The tattoo shop onboard Virgin Voyages' new ship, Valiant Lady, opens at 5 p.m. on embarkation day, but, by the time I arrive at 4:30 p.m., a line has already started forming outside its gated entryway. Cleverly dubbed Squid Ink, the ink shop debuted last year on Virgin Voyages’ Scarlet Lady, the line's first-ever vessel.
It was an immediate success. Judging by the constant lines and crowds we've witnessed so far on this weekend's MerMaiden voyage of Valiant Lady, Virgin Voyages' second cruise ship, it looks like the concept is already a favorite across the pond, too. And, considering Virgin Voyages ships are packed with dozens of excellent entertainment venues, loads of free (and fun) fitness classes, a stellar thermal suite and spa, and myriad spots to grab food and drink, that’s saying a lot.
At-sea artists-in-residence join Squid Ink on a rotating basis, for up to six weeks at a time. Our sailing's current Squid Ink crew were generous enough to give me first pick at their schedule. For this inaugural sailing, Virgin Voyages brought back Scarlet Lady Squid Ink veterans Dennis Gensinger, the Squid Ink shop manager and piercer, and tattoo artists Justin Hauck and Gez Bradley.
Meeting Gez Bradley, My Valiant Lady Cruise Ship Tattoo Artist
Soon after we meet, Gensinger assigns Bradley to be my tattoo artist. Unlike Gensinger and Hauck who have traveled from New York to join Valiant Lady, Bradley owns his own tattoo shop, called Indelible Ink, in Gosport, located just across the harbor from where Valiant Lady's first handful of voyages will be departing in Portsmouth, England.
I currently have five tattoos, but it's been 10 years since my last. I've batted a few ideas back and forth over the years without ever feeling compelled to commit. Now, here in the shop, it's crunch time, and I still can't decide whether to get an old tattoo touched up or go for an entirely new tattoo. I ask Bradley if the shop's £150 minimum would cover two tattoos or if each would require their own minimum, assuming it might guide my decision.
"It's better to get two tattoos at the same time, if that's what you want," he says. "So you only pay the minimum once." Hot tip, though it oddly doesn't help to push me toward any internal resolution -- it only serves to fuel more possible ideas. But as the clock ticks closer to 5 p.m., the people at the gate are getting playfully restless, shaking the shop's closed metal gates. I double-down and book-in enough time for two simple tattoos and loosely go over what I think those might be with Bradley. I opt for the touch-up and a small new one, still undecided where the new one might go.
Squid Ink's £150 deposit gets taken out of my Sailor Loot (Virgin-speak for my onboard account) and it's a done deal -- the 30-hour countdown to my tattoos begins. I have exactly six hours to change my mind and still get my deposit back.
(Another hot tip: one of the perks of booking a Rockstar-level suite is that you get a pre-tattoo consultation with your artist, something that can be worth its weight in gold if you've got a more intense design, you want done.)
Bundle of Nerves: Preparing For Getting a Tattoo on a Cruise Ship
When the day finally arrives, I spend the few hours up until my tattoo getting my nervous energy out by walking the ship, making sure I have a full stomach by stopping by the Galley food hall and avoiding alcohol. Since alcohol causes the blood to thin, it's recommended to avoid it for at least 24 hours before you get inked -- no easy task on a Virgin Voyages ship.
(Luckily, Valiant Lady drink menus always have a small but enticing selection of non-alcoholic cocktails, too -- just one example of the ship's outstanding level of inclusivity.)
I show up for my appointment 45 minutes early, thinking it will help to calm my nerves. I'm just in time to see a 30s-or-40s-something woman getting waved behind the rope into the tattooing area. She's with her friend who has an appointment later that evening to get a piercing. Both time and my heart are racing, but I mentally note that when she steps back over the rope to leave the shop she's smiling from ear to ear.
Next up, it's a woman with white hair who's getting inked on her ankle. Before she takes her place behind the rope, Bradley asks her to wait a few minutes while he cleans up from his last client, sanitizes everything and preps.
All the while, my heartrate picks back up as I think I'm next. I check Bradley's Instagram again; do mental laps around the room; watch people wander into the shop, book appointments and cancel them. Making tattoo bookings is a popular activity for passengers when they're a bit tipsy, Bradley later tells me. "People will come in and book an appointment after they've had a few drinks," he says. "Then they'll come back the next day and change their mind or where they want their tattoo."
According to Bradley's math, nearly 80% of the tattoos he's done on Valiant Lady have been people's first. "It's actually pretty incredible."
It takes me about 30 minutes to realize Bradley is running behind, though he doesn't know it yet. He's currently tattooing behind someone's ear, calm as a cucumber. I fill the time by asking Gensinger what feels like a million anxiety-fueled questions -- Can I change one of the tattoos I said I wanted for a symbol I drew? Will it cost more? Do I have time to get a water from the bar? Use the restroom? All of them are answered with a genuine smile.
It's Go Time: A Perfect Tattoo Experience Despite a Swaying Cruise Ship
The lady with the new ear tattoo finally gets up and I know I'm next. Valiant Lady has been gently swaying all day, which doesn't bode well for the simple line tattoos I've designed -- or my seasickness. According to Google, it's common to throw up while getting a tattoo even when they're not on a ship.
Bradley checks in with Gensinger and is now acutely aware of the fact he's running behind. "Please don't rush my tattoo," I say in a half-joking tone. "I was here like an hour early!" He assures me he won't.
Before I step behind the velvet rope, we go over the designs I finally settled on not more than four hours earlier. I've brought them with me to my appointment, drawn out on notepad paper: the names of my cats, Bo and Cleo, which I'll put above the crease of my left arm and on the back tricep of my right, respectively.
The tattoo process has changed a lot over the last 10 years. Bradley disappears for a minute or two to scan my designs onto his tablet. From there, he makes tweaks to the sizing and the shape down to the pixel before printing it out on a stencil.
Even though he's running late, he takes his time and is calm, which, in turn, helps to keep me calm. We go through several stencil placements before we get the size and placement of both tattoos just right.
During the final set up, Bradley comments on the swaying of the ship. "Of course, this happens when I've got to do the most fine lines of the whole cruise," he says. He says it jokingly, but I detect a bit of nervousness, so I reassure them that I fully understand the risks of getting a tattoo on a moving ship and that if it's not perfect, it'll just commemorate the tattoos even more.
And just like that, I'm belly-down on the chair, arm stretched out, facing the shop's gorgeous oversized porthole window, watching the rolling waves. "It's the best view of any tattoo shop, ever," he says. The needle starts buzzing.
Truly, the experience is a breeze. Bradley is pleasantly chatty, and I barely feel a thing (something I'd heard from other cruisers who also got tattoos on board). Any fear I have about Bradley rushing against the clock disappears, as it's clear he cares more about the quality of his work and happiness of his clients than making up for lost time.
When the buzzing stops and I finally get a look at my new ink, I'm almost speechless at how good it is. The lines are bold and sharp -- both tattoos look better than I was picturing. In a word, they are perfect.
All-in-all, the whole process took about an hour (of which, the actual tattoos were just a fraction), and before he sends me on my merry way, he cleans off the tattoo areas and covers them in a thin, transparent and waterproof tattoo bandage and tells me to leave it on for four days, after which I should wash the tattoos with warm soapy water and apply unscented lotion three times a day.
I can't help but think about how much more convenient and hygienic this is than the old cellophane wrap of yesteryear. It seems especially ideal for a cruise, when you'll be moving around a lot, changing clothes frequently and maybe even hitting the beach (though, you'll need to avoid submerging the bandage in water or else it will come off, and bring something to shield it from the sun).
It is also one of the most unique experiences at sea, and just one of the many uncommon things that make Virgin Voyages so different.