|This is my tattoo.|
Open letter to my parents:
Dear Mom and Dad,
Remember that one time the boys and I were talking about some bad, dangerous stuff we did when we were teenagers, and you guys shuddered and asked us please to not tell you anymore about the bad, dangerous stuff we did when we were teenagers? Well, this is one of those stories. Seriously. Just take your browser to another page right now and stop reading. Trust me.
Okay, with that disclaimer out of the way, I can tell you this story, the story of when I got my tattoo. I've been thinking about it lately because I've gotten it into my head that I want to get the tattoo fixed up into something proper and grown-up, the sort of thing people pay for. That's because I didn't pay anything for my tattoo, which is part of the story. As for the tattoo, I pretty much got what I paid for. As for the story, well that's something else entirely.
|The story starts here.|
|The 60s: Way Cooler In Pictures|
|In the old days, it was just coffee with no fucking pictures.|
I just now thought of Louis, the Palestinian who ran the corner store across the street from the cafe. He had an arsenal of terrifying weapons behind the counter. This one friend of mine used to go in there and ask Louis to see his gun or baseball bat or lead pipe, and Louis would go all batshit and shout stuff like "Fire in your ass!" which, in light of Turkish swearing is either way funnier or slightly less funny. Louis was nicer than he seemed, too.
I'm getting to the tattoo now, I promise.
Dear Mom and Dad,
If you've decided, against my helpful advice, to read this up until this point, around now would be a good time to stop.
|Would you like to chat?|
Straight-Jacket was a charismatic, erudite, not-quite-high-school-educated Southerner who aligned himself with the Hell's Angels White Supremacist types. He'd been in prison, which easily amazed me in high school, and he told great stories and was probably completely full of shit most of the time, not that I would have known. Because I know his real name, I Googled him recently and found he's back in the South (okay, Southeast, but whatever), refurbishing classic cars, that he has a young kid, and that he once wrote a rather lengthy and articulate open letter endorsing Obama and the Democrats. I also found out he graduated high school in New Jersey, so I don't really know what that whole uneducated Southern thing was all about.
Straight-Jacket had a tattoo of a spider under his eye. I later worked it out that it originally was a teardrop tattoo, to show he'd killed someone, or at least to make everyone think that. And he took a liking to me, which in my bull-headed innocence that The World was the way I Wanted It To Be, I assumed was a matter of friendship. Also he was twice my age, so I never would have thought of it as Liking anyway.
Dear Readers with short attention spans,
I promise I'm getting to the tattoo part soon, really. I haven't told the tattoo story to very many people. It's not because I'm embarrassed. It's because usually the background of this story is story enough, and I rarely manage to make it to the end. It's a long fucking story from here on out, so you might as well go get a cup of coffee or whatever and just settle in.
One day, I expressed to Straight-Jacket an interest in getting a tattoo of my own. I was a couple weeks short of going off to college in Baltimore at this point, and had already had my navel pierced, so a tattoo was the next logical step, given I wasn't interested in a face pierce and I'd never heard of nipple pierces. And I sure didn't want to go off to college being the one who wasn't fucking cool and sophisticated and knowledgeable about the world and shit. As it turned out I needn't have worried.
Straight-Jacket was more than happy to oblige. He may have even said the word "oblige," which would have thrilled me in a Faulkner-esque kind of way. He knew a guy called Spyder, yes, that's Spyder with a "y," who he knew back from the South or prison or maybe from just down the street in Golden Gate Park. Anyway.
|Hee! Religious humor sucks.|
Which is one reason I feel like I can't tell the tattoo story without making it into a really long fucking story. Some sort of justice has to be done not only to the event itself, but to narratives in general, and the narratives we create for our lives and what it all means.
Deep-down, though, Spyder and Straight-Jacket were frenemies. There's no other way to say it but with a coinage that's not as contemporary as it seems. Spyder had a scaggy girlfriend, or shall I say "Old Lady," just to be down with the vernacular, whom Straight-Jacket coveted. This turned out to be one of several underlying unpleasantnesses that went on throughout the tattoo.
|I'm a Water Ox, for what it's worth.|
Before taking me over to his scary friend Spyder, Straight-Jacket had me meet him at his real house (not the Divisadero squat I'd been to previously) out in Daly City. He offered me a beer, then told me not to drink too much, as it thins the blood and can cause the tattoo ink to bleed out too much. One beer was okay, though, for the road. He assured me any experienced tattoo-getter knows stuff like this, which was a good thing because I'd assumed getting shitfaced was a pre-requisite of tattoo-getting. Also, I wasn't sure how comfortable I was getting shit-faced with Straight-Jacket out in his flat in Daly City.
|It's cool, and also not.|
Dear Mom and Dad,
This is the part where we go to a grotty, possibly illegal basement flat in the nether regions of Polk Street. We told you we were staying at someone's house, and that this person's parents were at home. We knew that if you called, this friend's parents would say we were at a movie, as per The Plan. My dear brother and the friend probably actually went off to see the movie, as they were too grossed out by the squalid basement flat, and the inhabitants therein, to stay. Plus, someone else getting a tattoo is really boring and I told them they could go. It might also be worth mentioning that said dear brother and friend started advising against the whole tattoo adventure once they saw the aforementioned flat.
So if you're still reading, now would be an even better time to quit than the time I said before.
|I'm the most gullible person on Earth. Just humor me, okay?|
|Things started to go wrong.|
One reason the carbon-tracing of the tattoo got screwed up is that a girl came into the house in tears. She had a stack of Polaroids, and her baby-tee showed fresh jello-y red stretch-marks on her belly. The photographs were of her newborn daughter and the family that had just adopted this baby. The new parents looked shiny and kind, and the baby was beautifully dressed and blissfully sleeping.
|Some things don't go as planned.|
|Bob Fagin. Not all bad but kind of bad.|
Probably the truth was somewhere in the middle of all of that, as it usually is.
After he was done tracing the carbon, Spyder showed me the tattoo gun he'd made himself. Then he took it apart and boiled all the pieces in the teapot. While it was boiling, he assured me he had a sixth sense about people who have AIDS and had never tattooed one of them. Then he and Straight-Jacket started off on the Alabama fish stories again.
At this point, I wondered if my brother and our friend would be returning anytime soon. Two or thee hours had gone by already, enough for the alibi-parents to start wondering, if they hadn't fallen asleep, which they probably had. The alibi-parents didn't really give a fuck what we were up to, so long as no one got arrested and everyone went to school.
Spyder fired up his gun and told me the outline hurts more than then filling-in part, because the needle was thinner and slicier, while the coloring needles are actually four needles across and their vibration numbs the skin somewhat. This turned out to be true. It also turned out to be true that smoking weed would make it hurt more, but that kid with the pipe was just too appealing for any of us to pass up. Plus the homemade gun was, I suppose, a bit slower than a real tattoo gun.
And that line of speed just made me puke. "Toilet's over there, " he said, pointing to a beaded curtain, just as the prickly black lights were appearing in my vision. "I can tell when someone is about to puke." Good call, Spyder. Fortunately, by the time I puked, the outline was just about done and my brother and friend turned up.
"I just did speed," I announced nonchalantly. "And I puked. The weed's in the other room."
|You never know.|
But by the time the scabs were off I was into my second week of higher education in Baltimore, and when I came home for winter break, Spyder and Straight-Jacket were no longer speaking to each other because of a kerfuffle involving Spyder's Old Lady, and the new tattoo of her face on Straight-Jacket's tricep, which Straight-Jacket maintained was for aesthetic purposes because she was so pretty, and nothing to to with any alleged fling.
Then he and Straight-Jacket started off on another story. The speed had made them all the talkier. Spyder called Straight-Jacket a fag. Straight-Jacket said, "If you call me a fag one more time, I'll cut you."
"Fag," said Spyder.
|It bled a lot.|
While Spyder was gone (and he really was making a poultice, by the way, with a stash of herbs he apparently had in the other bathroom, along with some medical tape and cloth bandages), Straight-Jacket wanted to confess something to me.
"I don't just like you as a friend, Stranger. I *Like* you, if you know what I mean." I started to answer with the stock response a teenager has for such awkward moments, but he cut me off. "I know you probably don't think of me like that. You're going off to college and your whole life is ahead of you, better than I can ever do, but I just wanted you to know that from the first time I met you, I thought you were the cutest, prettiest little thing I ever saw."
Then Spyder came back with his arm all wrapped up. Straight-Jacket excused himself for a pee. While he was gone, Spyder said not to mention it to Straight-Jacket, but that he probably should be getting stitches, what with the way the blood had burbled like that the knife had nicked an artery, but he didn't want to fuck up his tattoos with stitches, plus he wanted to finish my tattoo.
Later I found out it wasn't just the Old Lady that had caused the rift between Spyder and Straight-Jacket. It was also the cut, which Straight-Jacket said had healed up just fine, with almost no marring of the tattoos.
After that, there's not much I remember except that the tattoo was eventually finished and bandaged, we all got home safe with no one the wiser, and I went off to college shortly after to start my new life. This life didn't involve becoming a plastic businessman, as I'd feared, so it's a really good thing most 18 year olds don't know jack shit about anything.
And so, dear readers, that is the story of how I got my tattoo. It's a fine tattoo, as far as free tattoos go, save for the bits that bled out and the bits I was never totally happy with. And I like the way it changes shape depending on how I move my leg. I also like how it's mostly secret except in summer.
But most of all, I like the story of how it got there. And now I think, 20 years later, it's time to amend the dear thing in honor of the ever-changing narrative of life and reality, because that's worth something too.
Dear Mom and Dad,