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

doing it for the girl

‘I’m the one that has to die when it’s time for me to die, so let me live my life, the way I want to.’

– Jimi Hendrix

I received an interesting question today via email. A friend asked me what I dreamed of as a child.

I wanted to be many things but the truth is, I’ve always wanted to fly. The idea of being completely free of expectations, demands and boundaries, to spread my wings and take off to wherever, whenever I wanted to was an exhilarating thought. I first fought for that freedom when I was 16.

‘You will go to university!’ the Father shouted at me, banging hard on the table.

‘No dad, I want to do this. I want to do things that are creative. I don’t need to be a doctor, a lawyer… whatever it is you want me to be. I’d rather be doing something I love for the rest of my life.’ I mustered up enough courage to stand before him – the man I saw as my hero.

‘You mean you’d rather be poor? You think when the day comes you have no money, that if you’re surrounded by things you love, it’ll be enough? Will it feed you? Clothe you? Give you a future?’

I remember his eyes. They were filled with such anger and… tears.

‘Yes. I’d rather be doing what I love than to go earn myself a piece of paper that means nothing.’ I shouted back, before turning around and leaving the house.

And like all dramatic moments, the skies opened up to a thunderstorm so I had no choice but to walk in the rain. I sobbed all the way to the nearest shopping centre and called up my close friend but guess what? Friends can’t help you solve your problems.

‘I seriously thought you weren’t coming home that night,’ the Mother said to me, years later. But I eventually did. I returned with a battle plan.

‘Look dad, I’ll get myself a qualification. While the rest of my friends are off playing, earning cash or lazing around, I’ll study what you think is beneficial to my future. But after that, you’ve got to let me do what I want to do. This is my future.’

He agreed.

I got myself a diploma in Computer Programming and slogged my nights away, learning languages that no man should learn. I learnt how to create software. Thereafter, I pursued another diploma in Communications and majored in television production and journalism. And still after that, I got myself another diploma in Education.

I never got my degree.

Sometimes I wonder… did I get to fly?

‘I think that’s why I love reading and writing,’ I replied my friend. ‘Reading takes me to places I’d never get to explore; into the vast world I’ve not yet walked and into the psyche of another man’s mind he wouldn’t otherwise reveal… And that’s why I write – it gives me wings.’

I’ve not stopped fighting for my dreams since that day.

I do it for the girl in me.


‘In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.’

– Albert Camus

Today, I wanted to be alone. But the boss called me out to have coffee with the team to chat.

Today, I wanted to climb my mountain. But the year’s projects came in and while it is the usual list of major things to do… I found out that two of the events will be taking place in the precise month I’d been planning my getaway.

Today, I wanted to listen to music and read my book on the train. But two friends spotted me on the train and came over to chat.

And yet, today, I managed to smile.

This is because of a secret I have.

Early in the morning, I made a decision to pursue a dream that I’ve longed for, the past 6 years. While the rest of the world lay in slumber, I made a call – a call that will cost me dearly. But it will be worth it. It’s my precious, fragile dream and I’m going to do it.

I’m doing it for the woman in me.


‘I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time – waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God – it changes me.’

– C.S. Lewis

After the call, I felt so completely and utterly alone. I walked the corridors, hungry for a quiet corner to meet the Dream Maker. Eventually, I found one by a stairwell. I placed by head on His shoulder and stayed there for a very long time.

We didn’t talk much. We didn’t need to. He already knew the turmoil that lay beneath my skin. Him just being there enveloped the fragility of my hopes.

‘I want to run away,’ I whispered.

‘I’ll go with you,’ He answered.

‘Won’t you be upset? You’ve trusted me with so much… It won’t disappoint you that I’m not becoming the person you wanted me to be?’ I asked.

‘I loved you before you made those choices. Why should that change the way I feel?’ He hugged me tighter.


The cage the blackbird lives in is still there but the door is open. The blackbird walks tentatively to the opening and peers out. She spreads her wings and flies away but returns soon after. No, this cage is different. It’s one of complete and total acceptance. She lands in her favourite corner and begins to sing the song that was written before the ages, before she began to live.

She was doing it for the dream in her.