I pulled into the narrow parking space in a downtown that is stuck in a time. That time is a strand woven between the 1950's and the 1980's.
I step out of my vehicle and look to the storefronts. A lawyer's office, a hair salon, a land devolopment group, a sign shop and the very tattoo shop that was my target.
Quiet different from the surrounding shops. Shops that have been deemed culturally acceptable. Have tattoo's gone that way too? Are they the short skirts worn by women in the 20's as a statement of rebellion, but now looked at as "normal"? Hell, even fashionable.
Maybe that is true. But in a place stuck in this time, it seems unlikely.
But like all places stuck in a specific era, there are people who have moved on. They progressed. They saw a world globally connected. Or maybe they just didn't give a rat's ass.
And it doesn't hurt we aren't far from the Navy base. A group that is it's own subculture filled with tattoo legend, lore and tradition.
But here I sit. An old vinyl bench, one that you would more likely find at an old diner on the cusp of bankruptcy, keeping me propped up and observing. But this bench found a home here, in this unlikely place of ink and art. Maybe just by being here makes the bench artistic.
A guy just walked in. He's getting ambigram tattoo. It's not his first tattoo. The faded ink from past tattoos decorates his body in meaningful ways that only he and his closest friends and family understand.
The ambigram will read family one way and forever upside down. Alright. Guy love's his family. But why get the tattoo?
"I got a big family," he says, nonchalantly when asked. Huh. That's pretty straight forward. But I wonder if there's more. I always wonder about tattoos.
Isn't that a wonderful thing? Meeting someone who has tattoos is like attending a very intimate art gallery. "I wonder what that symbolizes?" "Why did she got that there?" "That is beautiful work!" And the sometimes more heinous "Yikes! You should have rethought that."
Back to our current settings, Michael Potter, the only full-time artist at this shop, is working with the man to figure out size, color, location and any other background info needed before he, and the needle, can go to work.
Aside from just tattoos at this shop, they do piercings. It's pretty common for tattoo shops to also provide piercing services and selling piercing "paraphernalia."
Of course, there are the belly button rings. The designs go from pot plants to gay pride flags to crosses to animals to everything in between.
Then there are the nipple rings, the nose rings, and just about every piercing ring or bar you want (or may not want). I even asked about a cock ring once... not for me. I was just curious to know if anyone around this small, conservative town had the "balls" to get it done. The answer is yes. Yikes!
Keep all sharp objects away from my genitals. For real. I wouldn't even want paper near there for fear of paper cuts. (Every man reading that just now got cold chills from imaging a paper cut on their member)
The guy's still at the front desk as Michael is finishing up the design. You can have a fast tattoo or a good tattoo. So true. And considering the permanence of such things, I would say patience would be beyond a virtue.
Michael has finished up the design and now goes to get a copy of the patron's ID. When blood and ink are involved, the government is going to make sure everything is all hunky-dory. And the shops going to cover their ass too.
It's an industry of high risk, though it has become very manageable and safe with time. It slightly mirrors the medical field in the need to be sterile and secure and the common factor of working with blood. And we all know how notorious the medical field is for lawsuits.
As the patron fills out his paperwork, Michael prepares his "operating room." And by that, I mean, a room in which he operates. Not, like, slicing folks open or anything, but it's still operating.
Before they can begin, the shop owner pulls up. She's young for owning a business. Only 29. Most day's she brings in her daughters. Today is somewhat different as she only has the youngest, a tiny little cute-as-a-button baby with a thick head of black hair.
Lindsey, our young proprietor, also has a passion for her salt-water aquarium. Today, she's brought in numerous jugs of water and a few new aquatic creatures to inhabit it. It gives the shop an interesting ambience. Where tattoo shops are known for pain (tattoos and piercings both) the tank provides a somewhat serene, calm environment.
After placing some new water and her new companions into the tank, she set's off to the rear of the shop, waiting to talk to customers who come in, answer the phone, schedule appointments and serve as the piercer extraordinaire.
During all this time Michael and our customer have slipped into a side room. It's the room with all of Michael's ink and machinery. This room is his temple. A temple celebrating art and flesh. Here, a new story is about to begin.
This is one of the most important parts of the process: the stencil. The stencil will provide Michael with a guide as he works. If the stencil isn't clean, then the tattoo may come out skewed or disproportionate. And lest we forget, tattoos are forever... Unless you laser them off. But that's a horse of a different color.
Once the stencil is placed, he'll allow it to dry. He'll smoke a cigarette and mentally prepare for the task at hand.
Every artist has their rituals and Michael is no different.
Once the stencil is dried, music is selected, the flex light is turned on, and the gears start to twist and whine in the instrument of art, the real work begins.
The sounds of "Brand New" and the buzz of the tattoo machine mix together and Michael's focus zeros in on the tattoo area.
He goes between applying A&D Ointment, pushing this needles into the skin, wiping off the excess ink with a paper towel, and dipping the needles back into the ink.
It's a rhythmic process. One that you could certainly become entranced by. One step to the next, to the next, to the next and so on until a fresh tattoo adorns the skin.
There is a calmness in the patron. It's the type of calmness that flesh-worn humans knows. They know the piercing feeling. They are no stranger to the vibrations running through their body as they volunteer their limbs as home to another symbolization.
And on and on the tattooing goes. One line finished, another line began.
I know from sitting in that chair on more than one occasion that the anticipation of seeing your concept alive, finished, over-powers any pain that comes from the process. Looking at a new tattoo with the smell of ink lingering in the air is a powerful sensory experience.
I take my leave from the room to sit and wait. I'm next tonight. I'll be getting a tattoo that holds a special symbolism to me in more than one way. But before it's my turn in the chair, I have to wait for our friend to finish his work.
To pass the time I walk down the street to a "Fred's" store to grab some necessities. Jumbo beef steak, check. Flaming Hot Cheetos, check... and check (Hey, the bags are small). Monster Rehab, PINK LEMONADE CHECK!
So I sit here, vegging out, listening to the familiar sounds permeating into the main space. I'm getting impatient. Or is it excited? Or just all jacked up on Monster!? Could it be a heady brew created by those three things?
Like a witch standing over a cauldron, casting a spell that will thwart her enemies, I am casting a spell against boredom. And I believe it's super healthy to curb boredom by eating. My doctor told me that. Dr. Pepper... after I fell out of old Boo Radley's tree (foreshadowing!).
Our patron friend has emerged! The line work is flawless, but that's what I've come to expect from Michael. He is very detail oriented, which (at least I find) is directly connected to being a good artist.
If you can, go ahead and flip your screen. See!? See!? Anybody who has ever read "Angels and Demons" by Dan Brown (Dan, you need to get back to your element buddy), is familiar with the concept. Except, this ambigram is not branded into the flesh, however, it's still permanent.
So the delightful gentleman ahead of me is done and so I'm next. That doesn't mean it's going to happen immediately. The shop has filled up with patrons looking for piercings and Michael's trying to get them all organized.
But my canvas is ready. I'm feeling the anticipation bubbling up... "What's the final product going to look like?" "How long is it going to take." "I LOVE MONSTER!!!"
It's time. Michael's ritual begins. The stencil gets applied. We smoke a cigarette and share conversations about our past and our present. How we both ended up standing on this strip of outdated buildings in a town full of long-forgotten hopes. Not hopeless, by any means, but there are more than a handful of shattered dreams.
We return to the temple and Michael preps our colors. There are blacks and greys, white and many different shades of blue. I always give Michael my concepts and I tell him "I'll commission the art, you create it." It's my way of saying "You have free range on my canvas to make some badass shit happen."
He moves to the final stages of prep work. The machines get rigged up, the paper towels come out, my hand gets shaved.
He lets me pick the music tonight. I go a little off the wall. "Lonerism" by Tame Impala. I'm feeling a psychedelic vibe. Maybe it's my wife's Grateful Dead shirt I borrowed. Maybe it's the fact that my new dosage of bipolar meds makes me feel... different.
So it begins. The hum. The vibrations. All of those fond memories come whirling through my mind. He presses the needles into my flesh and my mind goes blank. It's like a special type of therapy. You're being so overpowered by external factors that you have no time to focus on any of the internal noise.
As he continues to tattoo, we go back to the pleasantries of conversation. My wife's on a work trip, his girlfriends coming back from Virginia, dogs are fucking awesome.
In my inquisitive nature, I ask him about techniques. I ask about his gear. I ask him about his learning expeirience and how he started tattooing.
Michael has a simple way of conveying ideas and stories that come across with that sincerity that has become rarer in this day and age. It makes talking to him both enjoyable and comfortable. And that's a plus for someone who's going to be working for hours at a time tattooing your body.
We have to take a break. Michael's got an appointment for a simple heart tattoo that just came in. Again, it's simple, but knowing that he's willing to do what he has to do to keep his clientele happy makes me feel more comfortable with him.
You see a pattern here? If you're coming near my body with even a semblance of permanence, I've got to be comfortable with you.
After completing the small tattoo he looks towards me and says "Wanna burn one?" Ahhhhhh, I see. The ritual starts all over. That or he just likes to smoke as much as I do.
Upon returning to the room, we continue our quest. We're nearly done, but I'm wanting some little touch ups, some changes here or there. "No problem," replies the artist. He makes the adjustments and after looking at it for a brief period, I know it's exactly what I wanted.
It might not have been what I had in mind, as is often the case when I leave Syndicated Ink, but it's always better than what I had in mind.
The picture doesn't do it true justice. The whites and browns don't come through because of the blood and being so fresh, the colors haven't blended nearly enough.
But it's perfect. My Tennessee Mockingbird with a little bit of blue shading for the Kentucky Bluebird (and my personal hero Keith Whitley).
Why a mockingbird?
"Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us."
Thanks Atticus. Well put.
Aside from being the state bird of the Great State of Tennessee, it's a wonderful creature. I don't have many memories of being outside during childhood, or up until I left Tennessee for the Navy, that didn't involve an encounter with a mockingbird one way or another.
So my day at the tattoo shop was over. Michael and I smoked another cigarette and made plans to do things we ain't done yet, I hopped into my truck and made my way home.
Upon arrival, I was greeted by three very excited dogs. Happy to see me or happy that I was going to let them outside, I hadn't determined.
I let the dogs out and saw how beautiful the stars were. It's clear, it's cool, it's the perfect night to lay under the stars. So that's what I did.
I laid on the grass with my bag underneath my head considering the vast nature of the universe. I considered my tiny little existence here. I wondered why people make such a fuss over tattoos, positively and negatively alike. In this expanse, what makes these tattoos so important. My brain went right away to another quote that I think sums it up perfectly.
"We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for."