Feb 21, 2008

Poetry Friday Challenge: Tattoo

Mona payed me an honour turned to a "tee." She let me choose the Poetry Friday word.

I actually struggled over this for a while, and cheated in a way; I'd pick a word and write a bit in my head, test it, turn it over and over in my mouth until spitting it out and tasting another. It took me a while, but I finally tasted the one I wanted, the one that tasted like surgical soap and carbon black pigments and metal needles, the one that smelled of cigarette smoke and tasted of blood.


This is loosely based on my own experience both as a tattoo artist's apprentice and as a tattooed person, an illustrated man. I still deeply regret the circumstances that stopped me from continuing in the very old, very rich tradition of tattooing people. I'll let you decide what is my own experience and what is cut from whole cloth, what is real and what is done with stewmeat and puppets.


He always hated this part. He always loved this part. The first touch of needle to skin, the first hint of pigment lying under pink dermis, the first bright pearls of blood flowing up behind his instrument.

The place he worked was called "Blue Moon Tattoo." He'd no idea why the owner had named it that. There were rumours that his back was completely covered in tattoos of moons. There were also rumours that the shop survived on a brisk trade in crystal meth, but he'd never seen nor smelled any sign of cooking. He'd also never seen his boss' bare back. The whole of it was a mystery, a smokescreen, a dark cloud in an otherwise blue sky.

When he'd taken the job offered him he'd been told something that had stuck with him like the pigments under his own skin. It was what the boss had told him just before offering the apprenticeship. "Remember kid, we're not selling steak here, we're selling sizzle." As the years had passed he'd grown to appreciate more and more the simple, elegant truth of that statement. People didn't want steak. Steak could be bought at any of a dozen places within driving distance. They wanted sizzle. They wanted smoke and mirrors, they wanted the thrill of "doing a bad thing." The place was hospital clean even though the haphazard mix of furniture and the walls covered in plastic-sleeved flash seemed to belie that truth. The work they did was as carefully controlled as the work of a surgeon opening an incision, but their uniform was not that of green scrubs and ivory white gloves. The rumours that invariably sprung up around them were carefully cultivated, culled or nurtured as each saw fit.

It was said anything you wanted could be bought from Blue Moon Tattoo Studios, but the truth was Blue Moon was better patrolled by out of uniform police officers than any other part of the city. He knew every cop in the town not by their names but by their tattoos. He'd been everything to everyone--a biker, an outlaw, a convict. He'd seen Japan and lain under the inscrutable master's needles. He'd seen Java and worn a gaily-coloured skirt while huge sun-browned men with bone combs marked his skin. All coloured lights and trickery. The man who sat across from him, separated not by an ocean but by a simple waist-high divider wall was the only person who had laid needles and pigments in his skin. All Fun House mirror distortion, all sizzle.

The client was lying in the big banana yellow dentist's chair beside him, face down. Her pale arms were even whiter in the sharp light of the halogen lamp angled over her skin, and the tousle of reddish blonde hair lay in clean waves across her shoulders. The black T-shirt she'd shucked off so casually lay half-folded on the only other stool in the workspace, a dark blot on dark leather, marred only by a slight ghost of pale makeup that had rubbed off when she'd pulled it over her head. The waist of her bluejeans lay across the curves of her back, covered the swell of her hips like the horizon holding down the sea. The dark blue of the denim made her skin seem even purer, made it seem to him that what he was planning was wrong, was immoral. She'd the palest skin he'd ever seen on a person before, and he'd seen skin. He'd seen skin in every shade, texture and condition, seen skin writhing in snakes and koi fish and geishas, and seen skin so ebony that the blackest pigments were barely visible, and the reds in a rose turned purple. Her skin seemed to glow from underneath with a carnelion pink from the blood that coursed through her veins; it gave off a warm haze of woman-smell and warmth that made him want to pull the black nitrile surgical gloves off and touch her, bare skin to bare skin. He'd not felt like this since he'd first started working, first started carving satyrs and nymphs and curliqued sans serifs across countless, endless bodies. She was clean. Untouched. She was a blank canvas.

It was his job to desecrate this pristine place.

She'd come in often enough, usually in the company of three or five or a dozen other girls her age, but she stood out. Where they cackled and flashed their white teeth behind red lips she was self-contained, quiet. They would gawk and make huge gestures, trying to hide their nervousness, being on the wrong side of the tracks, but she'd been as composed as a statuette. The mere ghost of a smile played around her lips the whole time they were there, every time. They'd come in and fill their eyes with the garish flash, giggling too-loudly over the leering, presenting succubi, the red-skinned demonesses, their breasts proud and grotesquely large, their barbed tails protruding from black leather bikini bottoms. They'd point and laugh and giggle their foolishness, then flee in a perfumed clot, letting the dark night and the stink of the city swallow them whole. Sweet morsels to be unthinkingly devoured.

But she'd come back after they'd stopped returning, gone on to look for some other cheap frisson of imaginary fear. She'd come back with a few good questions that he answered from long practice and a design she'd drawn herself. With the design came the cash; wrinkled green and black bills looking for all the world like an old sailor's forearm work come to life, Balinese dancing girls moving jerkily. It was her first. It was far from his first.

The day was set, the price paid, all over but the crying. The crying and the bleeding. The day came upon him in a haze of flaming skulls and cigarette smoke and the harsh metallic burr of the machines. It crept up on him in the sensuous sounds of the blues that played forever over the speakers overhead. Another of the boss' jokes: Blue Moon only played the blues. But now it was real, it was the day. She was here, lying bare-backed on his chair, the thin straps of her bra dangling over the edges of the dentist's chair, the machine cold and strangely heavy in his black-gloved fingers. The design had already been mimeo'd and placed and gotten her approval. Now it glowed a sickly purple on her pristine skin. The halogen made a glossy, elegant bruise of the freshly-shaved patch of pale skin, pregnant with it's sharp purple lines and swirls.

The pigment was ready, the machine's tight steel muzzle filled with the triangle of sharp steel needles but still he hesitated. To cover the delay he bounced his foot on and off the pedal, making the magnets hum with power, making the needles leap into a blur and then still themselves, leap into motion and stop again. It was an old trick of his--match the burring to the simple beat of the music and laugh when the client realised the sounds matched. He'd a whole hatful of little tricks like that, tricks that he could turn cold or warm with a flick of an eye, the slant of a smile. Tricks to relax the client, make them feel he could be trusted. Tricks to make them feel how aloof and distant he was, how cold and uncaring. Sizzle, not steak.

His black hand came down upon her back slowly, a huge spider coming to rest on a pale beach. She didn't tense, didn't jump, didn't do anything that the clients usually did. She was ready, accepting. She'd been told the horror stories, been warned about negligence, warned about cleanliness, warned most especially about the pain and the need to be still. Warned that his touch would be strong, might bruise, so important it was that she hold still. Once he started, he'd told her as the green bills changed hands, they'd be together until it was done, through blood and pain, until completion, release. Pleasure of shared experience. He didn't tell her, as he didn't tell anyone, how careful a balancing act it all was for him--too much power to the machine, too slow a hand and the needles could lay her open like a scalpel. Too deep a pass and he could lay her beautiful skin open like a peeled fruit, and her, new to this, would never know what pain was right, what pain meant scars and blood.

The black-wrapped fingers stretched her pale skin taut, holding the purple outlines in place like a macabre frame. The gleaming silver nose of the machine dipped mincingly into the black pigment cup, tasting of the carbon there like some horrific mechanical bird taking a sip of thin oil. His foot, without him willing it tested the speed again. His tarantula-black hand in it's nitrile sheath felt the familiar vibrations in his fingers that told him it was set, it was right. It was time.

The clutch of silver needles gathered close, the black spider, mirror-mate to the one holding her captive, grew close.


Mona Buonanotte said...

You have this way, this way of winding words around a spool and then pulling them free, that is at once intriguing and secret and seductive. Ah...I think that's the crux of it...you write like seduction, like the spider to the fly. THAT'S why I keep coming here! I'm loving this post in a huge way, and am now thinking I need many...MANY...more tattoos...! Thanks for being the Poetry Friday Master this week! You are one awesome writer!

Mother of Invention said...

Wuh! Such excellent description and diction! Very senusual and captivating about a topic I'd not normally want to read about..I hate needles and pain! I do from 5-10 needles a day of insulin and prick my fingers the same and I don't like it much.

You are a fabulous writer. My entry is of a march to a different drummer! Thanks for hosting!

Clowncar said...

Nice, nice piece of writing. Really alive and vibrant. There's a scary-sexy tension between the sexual imagery ("Her skin seemed to glow from underneath with a carnelion pink from the blood that coursed through her veins") and the gun/scalpel/spider imagery. And you capture the behavior of teenage girls in groups spot on.

And Mona's right, there is a spider/fly predator/prey seduction
thing coursing through the whole thing.

Just wonderful. Glad to have read it.

Maggie said...

God the phrasing in this is so beautiful. It's like staring at a painting dripping with deep textured strokes and feeling the awe of it. How beauty can induce sadness simply for the sake of its beauty.

this line: The waist of her bluejeans lay across the curves of her back, covered the swell of her hips like the horizon holding down the sea

took my breath, along with so many others in this piece.

meno said...

I never know what to say after reading something i like, something that caught me, despite everything else going on around me.

But i thought i should say soemthing.

Irrelephant said...

Mona, I think I'm blushing right down to my roots. *s* I'm glad you enjoyed it, I really truly am. I find that when I write about things that affected me deeply it makes the words easier, as though those memories are like grains of sand and over the years my mind has built a pearl around each and every one.

MOI, I don't envy you the insulin sticks thing. *shiver* The only way I can stand a needle is in the hands of a trusted tattoo artist, and only then because through that pain and sickly feeling beauty will emerge.

Clowncar, I'm taking that to heart because you, sir, are what I consider a damn fine writer.

You know, the more I wrote and the more I dredged up those memories the more I realised just HOW sexual tattooing is: dom and sub, penetration (of skin,) blood and pain (if you do it right!) and pleasure. It's a VERY intense experience when you really trust and really know the person tattooing you, and that gives yet another level to it all.

When you tattoo yourself, now, that's just masturbation. *lol*

Maggie, you do me an honour that I often think I don't deserve. Like I told Clowncar, the act of tattooing someone is, for me at least, a VERY multi-layered time. They put their trust in you, knowing full well that you're going to cause them pain, and you have to cause them pain to give them what they want. For the length of the tattoo process (some of my pieces have reached 6 hours in duration) you're both intensely focused on that point, that spark of pain in your flesh, and there's a weird bond made there.

Meno, thank you dear one. You said it all: if I can, if you'll excuse the expression 'prick' your interest in the midst of your life then I can ask for no greater gift.

Jean said...

The artist captured the moment beautifully. 'artist' meaning you, of course.

Gordo said...

I'm in awe, Irr. I got my one and only tattoo 7 1/2 years ago. I think it's time for the follow-up that I haven't been able to settle on yet.

Nancy Dancehall said...

Whew. Ok, that decides it. I AM getting a tattoo. Right after a cold shower...

Great, as always.

Irrelephant said...

Jean, you're a sweetheart. Thank you for the kind words! I was really trying to capture the swarm of feelings that I always got just before touching needles to someone's skin AND my own feelings, both from the pov of the artist and as the receiver.

*g* Gordo, sounds likes it's high time to get back in the chair. My last one I think has been some five years ago or more too. I've got a headful of ideas but no money to make them reality right now.

Nancy, you really ought to! Do your research, find a reputable shop that does professional work, make sure they can present current credentials from the Health Department and go for it!

I've always found that the most rewarding experience comes from having a good working relationship with your artist--walking into a shop and saying "I want #147 from the wall there," plunking down in the chair and getting it isn't nearly as interesting nor lasting in the spiritual sense as bringing your own base design in, working closely with an artist you _like_ to develop it and THEN have it sewn on. It makes the experience, if you will, go far deeper.