a writer and reader it is phenomenally important to me; the themes of the book resonate with my experience of womanhood. I wouldn’t even be explaining this, since it’s not the point, but I kinda have to tell you what the tattoo is and then I have to say why, so you don’t judge me too harshly.

I gave the artist $200 in cash and my friend, the older man, paid the leftover $100. He came to the shop with me on a whim, and then contributed the money, unasked, because otherwise I would have had to go around the corner to the ATM at the liquor store. Two hours of being stabbed repeatedly — that’s how tattoos work — got really painful toward the end. Even though a tattoo gun is a needle and the punctures are shallow, after two hours I was exhausted. The friend drove me home.

Later he was angry, or perhaps “disappointed,” “hurt,” because I didn’t hang out with him for the rest of the afternoon. The $100 that he chipped in became a point of contention, a whole big thing. We never saw each other again. I thought he understood our financial arrangement; he thought that I understood the emotional arrangement he wanted. Actually, I did understand it. What I understood was that the financial arrangement was predicated on me pretending that the emotional connection existed. It wasn’t worth $100 to conquer my fatigue and spend the rest of the day humoring him.

When you pay a tattoo artist, the transaction is very straightforward. They bill you for their time, with the tacit understanding that it’s expensive because of their expertise. You pay up as soon as the service is rendered. Escorting is much the same, although the premium is for the dangers that I mentioned in the beginning, and you hand over the cash before getting any action.

Compensating a sugar baby is trickier. Sugar “relationships” are not just lengthier versions of an escort-client encounter. Often the sugar daddy is buying an emotional fantasy, which is made awkward because the sugar baby can’t acknowledge the farce without destroying it. Here’s the setup: “Make a show of liking me, and I’ll pay you. But if you do a good job, I will forget how this works. I will be fooled. I’ll start to think that you’re my real friend, even my real lover. You will have to drop the act. When the wool is yanked from my eyes, I’ll be very upset. You swindled me.”

If the sugar baby gives the sugar daddy what he wants, inevitably he will discover the artifice, and feel cheated. He won’t realize the absurdity of this reaction.

Experiencing the dynamic of purchased affection marked me, embellishing my attitude toward men like my tattoo embellishes my body. It’s hard to avoid seeing debt and payment in every flirtation. I wish the social labor amounted to more than a subsidized Lolita tattoo.

Sonya is a Millennial who likes to write about selling stuff to other Millennials. Also her feelings.

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