I Got a Free Nirvana Tattoo at a Record Store in Long Island


I was told by my roommate the night before that passing out would be “uncool.” “You’re getting a cool person tattoo,” she said half-jokingly, half-concerned. “If you pass out or cry, that would defeat the purpose.”

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Twenty years ago, the line “teenage angst has paid off well” opened Nirvana’s final full-length album In Utero. For Kurt Cobain, at the time, it had. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” helped push the band to the top of the late ’91 charts and into almost mythological esteem in popular music.

At 21, the remnants of my teenage angst paid off in the form of a free tattoo from a pop-up shop in a record store on the release date of In Utero‘s reissue box set. September 24, 2013 had been my second attempt at getting the band’s squiggly-lined, dead-eyed smiley face logo inked somewhere on my body. A year to the day before, the twenty-first anniversary of Nevermind, an arbitrary call for celebration on my part, I gathered some friends and headed to a well-reviewed tattoo parlor in the East Village without an appointment or enough will to actually go through with it. Unsurprisingly, they were booked for the evening, and I successfully dodged the pleas of my friends to just go somewhere along the trash-covered, crust punk infested stretch of St. Mark’s to go through with my plan before just calling it a night.

Trapped on the LIRR heading to Babylon, there were no more excuses. I had already skipped two classes and was stuck going through with an idea I had made for myself two years prior when I first began considering the tattoo. A few weeks ago news outlets announced the special trio of promotional tattoo pop-up shops in Long Island, Seattle, and Los Angeles. This was no longer an idea, it was fate.

Entering The East Coast site for the free tattoo event took place at a West Babylon record store, open since 1971, called Looney Tunes. A friend and I arrived almost exactly at noon when the store opened for business. They stopped tattooing at 8 p.m. Anniversary editions of In Utero were displayed near the entrance where participants could purchase anything from the remastered disc to the massive box set in order to get a qualifying yellow wrist band for a tattoo. Immediately the sound of a buzzing needle in the back filled up the store.

On an elevated stage behind rows of new and used vinyl and stacks of CDs, Jason and Adam of Brooklyn’s Three Kings Tattoos were stationed at their tables already inking up two of the first participants of the day. In line in front of us for tattoos were four people–a modest (though understandable) turn out for this type of promotion, especially at noon on a Tuesday. Two men at the front were both wearing blue flannel. The couple in front of us had traveled from Staten Island that morning and offered words of reassurance for the first-time tattoo-getter (me) as we waited in line. They received their tattoos simultaneously and, as the woman got hers on the inside of her elbow, she explained how she and her husband had met in New Orleans while volunteering after Hurricane Katrina. They’d just moved to New York, and felt the opportunity to get a free Nirvana tattoo was something they couldn’t miss. Together we decided that the compilation video the managers of the event were filming and photographing all around us should be soundtracked by the repeated scream of “pain” at the end of “You Know You’re Right.”

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The set-up was surprisingly more sanitary than the words “free tattoo” would indicate. Three Kings’ non-pop-up, real shop location in Greenpoint is a highly rated establishment on Yelp, as my research just before the event led me find out. My tattooer Jason promised it would be the best one I’d ever get.

Despite my roommate’s concern, I did not cry or pass out. Instead, as Jason tattooed, I thought to nine years back when I first started listening to Nirvana after being given the With the Lights Out box set for Christmas. It was filled with demos I couldn’t quite contextualize yet, but fell in love with instantly. It drove me to spend much of that year and the next in record stores much like Looney Tunes seeking out every Nirvana release I could find. I’d started reading a lot about the band too, and in addition to Nirvana records, I’d dig for any music Cobain mentioned in his journals or would cite in old articles as influences or peers.

The tattoo of the small and simple black smiley face, available in one size for the day, occurred quickly and painlessly. Now I have a physical mark of my own fandom and junior high obsession. Cobain missed “the comfort in being sad,” as he sang on “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle.” Maybe I missed the comfort in loving something so purely and unaffected by history and time.

The era of Nirvana didn’t feel very far away when I was a 12-year-old falling in love with them 10 years after they died. Leaving Looney Tunes, I felt closer to that era and the music than ever before. There’s even some comfort in knowing that a collection of random fans from three separate cities were experiencing it with me, too.

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