On a recent Tuesday, I walked into Electric Anvil Tattoo in Brooklyn and turned the dial of an old-school gumball machine. A ball popped out. Inside was a folded piece of paper with a small illustration on it. A few minutes later, I got it tattooed on the inside of my right forearm.
What an adrenaline junkie! you might be thinking. I bet in her spare time she enjoys downhill mountain biking and snake charming. Or maybe you assume I’m a cautionary tale, an example of what can happen when you get too drunk or high or lose a bet.
But you would be wrong. I am a wimp (I’ve never ice-skated because I fear if I fall the blade of someone’s skate will slice off my fingers) and I was stone-cold sober when I let fate decide my tattoo, also known as a “Get What You Get.”
The Birth of the “Get What You Get” Tattoo
“There is something magical about letting fate choose your course and just riding that wave,” Holly Ellis, owner and tattooist at Idle Hand Tattoo in San Francisco tells me. Although the Get What You Get (GWYG) method was created by Justin Shaw at Faith Tattoo in Santa Rosa, California around 2004, Ellis believes Idle Hand was the first place to use a gumball machine when they started offering the service in 2009. It’s since become a feature at many tattoo shops in the US and overseas.
Ellis says that, at its core, GWYG is a rejection of the popular notion that a design must have sentimental significance in order to justify having it inked on your skin. “There was a period of time when people felt pressure to get a tattoo that has sooooo much meaning,” she tells me. “It was like, no one could get a tattoo just ‘cause they thought it looked cool. Now there’s a new generation of people getting tattooed purely because it’s aesthetically pleasing to them—for whom it’s not so serious.”
In her experience, there are a few common reasons people seek out GWYG tattoos specifically. “It can serve a therapeutic purpose, doing something that feels kind of wild, and doing it with other people—it can be a real emotional high,” she says. “GWYG can be a thrill, as well as a way into [tattoos] for people who don’t have a meaningful design in mind, but have that innate urge to decorate their body.”
The Pleasure of Not Choosing
Despite being around for over 15 years, the popularity of Get What You Get has spiked in the last year. This is in part due to social media—the #getwhatyouget hashtag on Instagram has thousands of photos and videos of people reacting as they unfold the paper to discover their tattoo. But when I spoke to some women who recently got one, I found the compulsion goes deeper than an internet stunt.
Bailey, an art student from Fresno, California, got her first GWYG in November—an old-fashioned torch (like the one the Statue of Liberty is holding) on her thigh. “I wanted a tattoo but I didn’t want to have to decide [what to get],” she tells me. “I found it thrilling to be able to do it without the pressure of choosing.”
In the information age, when many of us wouldn’t buy a shoe rack without reading 50 novella-length reviews, the pressure to make the right decision can be uniquely daunting. It’s no wonder some might find it liberating—rebellious, even—to not overthink something for a change. In their own way, GWYGs are a rejection of the abundance of choice. A way to take the power back.
“When I look at my GWYG tattoos they remind me that unexpected things in life can turn out to be beautiful,” says Kayla, who has two GWYGs: a girl on the inside of her left ankle and a rose on the outside of her left thigh. “They remind me there are things in life I can’t control, and that’s okay.”
For me, the appeal of GWYG was also the surrender implicit in the act. A year before I walked into Electric Anvil, life brought me to my knees. My mom died suddenly, and three months later, my husband was hit by a car, lucky to escape with his life and a few broken bones. For months I railed against my lack of control over these events, going over and over in my mind how I could have prevented them. I swayed between feeling crushed by the chaos of life and believing it was all part of a larger plan. One day, in a very Eat Pray Love crying-on-the-bathroom-floor moment, I put my hands up and said through tears, “Okay! You win!” To whom I was talking, I’m still not sure.
All I know is for the first time in my life, I understood what it really meant to surrender. Only then did I begin to heal, to fix myself. I got into therapy to deal with my shit, started to take care of myself properly and, you know, do the work. I grew stronger, wiser, and felt more empowered than I ever had before. So on the one-year anniversary of my mom’s death, I decided to walk into Electric Anvil and accept whatever came out of the gumball machine. It would be a marker, a reminder, of my transformation, of how radical acceptance had led to my metamorphosis. So what did I get? A butterfly.
Finding Meaning in the Meaningless
Even though GWYG is, as Ellis points out, the antithesis of insisting tattoos must have a deeper meaning, I’ve noticed a tendency among those with a GWYG to search for wisdom in what the machine hands out anyway, like reading tea leaves.
“When I got a torch, at first I was a little bummed out,” Bailey explains. “But I had been through a lot of heartbreak, followed by realization and clarity, so then it hit me: the torch symbolized a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Ellis says that kind of thing happens all the time. “I have always felt confident that people would get the tattoo they were meant to,” she says.
When I sent a photo of my butterfly to friends, some saw it as a spooky coincidence and sent me links to information about butterfly symbolism in various cultures, from Native American mythology to Buddhism: the soul set free after death, profound change, spiritual transformation. It was an oddly perfect motif for someone who is still healing from loss, but hopeful. At times I have wanted to believe the butterfly is a secret message from a higher power, intended just for me. It’s also just a butterfly.
A lot of people ask me what I’d have done if I hated what the gumball machine dispensed. And I’m serious when I say that if I got a can of Spam, I don’t think I’d have regretted it. Because the design was never the point. If you feel compelled to flip the bird in the face of convention, to express a feeling of a loss of agency, to defy your inner control freak, then no matter what your GWYG tattoo is, it will always remind you of the time you were seeking, alive to possibility; open like a flower in bloom.
Graphic by Lorenza Centi.