Three hooded kids are waiting in the centre of the tattoo studio, heads down, tapping pensive cigarettes into an ashtray; in the background, the hum of the tattoo needle, stopping occasionally, then restarting after the tattooist dips the needle in a colour and begins a new line on the design. There is a faint smell of detergent and rolling tobacco. The front part of the tattoo studio has a high, white ceiling, a montage of designs, both progressive and traditional, covering every large wall. Dark-side Paul Booth style skulls, black and white portraits of the famous and infamous, traditional roses and fifties fantasy pinup girls pose from one corner; intricately-weaved Celtic armbands and curling, sweeping tribal designs are boldly displayed on another wall. A woman with a pony tail, red cropped top and black frog on her toned upper arm is in conversation with a middle-aged punk with white, spiky hair whilst her small son draws black lines on his arm with a thick, black felt pen. A hairy biker sits smoking and listening, sleeves cut off his denim jacket to show permanent sleeves inked into his skin: Japanese fish, dragons and symbols on each arm.
Through the back, where the tattooist imprints his art onto the body, pots of ink are lined up on a shelf, bright primary colours that can be mixed and shaded into the skin as intricately as a painting. The chair is like a dentist's chair, black like the walls that have shelves or ornamental candles, skulls and framed photographs, one of a man with a fully tattooed face. Another skull stares from the bubbling tank where a terrapin silently floats.
Rhythmic bass suddenly bangs from the speaker high up on the wall. Heavy metal guitar. A deep bass drum. I clench my fist. Now, in anticipation, I wait for my first ink injection. The tattooist sits, legs apart, heavy boots, worn jeans. His tattoos come up around his neck, dark green and black ink creeping over his collar line and down past his rolled-up sleeves and onto his hands. He has a shaved head and a ring through his eyebrow. Gypsy rings in his ears. A big man, when he stands up I notice that he is overweight. On his hand there is his name, Marc. Then he puts on a pair of surgical gloves.
I have chosen my design. It is traditional, Chinese, and represents many things; rebirth, yet death, both masculine and feminine, intuition, darkness, deception. Bright splashes of green, yellow, red and black shine from small metal pots in his pallet. When the buzzing of the needle begins I am not afraid. After the initial shock as the gun starts and the needle punctures the skin, you cannot feel anything much, then after a while a gentle buzzing soon turns to a concentrated hot burn. Black ink is worked onto the purple lines of the guiding transfer around my upper right arm. Marc tells me that this thin outline is the most painful part of the process. I grit my teeth. The music is extreme, heavy and repetitive, I concentrate on the beat. I take the pain of the needle. The harshness subsides, after half an hour I am accustomed to the needle. I feel nothing really but a light-headedness. It is almost a relief from the mental pain. I can forget the burning of my hatred and confusion and concentrate on my numb and wounded skin as red globes sprout and are wiped away like tears. I relax, almost, I am able to speak freely, a little too freely, but my arm lies submissively on the arm of the chair. The tattooist manipulates my limb. My hand then rests on his knee.
Primitive tribes would use the sharp bones of a bird's wing and the juice of wild herbs and berries to make the colours. Today, the needle is sterile and precise. A new one is used each time. Marc dips the needle into water, then puts the tip in colour, holds down the skin and begins a new line. He knows a lot about the history of his art. He tells me that Cook discovered the 'tattoo', which derives from the Polynesian islander's word for the practice of striking the skin. I listen whilst focussing on the woman in flame on his forearm. I wonder who she is. The Maoris view the tattooing procedure as a celebration, Marc continues, the inked person being taboo and only allowed to speak to those involved with the ceremony, with only the tattooist being allowed to speak back to them. Four thousand years ago, Egyptian concubines were marked with the sign of Bes.
…..Ink my pale and virgin skin. Penetrate my top layer with your weapon; I, woman, receiver of instrument, bearer of pain. Vibrations flow down my arm and through my body. Draw those lines beneath my epidermis then draw out my pain so that I tell you my story. My whole life. My whole life story. Then you can colour between, in between those lines. I feel that vibration running down my arm. Yes it hurts. Hurts bad. But I love this feeling, it is getting me high………
The tattooist's needle is harsh but his hands are kind. His voice is kind. I suddenly want to tell him everything. I want to tell him everything about me. Yet I know that I cannot tell anyone. He is drawing the pain to the surface. It is drawn up fro a cavern, a dark hidden place and surfaces at skin level. I tell him how I cried alone. How it felt like I was shedding a skin. He inks black into my skin. It takes a long time. It is difficult for the black to stay in evenly.
Marc tells me that he cries. I start to laugh because he looks so tough. He asks me if I think it is funny that he cries. I say, "No, I really like it."
I have never seen my father cry.
Marc enjoys his work. I gaze at his neck, his tattooed arms. I find myself wondering if he is tattooed all over his body. "Do you have tattoos all over your body?" I find myself asking.
"No, not where you're thinking," he answers lightly, "I've got that pierced."
Today I am marked, Marc-ed. He jokes that he will tattoo his name on me. Today I am marked. I am marked with a snake that twists as I move my arm.
….You are clairvoyant. I believe you. Yes I do. You were hearing voices for a time and they thought you might be crazy. Then someone gave you a wedding ring to hold. You could sense the dead owner of the ring. You could receive messages from the deceased. And you could see what was going to happen. I believe you. I was supposed to come to you….
After the first hour, the light bandage is removed. There is soreness and the smell of antiseptic. Clean and new-hued skin. Colours are bright and unhealed. I rinse of the blood. Soon a crust forms, a slightly darker shade than the design beneath. Plates of scab crease where the skin moves like raised, coloured landscapes. Crevices, craters. A longing to pick and pull away at the thick crusts. The ugliness of a tattered wound as the green, red and black scabs flake off and turn to dust. Then the urge to scratch the itching growth of new skin. Slowly, as days pass the tattoo becomes smooth, colours subtler as they react with my skin tone. Healing is a gradual and patient process which, if interrupted, can leave a scar.
….Marc, you have marked me. Forever. You are a listener, not everyone is a listener. I lie, thinking of you, tracing my fingers over the coloured skin. How fascinating. How fascinating you are. A snake. I am a snake. You will see me shed my skin, until I am raw and new and exposed. I will tell you everything. I bathe and think of you, reds and greens bright beneath the surface of the water. A snake eye staring up, staring out………..
There is blood on a folded tissue. I drift into the beat of the heavy hypnotic music. A world away, preserved within history, Polynesian natives rhythmically drum, sing and clap to allow the tattooed person to drift into a half-conscious state and to aid the liberation of pain. I listen to guitar riffs and the primal scream of a suicidal punk rebel. Marc tells me that in certain parts of the Caroline Islands women have their most intimate area tattooed; designs so beautiful and intricate that they look like items of clothing. He smiles. I say, "Maybe."
In tradition, tattoos remove the naked animalistic quality of the skin. Japanese irezumi tames the savage animal, Flesh becomes a dynamic human canvas where birds, fish and flora move with the motion of the body. The Japanese hunter camouflaged from predators as he searched in rock pools, the designs and colours of tattooed skin lying beneath the epidermis of the water, colours brought to life by wave and sun.
….I am feral. You are taming me. You are making me yours……
The hum of the tattooist's needle excites me. Marc likes my skin. It is good skin. Good skin to ink. He tells me of his health problems. His smoking. His obesity. Of how the doctor told him not to give up smoking because he would put on more weight. He never knew his father. He just remembers that he was fat, with a big nose. Then Marc is silent, concentrating on lines of green and purple. He cleverly knows the movement of skin. He leaves white finger marks with his firm grip. My sore skin throbs. The needle sends shivers elsewhere to connected nerve endings. Shivers run through my brain. I get that head rush. That high.
.…Clichés. You say that you are my soul mate. We both love the sea. Yes, our souls are the same. We have a gypsy spirit. We want to run away together. Crazy. We will travel the world. But for now I am bound, held down, it hurts……
How lovingly he wipes the excess ink and blood from my skin. How lovingly he corrupts this perfect skin. Now everyone can see. Everyone will know. I do not want the world to see. I hide the tattoos. My pain is private. I do not want others' judgement inflicted onto me. That is worse than any needle to the skin. But Marc says, "It doesn't matter what they say."
We are freaks. We are the freaks. Nearly everyone has a small tattoo. They are hardly shocking anymore, not in Western society. Yet no-one is as brave as us. Look at the colours now on my arm. My left arm. Intricate shading, Japanese cloud, bold blood-red cherry blossom. Tattoos decorate my arm from shoulder to wrist, cutting off sharply at the cuff-line. We have our opponents. They think we are dirty. Outsiders. That the needles may be dirty and cause infection. But we are clean and tribal. Rising higher, wiser than all of them.
….Ink my skin with rebellion. Decorate me. Mutilate me. Make me primitive…..
Marc says that man is not supposed to be monogamous. His little boy smiles from the cardboard school frame on the studio wall. He is proud of him. He would never hit a child.
Yes, it is true. Of course a man can be in love with two women at once. His wife does not know about me. How he touches me. How he places his art permanently on my skin. He loves my skin. He tells me how soft it is.
….Your arms are beautiful. The inks have run together, twenty years of tattoos, all merged, and spread, and the lion is still there on the back of your hand. You scratch the back of your hands until the skin flakes. You can never shed that skin. You will always be marked, Marc. My Marc. It is not just the physical I go for. It is a mental plane. You are on my wavelength. Soothe me, move me with your tattooed hands. I am pliable. I will twist and turn. You pull my arm around, stretch the skin. I will twist and turn for you. It is not just the physical. You are obese. You are kind. You are nasty. A sadist. You love to put that needle in my skin. Love to watch me bleed. This is savage. We drink hot, sweet coffee and I stay much longer than I need to. I need you……
When the soreness settles to a new coloured skin, I am painted yet empty and lonely again. I need to see him.
Oh, how I am alone, an outcast. I have no family. What a freak. I have no family.
….I come back for more. You know why. This affair, a mental, private thing. How you penetrate. Get deeper than anyone. I pay you good money. I pay you to permanently scar me, to add beauty to my skin. Make me savage. Cut me. Like I told you I cut myself. Cut me. Like I told you how I cut my wrists. Cut my wrists. I need you. I need to see you again. You are the only one that I tell. Yet I will never tell you I love you. This love is brutal……
Marc says that I am secretive. His tattooed hands are beautiful. He makes me feel unbroken. The pain fills my void. The pain elevates me. He tattoos wings across my shoulder blades in black and grey. I could be an angel or a devil. I have a desire to fly. To fly free of this world.
I give Marc my money. He says that he will look after me.
….Clichés. Pleasure is pain. Love is pain. I feel this deeper than anything, anything, it is all I feel. The needle is buzzing; I am lying back on the chair. I do not fear. You know why I come back for more. You know I get high. You know I get off on this. I want to touch your gypsy earrings, your tattooed neck you can never hide, because you do not want to hide. You wanted the world to see. The world to see what? Your tattoos and everything that they mean. The pain builds up till I cannot feel it any more. I can feel nothing and all I do is talk. And you listen. Listen so well. I tell you everything. I trust you. I trust you. I bleed for you. I will die for you….
The needle stops as his phone rings. He asks about his son. He tells her he will be home soon. He is with a customer.
….I love you. I love this pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. How it is throbbing. Look, blood, red tears. Oh, how you cut me. I bleed for you. I will bleed for you. I will die for you. I am yours. I am your walking work of art. I am your canvas. When we are apart I can hardly wait to see you again. I can hardly wait for the skin to heal. I must stop myself from scratching, picking, tearing at what is perfect, evolving.
It is funny, funny how it all comes out, up to the surface. It all comes out eventually, weaves to the top, to the surface layer, for everyone to see. I love you. Can't you see?.....