It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single tattoo in possession of open space is in want of some company. Which is to say that my intermittent compulsion to get inked seems to come not from my conscious but rather arises from my flesh itself. This feeling is, of course, imaginary. I realize the limitations of my skin; its cognizance is limited to expressions that feel metaphorically onomatopoetic. “Ow!”, “mmmm!” and “eesh!” are about as articulate as my soft tissue gets. The time has come to get tattooed, for my usually dumb dermis has started to scream.
My first bundle of tattoos will turn twenty this summer. They were three bees—one on my ribcage under my left breast and two hovering in the general vicinity of the waistband of my jeans on my lower abdomen and hip. I got them in Derby, CT, a town that is if not the armpit of Connecticut is at least its nostril. My first three tattoos cost me $100 and they were inked by Spider Webb, something of a legend in the tat world. As he was tattooing me, Spider told me a story about a man who had himself covered with accurate illustrations of butterflies from around the world. By chance, he walked into a bar and met a beautiful lepidopterist. They fell in love. It ended tragically. My time at Spider Webb’s was an experience that supports the adage that your first is always your best. I got tattoos, a story told to me, a story I could tell, and a t-shirt.
Eight or so years later, I was stripping and living a life of pompous edginess. I strutted and preened for a living. My days were hamburger-raw and hazy, and my nights stuffed with loud music, flashing lights and plastic shoes. Caught on the lintel between my strip life and my academic life, I was a creature neither of one world nor the other, and I was struck dumb about it. So I got more tattoos. My bees had grown faint, what with the rubbing of jeans and g-strings. They cried out for color, so I went to Rising Dragon located at the foot of the Chelsea Hotel. Darren, the owner, colored my bees appropriately yellow and added two more—an African bush bee on the back of my neck and a digger bee on my right sacroiliac crest.
My right ankle twitched and signaled my next tattoo, also by Darren, that of a lugubrious Victorian illustration of a moth with skulls on its wings. And when I realized that I had to remove my tongue ring because it was damaging my gums, I got this corresponding visceral kick to transform the two feminine bees on my abdomen into big, dark, flapping bats. They’re all about that raw and metallic urge to flip the world a collective bird.
When I had to put down my dog, the Legendary Spencer, I felt it all over my body, but I marked it with a print of his paw on my right shoulder. It’s an ugly tattoo, or at least the lettering around the paw is ugly, but its ugliness embodies the pain I felt about his loss. I knew before the day I walked Spencer to vet’s for the last time that I’d mark my dog’s death on my body. I put his paw where he once reached when he jumped up on me in exuberance and in love. Some Brazilian boy did the tat, inexpertly and deeply.
My most recent tattoo is a quote from James Joyce, the last seven words in Ulysses, “and yes I said yes I will yes.” It’s a faint, nearly illegible tattoo, but it’s a thing of beauty. This one was done by a woman, Stephanie Tamez, the person I now refer to “my tattoo artist.” This tattoo is in a book. The black-and-white photograph shows the tattoo and my wrist in all its glory, including the white slug of my suicide attempt that crawls inexorably toward my thumb.
Today I’m pondering a new tattoo. Two patches of skin call out, each in a different place, each with a different cry. My right shoulder wants a frame for the keening black that is my Spencer tattoo. It’s too naked and too emotionally bloody. It needs some soft, protective coating. Something with levity, perhaps, coiling around it like cultural cotton. Therefore, I’m considering making a semi-sleeve out of words; two quotes jump like puppies. One is "Sic gorgiamus allos subjectatos nunc,” which are, as Morticia Addams says, not just pretty words. I cleave to the concept that my innate defiance gives me strength. Why not put it on my arm, in Latin, and be cheeky with it. The other is, naturally, a quote from Buffy, the ineffable force that kept me alive this past year: “I may be love’s bitch, but at least I’m man enough to admit it.” Pop culture is as much a part of my life as Joyce, and it seems to form a slender logic that my right shoulder wants to announce it.
My back, however, has a different idea. It flows all cold and high-brow in its somatic response to my shoulder’s snuggling up to pop. It wants the Beaudelaire poem “Enivrez-Vous,” in French, naturellement. My back, at least the strip on my left side from shoulder blade to waist, feels Gallic, pretentious and bohemian, apparently. And yet it’s a poem I love, love with an extra-flamey, white-hot burning passion, and it espouses an idea that I strive to embody, even as I recognize the adolescence of its charm. Who doesn’t want to stay drunk on wine, poetry, virtue or whatever? No one I want to have lunch with.
My tattoos, my shrieking flesh, and my inevitable choice currently are stuck in the bureaucratic wicket. I have some time to see which part of me, shoulder or back, no-brow or high-brow, screams the most stridently. In the meantime, I will sit quietly and listen to that inexpressible prickle signaling the time to get buzzed.
(My new tattoo is being generously underwritten by my close, personal friend Karl Elvis. Yes, that is his real name. Yes, you should be jealous.)