The Stories We Tell With Our Tattoos
By Kira Malko
The machine stabs me under the arm, next to my right breast. It will make its way down to the thigh, resulting in a long, inked line. And another one. And another. And two more.
Oh, how I missed that pain.
I haven’t been to Inferno Tattoo Studio — that’s what this place is called — for quite a while. Six years to be exact.
The studio is actually a small room in Ukraine, located inside an apartment in an old house, hailing from early Soviet times; it’s magically hidden in a nook in the midst of a buzzing city center. Inside, the walls are covered with black devils and skulls and dragons — hundreds of photos of different body parts scrawled with sore, freshly-made tattoos.
They’re ugly, trivial, bizarre, mysterious, intriguing, decorative, senseless, and full of suggestion. But however they appear to me, they definitely mean something else to their owners. Even tattoos like a muffin with rainbow sprinkles on somebody’s not-very-taut belly.
There are hidden meanings and screaming life-mottos. Some ink is on visible body parts, so strangers can get a clue of what kind of person someone is before — or without ever — knowing their name.
“Do they ever tell you what they mean by their tats?” I ask Alex666, breathing slowly and carefully, as he traces out thin lines of a treble staff on the side of my body.
“Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t. I never ask.”
Of course, he doesn’t. But this time it hurts so much that I just need some distraction. Silly questions work just fine for that.
That’s what he calls himself — Alex666. I don’t know his real name, although he has drawn two of my other tattoos. I only know that he was a lawyer. Maybe he still is. Maybe the next room in this apartment is all white, covered with law school degrees and shiny conference certificates.
Maybe he hides his tattoos under stiff white shirts over there, but here he’s Alex666. He drew my first tattoo when I was a half-wit freshman who believed this would be a clear mark of my adulthood. I saw two symbols in some catalogue — “The Most Beautiful Hieroglyphs” — and chose two of them.
I still don’t even know if they are Chinese or Japanese, or if they really mean what I think they do. It’s very possible I have some kind of Asian oxymoron inked on my back; I have kept these symbols as a reminder of how choices should actually be made.
And now I’m back.
Alex666 does precise work; he relies on soft movements and a very delicate treatment of the wound. He isn’t very creative though — if you want something like “a tiger but somehow different,” he is not the one who can help you.
Alex666 is a heavy guy, and totally covered with a host of dreadful images. Some of the tattoos are perfectly distinct, some are faded or partly vanished; he’s tried tattoo removals on himself.
When you see a single tattoo, you may wonder, “what does that mean?” but when you look at this kind of bodily palette, you don’t even bother trying to comprehend any specific image — there are just too many of them.
He’s a living tapestry — there are numerous details, innumerable tales flowing one into another. You can’t quite see them separately, you can only perceive them as one weird unit. One long, complicated story.
“I am not a therapist, you know,” he says, tracing out the clef beside my breast.
“You think that’s an issue for a therapist, this tattoo stuff?”
“For sure. When there is a tattoo on a body, there’s definitely something lacking inside that body . . . I mean, in the soul. Or there’s too much of something in there.”
I hold my breath so that he can make straight, precise lines. When he makes small pauses to get more ink for his machine, I inhale greedily.
Talking distracts me from the pain a little, but it also takes breath, and breathing will make my staff look like a cardiograph line instead, so I fall silent.
Maybe he’s right. I mean, we all have our reasons for getting tattoos, but eventually? It only comes down to two: We either lack something and crave it so much we believe it will be drawn to us if we carve it onto our body . . . or we have so much of something that it threatens to break out, and we can no longer hold it back, so we declare it explicitly and share it with others.
We tell its story without opening our mouths. We tell everyone who we are and what we’re about. As though they care.
“But no one cares, right?” I whisper, as if whispering uses less air and could somehow make my lungs and ribs move less. “I mean, no one cares about the stories we tell on our bodies.”
It feels like the F note is being injected into my skin. If it’s indeed the F, he’s in the middle of the melody.
“Yeah, no one cares,” he says, smiling. “Too many stories walk around to care about all of them.”
“They may care in some cases, I suppose,” I say, still whispering. “I guess you wouldn’t be able to become a model if you had a McDonald’s receipt for more than 20 bucks inked on your shoulder. Or neck. Or back. Or hip. They might care then.”
“Well, if you have a Diet Coke in that receipt instead of a regular one, you might have a chance,” Alex666 says as he leans back, estimating his work on my body. His face shows absolutely nothing.
I look at him and inhale, inhale, inhale. He freezes, as if figuring something out. I can’t tell if he’ll tell me what he’s thinking about. Meanwhile, I keep inhaling. Then he starts stabbing me with ink again — I guess it’s already the last bar.
Then he starts speaking.
“There was a guy, twenty-something, in the summer of 2014. He had his name inked on each limb.” Alex666 frowns. “He was damaged already. Had a huge ugly scar on his neck. He came over in that khaki uniform, you know? As if he had nothing else to wear while he was still here. Like someone cared about who he was, what he had gone through or what he was going to deal with. Like I had to care. Why should I care if I can’t change the fact that he may have killed, may have to kill again, may see death again, or may have to die himself? There’s no point.”
The messages we send. The stories we tell — the stories we hide. The memories we imprint, the memories we erase. We cover the old tattoos that’ve lost their beauty or meaning with new ones; we withdraw the old stories, acknowledging some past mistakes. We cover scars attempting to vanquish pain; we hide our imperfections under pretty images. Or not that pretty. We make fresh wounds on top of the old ones; we revive the pain.
He inks the last G note and the last bar line, and leans back again and looks at the whole picture.
Is he figuring out which melody that is? I don’t think so.
The notes are on my body, but these are not just notes. If they were, they should have been Fur Elise or Gaspard de la Nuit or whatever — something more complex and more sophisticated.
To have the sweetest name written on your body feels kind of good. Writing a message in ink on your body to a particular person feels even better. And while no one cares what you scrawl on your body, exposing those messages to the world — but having hidden what they really mean — feels incredible.
And it will always be written in their name — this story is engraved there forever. Whoever I may be with in the future, there is now one less place for them to occupy my body.
Everything we have, everything we comprise our lives and selves with — is not unique. The words, the notes — they’ve all been seen and heard before. So all we can do is arrange them in our own way, imbuing obvious, everyday objects with secret meanings. For me, the more sacred something is, the simpler I make it — I obscure its sacredness with simplicity.
If someone asked me what song it is, what the notes sound like, I would tell them it’s You Are My Sunshine, but the Johnny Cash version. If they asked me if that message has a particular recipient, I would lie and say it’s for everyone. This is the lie I will tell, until I’m asked by the person I wrote it for.
Photos courtesy of the author.