Volume 14 • Number 2 • Fall-Winter 2022-2023

Sarah McElwain

The Scene, 1978

“What tattoo would you get if you got one?” Federica asked.

We’d stopped in front of the VOICE office in well-lit Cooper Square in the East Village so she could light a protective cigarette for the dark walk to the subway. Federica didn’t smoke but a lit cigarette could be used as a weapon.

“I wouldn’t get one.” Choosing a single image to represent you for the rest of your life seemed impossible. “What about you?”

“Are you kidding? The thought of how my father would react if his daughter came home with a tattoo is funny in a frightening kind of way. He thinks tattoos are for hookers, ex-cons and bikers.” She searched her bag for a subway token. “I could get a tattoo someplace private, a rose on my butt, someplace he’d never see it, but who likes needles?”

“Not me.”

In 1978 tattooing was still illegal in New York City. Finding a secret apartment or basement with the equipment then holding still for an hour while some guy drew on my body with a needle was unthinkable.

I looked at a girl sitting on the sidewalk with matte black hair ratted into a complicated nest, wearing cut-offs and a black corset with a thick chain tattooed around her neck. What if you changed, I thought? What if it turned out you wanted to be someone else: A brain surgeon, an opera singer, an elementary school teacher? What if you had kids? What would it be like to have a mother with a chain tattooed around her neck? Where could you work? Could you ever leave the East Village? Had this girl chained herself to a life behind a counter in a vintage clothing store or head shop?

“You’d have to put a gun to my back to make me do that,” I said.

Federica laughed. We said this often: put a gun to my back. The streets were dangerous and mostly unlit at night around CBGB-OMFUG, which stood for "Country Bluegrass Blues and Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers." Referred to by insiders as CBGB, it was the epicenter of East Village 70s punk cultures. It did seem like any minute you could feel a gun in your back as someone snatched your wallet or pushed you into a dark doorway to grab a feel or worse. If we joked about it often enough as a preventive maybe it wouldn’t happen.


When the weather turned hot all the leather jackets came off and a whole new world of tattoos was revealed. Skin clearly loved ink. Skin was a brilliantly absorbent surface for certain shades of red, green, indigo and black. I’d seen tattoos before: rock-and-roll stars had roses, sailors with mermaids and anchors, bikers etched with smoking skulls, I’d even seen LOVE and HATE spelled on Robert Mitchum’s knuckles in Cape Fear. But I’d never seen FUCK tattooed on a forehead in black Goth letters. Some tattoos were crude and ugly but others were fabulous body illustrations. Skin as a canvas for a mix of religious, occult, Japanese, science fiction, comic and children’s book images. Even Federica had to admit that the parade of tattoos in front of CBGB that summer was impressive.

In the fall the leather jackets went back on. Tattoos were less visible and the scene in front of CBGB changed and as a rougher crowd moved in. The neon-colored dinosaur heads disappeared, not into extinction but migrating over to St. Mark’s Place. Older guys with piercings and other forms of self-mutilation took over. Guys who looked like they had or would soon have experience with incarceration. All but the most wasted girls vanished and the ones left had hardware on their faces.

Sarah McElwain worked at Andy Warhol’s Interview and other magazines from Esquire to Glamour during the 1980s to 1990s. She was a co-host of Writers Read NYC, is a longtime member of Philip Schultz’s Writers Studio, and teaches one-on-one tutorials. Her work appears in The Writers Studio at 30, Fiction Now, Skidrow Penthouse, Epiphany and is recorded as a podcast for Second Hand Stories and Poets Pandemic Podcast #8. Her books “Saying Grace” and “To the Happy Couple!” are published by Chronicle Books. She is the editor of Namaste, The Integral Yoga Institute of New York newsletter. She is a certified stress management trainer and teaches yoga to the blind at the Lighthouse Guild in New York City.