Part I: Cross-Country

I don’t go to Astoria anymore. Hell, I don’t go to Queens unless I’m flying out of JFK or seeing a show at Forest Hills Stadium.

I used to go to Astoria all the time. In my first year at NYU, four or five times a week, a fifty-minute commute —each way— from my dorm. Take the uptown N or W to the Thirtieth Avenue stop, exit on the northwest corner, take the Q18 or Q102 bus to the last stop, walk two blocks straight toward the water, and take a right. I could probably do the route to that apartment in my sleep at one point.

This route wasn’t always in New York, however. The true beginning of this story is just outside of Seattle, a week before the start of our senior year of high school, August 2017. We found our weekly rituals, our restaurants, our backroads, our adventures, and our inside jokes. After a year in Seattle, we moved to New York for our respective theater schools. I lived in a dorm in Manhattan, she lived in an apartment in Astoria. We made new traditions, found new spots, and did every touristy Christmas activity.

But things fell apart, as things sometimes do. In March 2019, a year and a half and a Seattle and New York full of landmarks and memories crumbled. In May, it exploded. Everything I knew turned out to be false, and I found out when she unloaded her true feelings upon me in a torrent of heavy-handed text messages. 

My self-confidence was destroyed, I developed severe trust issues, and I began to frequently experience invasive flashbacks. I became hyper-focused on that moment, on that person, running through my head a million times: how to change the outcome, how it could have been avoided, and what I would say if we ran into each other on the street someday. It constantly stewed somewhere in my brain. I felt more than just angry or miserable; I felt hateful towards that person. 

In September 2020, a video game saved my life. The Last of Us, Part II. Set after the world is ravaged by an apocalyptic fungal pandemic, it tells the story of a twenty-year-old-girl named Ellie. She experiences a horrific event at the hands of another person and, as a reaction to her trauma, travels from her home in Jackson, Wyoming to Seattle, hellbent on revenge. The majority of the game is set in Seattle, as Ellie hunts for the person who wronged her.

There I was, twenty years old, experiencing the game in my house in Seattle, living in the time of a pandemic. When I first completed the game when it was released in June 2020, I just wanted to know the story. When I finished my second playthrough in July 2020, I wrote in my journal the following: “Last of Us, Part II has really shown me how detrimental it can be to be so obsessed over this one event and what it can do when you keep thinking about it. […] I know I have to forgive her, but I just feel I can’t yet. It’s hard. I have to let it go sometime.” In September 2020, I chose to complete the game for a third time. This time was different; I chose to play on the hardest difficulty. Only then did I realize the consequences of Ellie’s revenge. She is so focused on the person who wronged her that she loses more than she ever had in the first place. Her obsession is ruinous. 

This revelation struck me like lightning. I remember taking a deep breath and feeling oxygen not just in the front and sides of my head but breezing around my whole brain. I felt like I could truly breathe for the first time in a year and a half. I was ecstatic. I was lightheaded. I was all better. I also felt indebted to this experience and the people who made it.

Ellie has a tattoo. A large moth is settled on the inside of her arm, near her elbow, and two ferns cascade and curve around her arm, from her elbow to her wrist. My revelation also delivered to me the overwhelming desire to get this same tattoo. As an actor, getting a tattoo that large in such a prominent place was a risk, as it would be a nightmare to cover for any show I had to perform in. I put the idea away. My mom felt bad and got me a sheet of temporary tattoos of the same design for Christmas. The urge was gone . . .  somewhat.

Part II: Mascetti’s Mending

When I moved back to New York in June of 2021, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I had to get the tattoo. I compromised with myself and agreed to get it on the inside of my right ankle, rotated and shrunken to the size of a Post-It note so it could be easily covered and still looked pretty.

Over time, I realized was that I was certainly not “all better.” In truth, what I thought was a full recovery was just the beginning of an upward trajectory, a long ascent from rock bottom. The idea of the tattoo became a mantra to me: “I have been through hard things. More hard things will come, and I will get through those too.” One week after I returned to New York, my grandma passed away. Not only was this a tragic event that reminded me of the mantra, but the ferns in the tattoo design reminded me of the ferns in front of her house that she loved so much.

Natalie Hall, who designed the tattoo for the game, is located in California. Due to the popularity of the tattoo, she encourages people to find a tattoo artist that they trust and have them do it. The first location I looked at was East Side Ink, a five-minute walk from my apartment. As soon as I saw the third portfolio on their website, I knew I had found the artist for me. 

The portfolio of Jess Mascetti greeted me with glorious portraits of birds, bundles of flowers, lifelike colored tattoos, and breathtaking black-and-gray tattoos. I trusted her style and skill immediately. It was Jess. It had to be Jess. I wrote an inquiry on the East Side Ink website that night.

I never heard back. I waited and looked at other shops, but nobody’s art hit me as Jess’s did. I found that she worked at another shop, Inked NYC, and inquired there. I received a request for a consultation right when I was about to lose hope. This process took a month and a half.

Jess showed up for the consultation twenty-five minutes late, but she was genuinely apologetic. Her jeans, tank top, and hair were all the same shade of pitch black. The tank top revealed a large tattoo of her own. A raven on her shoulder blade, and next to it, a long snake weaving its way through roses on her shoulder to her elbow. She spoke to me like a friend, as if we’d met before. She was knowledgeable and kind and excited to do this tattoo for me. She said the tattoo would take between an hour and a half and two hours. A far cry from my previous tattoo experience of six entire minutes. I would have to occupy myself somehow, probably by talking to Jess, and that idea that did not frighten me. I immediately trusted Jess.

I arrived at Inked NYC on Monday, August 2, twenty minutes early, well-hydrated, and filled with a hearty bacon egg and cheese from Tompkins Square Bagels to dull the pain of being tattooed.

Jess walked me to her highly modular, comfortable black chair, and shaved my ankle. As she left to retrieve the stencil, I stared at the canvas that was now my inner right ankle, bare for the last time. I felt nervous about the pain, but never nervous to see the result.

Jess applied and reapplied the stencil four times—patiently and free of judgment—as I made sure the tattoo would be in the perfect spot. Then we were ready to begin. 

Jess looked at me, buzzing electric needle in hand, and said, “Alright babe, I’m going in.” No going back now.

“Do it,” I said.

There it was. That buzzing buzzing buzzing feeling. Not a stabbing, but a scratching. Somewhat hot. I took deep breaths. Maybe this won’t be two hours, I thought. I looked at my ankle after a few minutes and saw Jess had only done a few of the smallest leaves at the tip of one of the ferns. This was definitely taking two hours. We started to talk.

Jess was born and raised in Long Island City, Queens. Her parents didn’t have much money when she was growing up, and art supplies were cheap, so Jess turned to art. As a shy child, Jess used art as a way to communicate and express herself. Her inspiration to tattoo comes from her fascination with a moving image, whether that’s an animation, a film, or a tattoo moving on one’s skin. After the tattoo ban in New York City was lifted in 1997, Jess got an apprenticeship at a tattoo shop while she was still in high school. Between school, work, and the apprenticeship, she couldn’t balance her time, and the apprenticeship ended. In 2009, she met acclaimed tattoo artists Josh Lord and Patrick Conlon, who nurtured her abilities. She’s been tattooing professionally ever since, whether tattooing on people or designing tattoos for movies and video games.

In addition to art, Jess loves theater. She lit up when she heard I’m a drama major. The conversation veered into Shakespeare; we discussed Shakespearean conspiracy theories (Jess agrees that there’s no way that Shakespeare was only one person) and the theatrical tattoos she’s created, lots of references to the works of Shakespeare and Chekhov. We discussed what plays we’d seen pre-pandemic that we enjoyed, found a mutual love for Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, and discussed what shows we were excited to see when Broadway returned the next month. We compared our experiences with the Meisner technique, and I told her about the hyper-physical Grotowski technique I’m taught at the Experimental Theater Wing. Jess reads a ton. She didn’t tell me this, I just know it.

I’m expressive when I speak, I move my hands. Jess, immensely concentrating on my ankle says, “When you move your hands, the movement distracts me, and I’m trying to draw really small straight lines. Could you not move your hands?” I apologize. “It’s all right,” she says, “I get it, I’m Italian.” 

A brief silence as I adjusted myself, physically sitting on my hands so I wouldn’t be tempted to move them.

“I’m going to cry when you’re done, I’m sure of it, I’m warning you now.”

She assured me that it wouldn’t be the first time that she had seen it, and she fully welcomed it.

Jess has tattooed celebrities such as Bruce Willis and Chris Evans, and I, being a curious person, had to ask what they were like. Jess told me stories from her sessions with Bruce Willis, my particular favorite being that he asked Jess if she liked harmonicas, and after she said that she did, he pulled a harmonica out and began to play it while Jess tattooed his chest.

“But he’s really nice! People would see him in the store and ask for pictures and he’d talk to everyone. He’s sort of like a puppy.”

The casual way she spoke of him made me feel like she viewed me and Bruce the same way. She wasn’t treating me any differently than a celebrity.

I had fully lost track of time at this point. I didn’t want to check the progress on my ankle and spoil the surprise. I enjoyed existing in this strange space, absent of time, living in the moment of Jess’s stories. I felt comfortable, the feeling of being tattooed had been largely drowned out by the conversation.

“Are there any celebrities you’ve tattooed that were just awful?” I say, testing my luck.

“One. They were just so hard to work with and entitled. I’m not going to talk about who it is though. There’s no good in that. They’ll bring themselves down, they don’t need me to help.”

“Do you believe in karma? Like ‘What goes around comes around?’” I asked.

“I think there are too many injustices in the world for karma to exist. But I do believe that it’s important to put good energy into the world.”

Jess exudes good energy. A wondrous calm. Deep care for your story and a desire to know you and to help you. She’s more than a tattoo artist you go to for something quick and never see again. Before she was done I already knew that I would see her again when I wanted another tattoo.

“Okay, I’m done!”

I looked down at my electric-red ankle. There it was, perfectly placed, expertly executed. I gasped, clasping my hands over my mouth to keep myself from sobbing in this busy tattoo shop.

“Oh my god, Jess,” was all I could seem to utter for about a minute. Eventually, I looked at her with teary eyes and said, “It’s perfect. Thank you . . . Can I hug you?”

“I would love that.”

The act of tattooing and being tattooed is much more intimate than I previously believed. It is a relationship forged in deep trust. There was a two-hour connection from the artist’s mind to the electric needle in her hand and into the fifth sublayer of my skin. It’s a long time to be in direct physical contact with someone. I think there is a power in that, an intimate energy transfer of sorts. I now believe that more than just ink is flowing.

Last month, I found out I was accepted to study Shakespeare at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London this fall. One of the people I felt I had to tell was Jess. I ran to East Side Ink the next day where she greeted me with a warm hug and kind words.


The bus stop moved. When in the past three years it was moved, I don’t know. I didn’t have to walk two blocks anymore, just take a right. Orange and white construction barriers were haphazardly placed along the sidewalk. I barely recognized the old apartment building. It, like many of the other buildings around, was now covered in scaffolding. All of the nervous energy I had was quickly converted into confusion. I continued down the street, looking to sit on a bench in the grassy field where I used to play fetch with a sweet-faced pit bull. As I approached the park, it was surrounded by a fence. It too was being renovated. Construction cranes were parked on the torn-up baseball field like dinosaurs in a desert. The only thing that hadn’t seemed to change—despite all the evidence of construction—was how quiet it was. Eerily quiet.

I sat on a bench in front of the luxury apartment building next to the park instead. The last time I was here, the top floors were still under construction. Everything had changed. I, too, had changed. It was Saturday, April 16, 2022, just after noon. One of the first beautiful days in what felt like a thousand years. It had been a particularly long winter. I felt the wind on my face, rolling in from the water. I took a deep breath. A full, deep breath.

Here I was. Astoria again.

I crossed my right leg over my left, rolled up the pant leg of my jeans, and pulled down my sock. I placed my hand on my tattoo.

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