Short story: “Tattoo You”

Well, so much for “Busted”. The judges didn’t approve so it WON’T be included in the anthology. So I thought I should post a piece that will be included:

Tattoo You

Morgana MacLeod

There’s a story behind every tattoo. I gotta say, but, nowdays they go on with a lot of bullshit about tattooing. Look at the names they give the parlours, hey? Sacred Skin – that joint’s run by some hippy chicks who fart-arse around painting henna on dance party kids. That’s not tattooing, mate. Tattoos are about steel and ink. Blood gets spilt, they’ve got to hurt, it’s part of the deal. My shop’s called Tradewinds Tattoo. Tells you all you need to know – it’s on Tradewinds Road and I’ll ink ya. Right to the point, like me. Ask me and I’ll tell you, straight up. No fucking around.

My father was a gambling man… nah, I’m just pulling your leg. He was a wharfie, but and some of the blokes he knocked around with had a lot of tatts. In the merchant marine and that, they’d get work done wherever they landed for a bit of shore leave – kind of like stamps in a passport. A Maori curl here, a bit of Tongan geometric stuff there. One bloke was a classic, talk about wearing your heart on your sleeve. He had an old-school valentine with a rose, high up on his left arm, scroll underneath with his old lady’s name, you know. Well, this joker, he ended up with, no word of a lie, 13 scrolls underneath, one after the other, all but the last one with some sheila’s name. He got ‘em inked out, see, whenever he had a bust up. He ended up staying with the last one, Mavis she was. Everyone used to ride him, said he’d only stuck with her ‘cause he was running out of skin.

We’re not all rough blokes. You know the image, beer-bellied bikers, all beards and balls. Yeah, okay, I’ve got a fair bit of work myself – wouldn’t trust a cleanskin tattooist, would ya? No more than you’d buy steak off a vegetarian butcher. But what I’m saying, from the jaw up I could be anyone – tradie, copper, office stiff. I got glasses, now, for reading and inking, but you get that when you’re speeding past fifty. Longish hair, grey mostly but still plenty of it, combed back. Clean shaven – these blokes with long beards, it’s not hygienic, hey, inking away with crumbs of yesterday’s lunch dropping into the open wound. It’s all about hygiene, these days, with AIDS and hep and who knows what-all else. I was always very careful about keeping clean, but, even back in the day – fussy old woman, the inkslinger who apprenticed me used to say.

But it’s serious, like, you know – serious business. A tattoo is for life – don’t get me started on those lasers – and you better know what you’re doing before you stick your needles deep into a person’s skin, squirting ink. It’s an intimate thing, the trust and the time – on the South Sea Islands, way back when, lot of times it was the priests, medicine men or witch doctors, whoever, used to do tatts, did ya know that? My work is there when the client is stark bollock naked – just him, his missus and my art. People take my ink to the grave. Think about it. Laying in a coffin, all alone, no family or friends, but they’re still wearing their tatts.

The pain… people worry about the pain, and it takes some different from others. I’ve had big strong blokes bawling in the chair – can’t even finish the outline on some of ‘em, that or they never come back to get the colour filled in. Sketch artists, I call ‘em. Others are hard, you can work away for hours without a flinch. People surprise you, hey? I had a dainty little lass come in the other day, wanted a lotus on her back… well, it was so far down it was just above her crack, really, you know where they get ‘em these days, so they show off with those low-slung jeans they wear. Here’s trouble, I thought, first time I put the machine to her she’ll squeal like a stuck pig. But nah, she laid there with her jeans pulled down and a dreamy smile on her face like I was… well, anyway, she didn’t so much as twitch.

I’m a bit old-fashioned, you’d probably call it, there are some things I won’t do on a woman. Nuthin’ on the face or neck, for a start. Trying to be blokes, some of the girls these days, and the guts of it is – they just look crap. No respect for themselves or for anyone else and I’m not gunna work on them, help them drag themselves down into the gutter. What’s a girl with a bloody great tatt on her neck gunna do with her life, you tell me? Make her living wrapped around a pole or lying on her back – dead set, talk about marked for life. I have done work for some ladies – working girls I mean – but I won’t touch their high-traffic areas, I think you get my drift. I saw one girl with pay before you enter on her belly, with an arrow pointing down. Nothing artistic about that, is there? What if she manages to hook some fool who wants to make an honest woman out of her – like I say, it’s not nice. There was a girl, pretty little thing, too, wanted a trail of ants marching up her thigh, leading to… well, use your imagination. I did that one, that was okay, a bit of fun, you know – not crass.

But here I go, rambling on. I wanted to tell you about this one bloke I had in. Quiet bloke he was, bit under six foot, not heavily muscled but not real soft, either. Normal, you’d have to say – just a bog-standard bloke. Anyway, in he comes one quiet arvo, mid-week. I heard the door chime – I was out the back mucking around with the autoclave, you know, sterilizing some gear and that, and the bell goes off and out I come. He’s there, hands in pockets, casual, just checking out the flash up on the walls.

‘Can I help you with anything, mate?’ I asked him. Just a sightseer, I reckon, nuthin’s happening here.

‘Yeah’ he says and strolls over to the counter. ‘Something a bit different.’

‘No worries. What have you got in mind? Did you bring a pic or drawing in, give us a start?’

‘No, nothing on paper. I can tell you, though. I… umm, want a girl. On my chest. ‘Bout here.’ He points to his chest, just above his heart.

‘A special girl? Wife, girlfriend, daughter? I can do ya a portrait from a photo, so real you’ll expect her to look up at ya and start nagging.’ I flip open one of my photo-books, push it across to show him.

‘Nah, a dancing girl. You know, Hawaiian?’

‘A hula girl? Grass skirt, bare tits, maybe a bit of surf and sunset behind her?’

He nods.

‘Too easy.’ I tell him. ‘Come on back.’ I lift up the flap on the counter, bring him around to the business side. You ever been in a tattoo parlour? I’ve got a big chair like at the dentist, black vinyl and chrome. All adjustable, like, so I can get ‘em at just the right angle. It’s bright lights and stainless steel, hey, my workshop, not a titty calendar in sight – can’t even smoke inside, these days. So I get him to strip off his shirt and climb up on the chair. He’s a bit hairy, there on his chest where he wants the ink, so I grab a throwaway razor.

‘I’ll just get rid of a bit of this, mate.’ I tell him and shave him down. I get him to swing his arm around a bit, watching how his flesh moves and reshapes with different positions. That’s the kind of attention to detail you don’t get from these backyard scratchers, teach themselves tattooing from a book. Anyway, while he’d got his arm up over his head I get an idea.

‘Flex your pec for me a bit.’

He kind of looks at me sideways, but does it.

‘You know, I could make her dance if you want, when you twitch that muscle, if I put her hips right here.’ I point where I mean.

‘Sounds good.’ he says and we’ve got a plan.

‘Bit cold, now.’ I warn him, and swab on the antiseptic. ‘So, you’re happy for me to go freehand?’ Sometimes I draw a design and transfer it, sometimes freehand.

‘Yeah.’ He says. ‘Go for it. I can suggest a few things, maybe, as we go.’

‘Alright, mate, it’s your tatt.’ I tell him, tilting a mirror so he can keep on eye on what’s happening while I work. Customers always right, they reckon, but once I start getting stuck in with the machine most people are flat out not screamin’ – forget about making design suggestions.

‘Here we go.’ I switch the machine on, put the needle into his skin for the first time. It’s just a test dot, really, the first one. You have a good look, next time you’re on the beach or in some other place where there’s a bit of skin on show – no, don’t tell me where, your private life’s your own. But what I’m saying is, check carefully and you’ll see quite a few lonely blue dots. Some people can’t cop it – one dot and that’s it, they’re out of there. Anyway, this bloke doesn’t flinch or sing out or nuthin’, so I think goodo and hook in.

I’ve got the outline of the girl’s body down, nice and curvy, hips tilted at just the right angle and not a squeak out of him. Mind you, the tattoo machine buzzes pretty loud – like a mozzie zapper taking out bugs the size of a chook – and most blokes under the needle aren’t all that chatty.

‘You need a break?’ I say.

‘Nah mate, it’s all good.’

‘I’ll get going on the colouring and shading, then. You want her light or dark skinned?’

‘Light on the body. On her face… something different.’

‘Different, how?’ I’m looking through the flesh-toned inks, thinkin’ I’d probably go for a custom mix to get the right shade of sun-burnished bronze.

‘Have you ever seen that Green Lady picture? Chinese bird with a blue-green face?’

‘Yeah, I know the one. My olds had one on the lounge room wall when I was a nipper.’

‘Like her.’ He looks really pleased with himself, settles back in the chair.

Hang on, I thought. Bugger that customer’s always right crap. I had to put in my two bobs worth. ‘She’s gunna look like she’s gone ten rounds with Kostya Tszyu.’

‘Yeah, maybe you’re right.’

Beaut, I thought, the silly bastard’s seen sense. I went back to loading the machine with ink.

‘Do it anyway.’

I shook my head but didn’t argue anymore. I changed out the ink for a seasick green and got to it, shading and tinting her face like he wanted. I glanced up and caught his eyes in the mirror.

‘Bring a bit more shading through the face there, mate.’ He tells me. ‘Show more of her bone structure.’

What did I care? He’d already turned my smiling Aloha girl into a freak. When I finished with her head she looked… creepy. I mean, I’m used to bikers gettin’ the Grim Reaper inked all over ‘em, you know – if it wasn’t for flamin’ skeletons I wouldn’t have eaten, some weeks – but this bird just looked wrong. Her lush curved hips and waving hands topped off with that corpse’s head. I dunno, I’m good with ink, not words – all I can tell you is that she looked wrong. ‘Mate, we’ve got a bit of a problem here.’ I tell him.

‘What’s that?’

‘I’m getting set to colour the body. It’s not gunna blend in with that face you’ve given her.’

‘Problem solved.’ he says, with a smart-arsed cheesy grin. ‘I want you to put a narrow red band around her throat.’

‘Hey? Like a choker? I was gunna put a lei around her neck, but lower, you know, half over her tits.’

‘Exactly right. A choker.’ He chuckled, a crazy high-pitched cackle. His eyes in the mirror were glassy, too bright and too wide, bigger pupils than Mickey Mouse. I’m a big bloke, know how to handle meself, but I felt a cold ripple like someone just run an ice cube up my backbone.

‘A choker.’ He said the word slowly and carefully, his mouth deliciously full with it, like ‘choker’ was chocolate melting on his tongue.

I had a bit of a word with meself, then, like, while I fiddled with the machine, pretending it needed adjusting. This bloke had more than one kangaroo loose in the top paddock, no question – did I finish the tatt or get shot of him? I kept going. Yeah, he was sus, but his money was the some colour as a sane person’s. Besides – the heart of the matter – I couldn’t come at leaving a piece of art half-finished.

I inked in her body, her grass skirt and the lei. From the neck down she was a top sort. I could have turfed him out then, but we had a deal.

‘So, we’re still going with sunset on the beach in the background? Ripple of water running up to her feet?’

‘In that wave, I want you to write something.’

Of course you do, I thought.

‘Put: Layla R.I.P 11.10.08.’

‘October the eleventh this year? Almost three weeks ago?’ I sort of felt better then, took the first full breath I’d managed since he’d started going on about chokers. His missus had carked it not long ago, that was why he was a bit off. I rolled my shoulders a bit to loosen up and started on the background, but old mate wasn’t finished.

‘Everything would have been alright if she’d just shut up. Break it up, I said, I don’t want to know, but she kept on and on… you know women. Even then it might’ve been okay, I maybe could have just walked away, left her to it, but she started going on about his cock. About how he was such a dynamite root and how she’d had her first orgasm, for crying out loud. First orgasm? We’d been married fifteen fucking years. I saw red. You ever had that happen? I actually saw red, like my eyes were filled with blood instead of water and when they cleared, when I could see what was going on –  Layla was dead. And then it was her eyes that were filled with blood. Wasn’t seeing much, but.’ Again he let fly with the cackle. ‘She didn’t go green then, in case you were wondering. That came later. I threw her in the boat, went out to Mudjimba Island. Bit of a project, landing her on the island. I didn’t have time, then, to bury her. Sun was coming up and I had to get back, didn’t want anyone to see me. I put her in that falling down shack, there, didn’t make it back until a week later. Waited for a cloudy night, no moon. By then she was green.’

Turned my guts, fair dinkum. Not the thought of her lying there, bloating in the sun, no company but the insects as her pretty face swelled and changed colour till it was just one big bruise. Don’t get me wrong, that’s bad enough, but I’ve seen a bit over the years. I used to ride with some boys who solved their problems by digging holes, ya know what I’m saying. It was the way he said it, the gloating gleam in his eyes and the way he savoured the memories as he filled my ears with poison.

‘You know my only regret?’

I shook my head, inking as fast as I could.

‘Now the bitch is dead I can’t have the pleasure of offing her again.’

I usually like to see my art on people out and about – walking billboards, I call ‘em. But as I finished up, smeared the tatt with vaso and slapped on a dressing, I was muttering prayers to any god listening that I’d never see this one again. ‘Keep that on for a few days.’ I told him. ‘Keep it clean for the next week or so, and stay out of the sun until it heals up. And mate?’

He was sitting up now, back to me as he climbed out of the chair. ‘Yeah?’

‘I’m not gunna dog you to the cops. Nuthin’ to tell, hey, just two old mates having a bit of a yarn.’

He’s nodding away, grin on him like a bull terrier and he’s still got that crazy cold light behind his glassy eyes.

I lean forward, then, closer than I wanted to get to his face. ‘I reckon you might want to pack up and move on, you know, for the good of your health. Sea air’s not the best for everyone. I’ve got a lot of mates around the Sunny Coast, mates with daughters, sisters, nieces, cousins…’

He gets a bit pale, then, well, more greenish like and his mouth screws up like his guts have just turned. Now he can’t leave fast enough. He’s nearly through the door when I call him back. He swings around all in one piece, like he’s stiff and sore all over.

‘And if you want any more work done, go somewhere else.’ Like I said, every tattoo tells a story – but some, you’re better off not knowing.



2 Responses

  1. Okay, seriously disturbed now!
    Not usually one for shortstories, if it isn’t over 300 pages I don’t bother but this one, well it worked.
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Ooh, I LOVE being disturbing! Thank you very much for the kind review… and for taking the time to dabble on the short side.

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