When most people hear the phrase "free tattoo party," they react like you said "puppy kicking parade." Tattoos are still considered inadvisable or rash (if no longer permanent career suicide) by most Americans, but to get them outside an official facility is on the same self-destructively stupid level as "heroin snorting party" in the popular imagination. The first 100 pictures that jump into your head are internet slideshows of horrible accidents, misspellings and obvious double-entendres. But when some artist friends invited me to such a party last weekend, I jumped at the chance.

The party was part of semi-official programming for an art gallery in Manhattan's Chinatown. Searching for stuff to do that would build community and encourage the co-production and sharing of art, the organizers flipped through the standard workshop ideas but were unsatisfied. Radical art should be more participatory than an exhibition, and more fun than a lesson. I don't remember who first suggested free tattoos, but my friend Elysa said everyone thought it was a great idea.

Even if free tattoos are horrifying in respectable American culture, people have been tattooing themselves and each other with whatever tools were available for about as long as there have been people. The punk teenagers you see walking around with full sleeves don't pay hundreds of dollars each time they get a new design done. Friends (or friends of friends) with tattoo guns and at least a bit of artistic skill have been and will continue to be a key part of any inked-up subculture.

Using appropriate precautions for tattooing isn't actually that difficult. It includes using new needles, new pools of ink for every tattooee, wrapping the gun in plastic each time, and using new plastic gloves. A donations jar attempted to cover supplies, which are way cheaper than a professional sitting. Elysa traced out the designs onto the temporary tattoo paper at her own pace, chatting with everyone else about books and politics over the buzz of two guns in the corner. Another friend got a Twin Peaks coffee cup with the banner: "Bob Before Decaf" on her leg. I got my own coffee-related design below, I think it's my favorite one yet.




Malcolm is a writer based in the Bay Area and the Life/Art channel editor at Shareable. His work has been featured on Alternet, KQED.org, The Los Angeles Free Press, and