A tattoo’s not a picture, it’s a commitment. Not a fashion accessory, neither. Even bollock-naked, you’re still wearing my artwork. Choose right, and you’ll take my ink to the grave. This bloke saunters in, gawking at the flash on the walls.
“Help you, mate?” Straighty 180 sightseeing, any money.
“Yeah, I want a girl. ’Bout here.” Smacks his hand over his heart.
“I can do you a portrait from a photo. So real you’ll expect her to open her mouth and start nagging.” I flip open the look-book.
“Dancing. You know, Hawaiian.”
“Hula girl, grass skirt, bare tits?”
He nods, swallows.
“Old school. Come through.” Raising the counter flap, I lead him to my workstation. Ever been in a tattoo parlour? Mine’s bright lights and stainless steel, not a pin-up in sight. Big reclining chair, adjustable to any angle.
Peeling off his shirt, he hops aboard.
“Just need to get rid of a bit of this.” After shaving his chest, I have him swing his arm around, watching the muscle move under his skin. That’s the kind of attention to detail you don’t get from these backyard scratchers, buy a machine off the Internet and think they’re the duck’s nuts. “Flex your pec.”
Looks at me sideways, but does it anyway.
“Put her hips right here and you can make her dance.”
“All right,” he says and we’ve got a plan.
“Bit cold,” I warn, swabbing antiseptic. “Happy for me to go freehand?”
“Yeah. I can suggest a few things, maybe, as you go.”
“Hey, it’s your tat.” Once I get stuck in, most punters are flat out not screaming — forget about helpful hints — but it’s his buck. I tilt a mirror to let him watch. “Here we go,” I say, switching on the machine.
I slide the needle into his skin. Just a test dot, first up — some can’t cop the pain. This bloke don’t flinch, so I hook in. The tattoo machine buzzes loud, like a mozzie zapper frying bugs the size of chooks. I ink in her outline, sweet and curvy. Not a squeak or twitch out of him. “Need a break?”
“Want her light skinned, or dark?”
“Light body. On her face … something different.”
“Different, how?” I’m sorting through flesh-toned inks for the perfect sun-soaked gold.
“Ever seen that Green Lady picture?”
“Chinese bird? Yeah.”
“Like her.” He settles back.
“She’s gonna look like she’s gone ten rounds with Kostya Tszyu.”
“Yeah, you’re right.”
I load tan ink.
“Do it anyway.”
I shrug. Changing out for seasick green, I color her face.
“Bluish shading through there.” He flicks a finger.
I’ve done hundreds, maybe thousands, of morbid tats — if it wasn’t for Grim Reapers I would have starved, some weeks — but this chick’s wrong. Lush hips and beckoning hands topped off with a corpse’s head. “Problem, mate. Bronze body’s not gonna blend with that face.”
“Problem solved.” He flashes a car salesman’s grin. “Put a red band ’round her throat.”
“Hey? Like a choker? I was gonna put a lei, lower down.”
“Exactly right.” He lets rip with a shrill chuckle. Eyes flare in the mirror, too bright and too wide.
I’m a big bloke, know how to handle myself, but I sit up straighter on my stool.
“A choker.” He says it slow, rolling his tongue to savor the taste.
I fiddle with the machine. Bloke’s got more than one kangaroo loose in the top paddock, no question. Finish the job, or get shot of him? His money’s the same color as a sane person’s. Besides, I hate to leave a job half done.
Inking in the detail, grass skirt and his bloody choker. From the neck down, she’s a top sort. “Still going with sunset in the background? Ripple of water over her feet?”
“I want you to write something, in that wave.”
Of course he does.
“Put: Layla R.I.P 11/10/12.”
I suck down my first full breath since he mentioned the choker. His missus carked it, just a few weeks gone. No wonder he’s off. Rolling my shoulders, I start on the background.
“Could have walked away, if she’d just kept quiet. I warned her, don’t make me listen, but on and on it goes…how it’s true love, how his cock changed her life. First fucking orgasm? We were married nine bloody years. Nine years. I saw red. Ever had that? Like your eyes filled with blood, instead of water. Shut her right up. Threw her in the tinnie, motored out to that sand island, Mudjimba, where no-one much goes. But by then it was almost sunrise, see? Had to bolt. Slung her in that falling-down shack and took off. Waited over a week for a cloudy night, before I could go back.”
Turned my guts, fair dinkum. I’ve been around, used to ride bikes with fellas who solved their problems digging holes, if you get my drift. So it wasn’t so much the thought of her corpse bloating in the heat, no company but insects. It was the gloating gleam in his eyes as poison sprayed like spittle from his lips.
“Know my only regret?”
I stay head down, inking fast.
“Now Layla’s dead, I can’t have the pleasure of offing the bitch again.”
I smear Vaseline on the finished tat, slap on a dressing. “I’m not gonna dog you to the cops. Nothing to tell, hey, just two old mates, having a yarn.”
He grins like a bull terrier, mad eyes made of glass.
Leaning forward, closer than I want to get to his face. “But I’ll give you the drum. You’re gonna to pack up and move on. I’ve got a lot of mates around the Coast, mates with daughters, sisters, nieces … guns.”
He swallows that smile, screwing up his mouth at the bitter taste.
He’s nearly through the door when I call him back.
“And no lasers, neither. Leave her alone.” I slap my chest. “Don’t forget.”
First published in Undercurrents, re-printed at outofthegutteronline.com