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PROVINCETOWN — The chambered nautilus floats on the sketch pad: all lines and curves, spherical, about the length of a woman's outstretched hand.

Its imprint, from a stencil, will go on Maze Peters' back. It's a new tattoo, her next one.

The 60-year-old stands in Mooncusser Tattoo Studio in Provincetown, on the outer tip of Cape Cod. She's lived here seven years, ever since she thought she was near to dying. She has short black-and-gray hair, round green eyeglasses and a silver thumb ring. She speaks in short, declarative sentences.

Today she woke up excited. "It was cool," Maze says. "I'm going to have a new tattoo."

It's part of a grand plan:

After doctors cut off her breasts from cancer and she lost her long hair to chemotherapy

After congestive heart failure required a defibrillator implant and electric shocks to her chest

After a lead connected to the defibrillator broke loose under her skin

Maze has a response both permanent and visual. To what was once a body out of control, she will deliberately cover herself with tattoos.

"I didn't have a choice," she says of the illnesses that affected her breasts, her hair, her chest. "I did have a choice to put these on."

It matters, too, what the tattoos are: tidal and oceanic, renewing and deep, beautiful yet self-protective — even comforting. The largest, most elaborate one from a year ago — a blue-black octopus — splays across her chest. Tentacles wind around her torso, neck and left arm. It took several three-hour sessions to complete.

"I just wanted something to hold me, and not want anything from me," Maze says.

* * *

The chambered nautilus, of warm Pacific and Indian Ocean waters, is both enduring and adaptive: a sea creature that first appeared millions of years before dinosaurs. Its brown-and-white-striped shell grows as needed. It equalizes pressure as it moves up and down in the sea.

These are traits humans might want, says tattoo artist Andrea Tasha as she braids her blond hair to keep it out of the way.

She came up with the nautilus, thinking of Maze. She's drawn it freehand. She'll press the purple design onto Maze's back, at her waistband.

"That's how I feel, how I swim in the world," Maze says. "It's all from the inside."

Maze doesn't get massages or other bodywork. Only tattoos. Only from Andrea. Her touch, her approach, is gentle, Maze says. After all she's been through, "to me, this is very comforting," Maze says. "I relax." And they've done this many times, ever since Maze walked into the shop in 2004.

A school of angel fish, a mermaid and a shell on her left leg

A seahorse skeleton at her left elbow

A sea creature biting a tentacle of the octopus on her left thigh

The octopus itself and the most recent one, a sea maid on her inner left arm

"I love the sound of it," Maze says of the tattoo machine, the palm-size electrical device that holds the needles and controls how much ink goes into the skin. "I've been known to take a nap."

"True fact," Andrea Tasha says.

"I was asleep when she did the octopus."

* * *

Maze paints pet portraits for a living.

From her second-floor studio door in Provincetown, she can see blue — the harbor. Sea gulls cry out in an open-air atrium nearby. A planked boardwalk on the first floor leads out to sand.

Inside the studio, during an earlier visit, Maze squeezes along a narrow path around her work table. Shelves of drawing pads, paint brushes and cloth rags crowd in from the walls. Paintings she's been commissioned to do for others — a pug, a golden retriever, a mutt — drop down from the ceiling. It's hard to find a place to sit.

But she picks up her own paintings first.

"Save Me"

"Greener Pastures"

They're square and harsh: blatant red paint, bright green, punctured with stick pins, covered with wire, broken guitar strings. The color red represents disappointments, Maze says. "I tend to repeat the same things."

A collage of magazine photos and other cut-outs hangs on the wall. Sections of it represent parts of her life. She points to a picture of herself with long hair. She has a triangle of dark brown curls from the crown of her head to below her shoulders.

That was back in Boston, her old life in the '90s: social justice for women, AIDS advocacy and substance abuse counseling. There are earlier, much harder details, too, from the '80s: heroin, alcohol, trying to kill her mother to get money for drugs, selling drugs to a friend who died from them. She's been clean for 23 years, she says.

During all of that, she felt invincible. Friends, and friends of friends, were dying of AIDS, but she was living. She felt it was not going to happen to her.

In 2003, though, she was having trouble carrying equipment to art classes. She went to the doctor. She mentioned, on the side, a problem with her left breast.

It was cancer.

The disease was well known in her family.

"I can't say it really surprised me, but it did," she says.

Maze sits on a chair the height of a bar stool. But she sits on it backward, with her shirt rolled up in the back. She'll hunch over, resting her arms on the chair back, for the next hour and a half. She'll need to keep the skin on her back taut.

Andrea's tattoo area is near the entrance to the shop but tucked back in a corner. She sits on a low stool, next to a bank of drawers. She clicks on a bright work lamp.

"This is a position I haven't been in before," Maze says, joking about her familiarity with bar stools in her earlier life.

"Your legs may fall asleep," Andrea tells her.

On the counter lay three tattoo machines

Tiny cups of black ink



Black latex gloves

A blue dental napkin

Ointment

There's tension in the air. Maybe it's the music: rough, loud.

"I'm thinking about changing the music," Andrea says.

Maze agrees. "We tend to like the blues."

* * *

A buzz: the machine.

Andrea revs it, checking the electrical current. She wraps a red rubber band around the machine. She snaps the rubber band.

She bends her head toward Maze's lower back. She'll do an outline of the nautilus first.

The needle touches Maze's skin.

"Wooh!"

Maze sits erect. She keeps her lips tight. Otherwise her face stays smooth. No winces. No cringes. No tears. None, as it turns out, for the entire time Andrea tattoos her back.

"Woo"»."

A Norman Rockwell print hangs on the wall above Maze's head. A pipsqueak tattoo artist, with a handkerchief hanging from his pocket, gives a burly sailor a tattoo on his arm.

"It hit nerves," Maze says. "You feel it elsewhere."

Andrea begins to hum.

* * *

She was in the hospital with a low blood count after her first breast was removed, and she was alone.

Maze tells this story as she sits in her studio.

She knew she could lose her hair from the chemotherapy. The doctors told her that. But she didn't believe it. It hadn't happened so far, after the first treatment.

In the hospital room, though, she raked her fingers through her hair.

"I went like this," Maze says, moving her hand across the side of her head. "My hair came out in my hand."

She pulled a wastebasket over.

"It all came out."

Except for some long, sparse, stringy strands.

"I went in with a full head of hair," she says. "I came out looking like something out of 'Deliverance.'"

It would be embarrassing to walk out of the hospital, she was thinking.

Her friend came to pick her up. "Her face held a thousand words," Maze says.

* * *

Small welts from the tattoo appear. They link up, intricate and raw: puffed-up skin. The ink outline sits on top.

It's maybe 30 minutes into the tattoo.

Andrea has new needles. She shades in the dark stripes of the nautilus. "Mountain-climbing" is what she calls it, the needles running up and down over the bumps. She wipes away a continuous smear — ink, stencil imprint, skin secretions and blood.

"This is when I fall asleep," Maze says. "I know this is where she's giving it life."

She stays hunched over. She studies a piece of red lint on her Velcro watchband.

"Razor cut," she says suddenly. "It feels like a cut. It's intense."

The feeling depends on where the needles are, Maze says.

A bit later she has another thought: "It feels good, like if

you had a bug bite and you scratched it."

* * *

Earlier, at her studio, Maze takes off her shirt.

She has a man's chest, sort of: It's muscular and flat, but soft-looking, smooth and tanned. Two puckered scars pull forward from beneath her left arm, like darts in a dress. Another one pulls forward from under her right arm.

Doctors diagnosed the heart failure in 2005, and later the same year they removed her right breast.

Near her collarbone, hardened cartilage feels almost like a flat piece of metal under her skin.

"There's no feeling," she says of her chest. She has to be careful not to cut herself when she shaves under her arms.

But it's not the scars you see first when she bares her chest.

It's the octopus. Its head, the size of a small birthday balloon, lies across her chest; the arms, with suckers, boldly enclose her torso. It dominates, bluish or black: maybe benign, maybe dangerous, with tendrils almost feminine in design.

"It's everything that I'm about," Maze says.

* * *



The nautilus is nearly done. Andrea dips the needles in white ink.

Across the room, another machine buzzes.

The room seems warmer: strong lights, mirrors. Maze sits up briefly. She drinks coffee. She hunches over again.

This summer she's going to walk down Commercial Street without a shirt on.

So far, she's worn a bathing suit bottom at the beach.

Women — at least, those with breasts — break the law in Provincetown if they walk around topless. But Maze doesn't have breasts.

"Whoo, hoo ..." she says

suddenly. "That came right up

my chest."

* * *

It takes about a week for a tattoo to heal, Maze says.

She'll wash it with antiseptic soap and apply salve.

She'll keep it out of the sun.

Her last one, the mermaid, healed more slowly than she expected. It scabbed a bit. The track marks on her arm, from

the heroin, caused that, she

says.

"We're done," Andrea says finally. She stands up. "That didn't take any time at all."

Maze lifts herself off the chair, a little stiffly. She twists around in front of a wall mirror to see her back.

"This is cool," she says.

Later, Maze stands near the door of the shop.

In another corner of the room, a man with many tattoos is getting more. The machine sounds like a persistent bee.

The healing should be no problem, she says.

She knows what to do.

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