virgin ink

As the hour drew nearer, she got a little nervous. It wasn’t the pain – that was not even on her mind. She was concerned that what she’d designed wouldn’t come through as beautiful and she was beginning to have doubts.

Slowly, she walked along the dark streets in search of number 36 and watched the people hanging around the buildings. They were a mix of bikers, rough looking men with drinks in their hands, scantily clad women with boisterous voices… she felt out of place. This was not her world. If ever she felt like a tourist in her own country, it was now.

’36’, the sign read and she stood there puzzled – an empty Chinese restaurant – the parlour couldn’t possibly be IN the restaurant, could it? And then, she saw it. A small wooden door, hidden beneath the restaurant’s signs. Tentatively, she pushed it open and was greeted with stairs… old creaky wooden ones, just like how it was in Japan. The queasiness in her stomach grew as she walked up three flights, stopping again in front of a door decorated with stone slabs. This had to be it.

She searched for a place to knock or a doorbell to ring. There was none.

‘Should I turn back?’ she wondered but decided to try opening the door anyway. Just as her hand touched the handle, the door opened.

‘Come in,’ a Chinese chap with fluffy curly hair greeted her, and without waiting for her answer, he turned around and walked into the deep recesses of the room. There was a couch on the left, flushed against the wall and a television on the right. The artist had already disappeared through the curtains beyond.

‘Hey, is this where you live?’ she asked, surveying the walls covered with pictures, tattoo artwork, alcohol bottles and a weird Japanese buzzer shaped like a boob.

‘Yeah, my living room. I sleep upstairs,’ came his muffled reply. She pushed past the curtain into a spacious work area with an ominous black bed (a little like the kind you see in hospitals), a bookshelf laden with tattoo art books, another worn couch, a large full-length mirror, a television that showed more static than it did programs and a trolley filled with equipment.

‘So, let’s see the artwork,’ he said, seated in his chair. She handed him her design and he frowned.

‘There are three elements to a good tattoo,’ he began. ‘First, subject. Second, location and third, size. Your design fails on two counts. It cannot be placed where you want it to be and well, it’s the wrong size.’

Her heart plummeted. ‘Can you work something out?’ she asked, trying her best not to plead. It had already taken so much courage to get this far, she could not imagine walking away from this appointment with nothing done. It would be such a disappointment.

‘I suggest either you change the shape of the text, you drop some words or you place it higher up, between the shoulder blades,’ he recommended.

She explained that she only wanted one on her lower back – a place hidden – and asked if there was anything he could do. His frown deepened. It was obvious that tattooing words was not his favourite subject but with a sigh, said he would try. They sat in silence as he drew at his table and she browsed through his stacks of magazines on the floor.

‘Why do people get inked these days?’ she asked, breaking the silence.

‘Some come with clear ideas of what they want, with images that have stories. Then there are those who are fashion victims, always asking for what they see celebrities have. Now, the popular thing is stars. Previously, it was rosaries… why? Because Lindsey Lohan had one. And then there was kanji, because of what’s-her-name? That girl in Transformers… ah, Megan Fox. And even before that, many guys came in because they wanted a huge cross on their back, like David Beckham.’

‘What kind of people come in?’ she wondered if she fit in any category.

‘All kinds – the lawyers, the musicians, the kids… the kids are the most irritating. They never listen to what I advise, always wanting their own thing. Then you have those who contradict themselves. One moment wanting one thing, then changing their minds, then calling you up because it doesn’t look like what they wanted… when all I did was follow instructions…’ he grunted.

‘How long have you been doing this?’

’12 years. I studied to be graphic designer but then, I found that what I enjoyed doing was tattoos.’ Suddenly, he stood up. ‘Here, what do you think of this?’

She looked at the artwork in his hands and smiled. It was perfect.

‘Yes, I want that…’ she replied. The artist nodded with satisfaction and began preparing his equipment.

‘Lie down here,’ he said, applying the design on her back. ‘Yes, it looks good. I think I can like this…’

The girl shut her eyes.

She heard the drone of the machine. She tried to catch the conversations on the television. She caught his breathing patterns. She listened to as many things as she could, her body ready.

It was the first of many stories she wanted to tell.

‘It’s like wearing your heart on your skin,’ she remembered her friend once saying. How true. It had taken many years of planning but she was now ready. At first prick, she flinched, then willed herself to relax. Like all things, the pain never kills.

Pain merely reminds you that you’re alive, that you’re able to feel, and in some ways, tells you that you are not lost. From pain, you navigate your way out… You are merely giving birth to something beautiful.

Throughout history, tattoos signified either a person’s skill or membership with a society or clan. The Greeks used tattooing for communication among spies. Romans marked criminals and slaves. The Ainu people of western Asia used tattooing to show social status. From the ‘freaks’ to the criminals, the artists to the well-traveled, each tattoo was birthed from a story.

As the pain increased with each puncture of her skin, the girl smiled.

She was finally inking herself with history – her personal travel marker of where she’d been and the places she’d seen. None of them were about crossing physical boundaries but emotional and spiritual divides.

‘There, all done,’ the artist sat back with a sigh. ‘You know, I only do a maximum of two sessions a day.’

‘Why?’ the girl sat up, ignoring the fire on her back.

‘My body gets tired but my mind, it’s racing, it’s wide awake. I feel alive but my body doesn’t.’

‘Is that when you play your guitar?’ she said, recalling the Gibsons lining the walls on her way in.

‘Yeah… now let’s look at your back,’ he said, surveying her back carefully. ‘I like it. It’s good,’ he said with a smile.

‘That’s a relief,’ she thought to herself. Putting her story in another man’s hand was scary but when he could take pride in his work, it felt as though he too, was taking pride in her journey.

Walking out into the midnight air, the girl looked at the now quiet streets. Five hours had passed and the scenery was completely different.

‘This is how it feels to be born again,’ she mused as she flagged a cab to take her home, humming a tune beneath her breath.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arise

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to be free

Blackbird fly, Blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night.

– The Beatles