Thursday, December 23, 2010

Game 24: The Flesh Offering

The studio felt like two telephone booths stuck together, or a hipster tribute to the glass cages of bin lang girls. It was small and cluttered and lived-in, a Playstation by the couch and well-thumbed motorcycle magazines on the shelves, empty tea cups on floor with mouldering zhenzhu clinging to the sides. One end was entirely full of the apparatus of the work, and in the clear portion there was hardly space for the three of us to stand at once. The artist himself was thin and quiet, a long narrow body with a long narrow ponytail, so sedate that I seriously considered, for a moment, that he was somehow mystically transferring all his own passion and rage into his flashsome designs, leaving himself a serene shell in black leather pants.

The walls were made of pictures, row over tidy row, six feet high. At one end were cataloged the exploits of an extraordinary motorbike; obviously the artist’s first love. Bike on a racetrack, bike on a street, bike in the mountains, bike against the sunset. Front of bike, back of bike, side of bike, flame detailing on bike. Biker buddies, big theatrical gentlemen in expensive gear, sunglasses and studs, glowering malevolently at the lens. Helmets custom-painted in a melting-neon style.

The tattoos themselves were beautiful and fluid, with a strong tendency towards the incendiary. He favored an elegant grayscale, and in those nostalgic tones rendered an encyclopedia of sexy fairies, fanged devils, suffering Jesuses, grinning skulls, twisted daggers, and the occasional limpid blossom. Half the images were ringed with flame and the other half with smoke and half again were in some way bleeding. A gallery of badassery.


Badassery is the primary motivation for contemporary tattoo art. Because, if we are speaking honestly with one another, tattoos do look totally badass. Admit it: when you see a dude with a whole run of tribally-squiggles going up his arm, your first thought- the thought you think before your superego kicks in and makes you think all sorts of snarky postmodern nonsense- is “Daay-um, he bad.” When that dude got his tribally squiggles, his first thought was “I want a tattoo!” followed by, “What kind of tattoo should I get?”, followed by, “What’s the most badass looking thing in this tattoo album?” Whatever meaning is eventually ascribed to the design, it isn’t itself the purpose of the tattoo. The design itself seldom matters, it is the mere having that communicates the desired effect. The first rule of tautology club is the first rule of tautology club and the reason for having a tattoo is to have a tattoo. The medium is the message.

I am not immune to the coolness aura radiated by plentiful tattooage, but I’ve always been ambivalent about the practice, precisely because it is so very meaningless. In this modernized capitalized metropolozied world in which we live in, there is no deep cultural script for the tattoo. Like every single other motherfucking thing we do, it’s a matter of fashion, that awkwardly self-conscious self-construction that we do to make other people think we already are whatever we desperately wish we could be. It’s an old, foreign cultural practice that’s been bastardized into a yet another look in our vast library of styles. Sometimes I come upon a thirty-five-year-old mom with a dolphin leaping across her shoulder blade, and I think, there are marine biologists in this world who have lived closely with dolphins for years piling upon years who have had dolphin friends who have wept bitter tears for the deaths of particularly remarkable dolphins and they do not have dolphin tattoos, so what does this possibly mean? A tattoo is, in the end, a permanent nothing.



We stayed up all night. It was a Sunday and everyone had to work in the morning, but there was no question of catching a replay. The Brass Monkey, Taipei’s home-in-exile for all peculiar wai guo sports obsessions, started serving coffee at 2 A.M. as the faithful began to collect. By 4, the room was crammed, every extra chair set seat-to-seat and back-to-back, less leg room than economy class on one of those brutal U.S. airlines. We sat elbows to knees in complete silence. There were men there with painted faces and others with flag-capes and everyone in what might be considered full cheering gear, jerseys and scarves and hats and hoodies, but there was very little cheering. For three long hours there was hardly a whisper. Goals-for came and the voices rose and then, as soon as the next face off aligned, blank silence returned. Goals-against came, and at the bar, a group of displaced Americans let loose their own howls and jeers, and were met with several hundred eyes united in the glare of raw, icy contempt Canadians reserve for Americans being loud at inappropriate moments.

Intermissions came and people rose to talk, in the hushed, wary tones usually reserved for altars and sickrooms. We spoke of everything except hockey. I had conversations about jobs and nightclubs, recipes and albums, vacation plans. To speak of the game felt dangerous. Any praise might draw the evil eye of some trickster hockey god, any criticism might be dually confirmed. The tension revealed itself not in words but in a certain tightness of jaws, and long pauses between phrases, and cigarettes lit the next from the last.

The boy paced. When the score was tied 2-2 and overtime was coming and the Americans were leaning against the bricks in a convincing approximation of nonchalance, he must have paced from the bar to the 7-11 on the corner and back again a dozen times. He spoke to no one and listened to nothing, eyes fixed firmly on the empty space ten feet ahead, mind looping the previous periods, looking for omens of a result he knew full well could not be divined. I began to prepare myself for a silent, sullen week, should the bounces be bad. That, probably, was when he sealed the vow.


I didn’t think he’d actually go through with it. Julian is not the kind of guy who gets tattoos. He is not interested in matters of fashion. In fact, he has sunk so deep into fashion-unconsciousness, he’s virtually fashion-comatose. For the past four-to-five years, he has been relying on a slow IV drip of Oilers memorabilia contributed by concerned family members to keep his wardrobe viable. He wears T-shirts touting obscure side projects of obscure touring musicians that have been defunct for ten years, until the color has faded to Victorian pastel and the cotton is speckled through with holes and the seams have stretched and sagged to accommodate a man three times his size. He treats the kind of self-construction most people do through fashion and property with an ascetic distaste forged by the double-whammy of an innate pragmatism and a Mennonite upbringing. The man would feel shame if anyone thought, for even a minute, that he cared about his appearance.

Yet here we are, at the badass-telephone booth in the basement of The Wall, and he is giving the artist a sheet of paper, and they are conferring about a few minor details, and he is sitting down and getting a stencil rubbed against his leg, and I think, fuck he really is going to do it. And I don’t know whether to be impressed or confused.


In the old-old days, before capitalism and modernism and the metropolis, the world was comprised of tattooing cultures and non-tattooing cultures. The technology was not difficult, if sometimes painful, but it was not commonly practiced in the northern climes. The usefulness of tattooing, as a cultural practice, is directly proportional to how much skin area is routinely exposed (the blue facial tattoos of ancient Scotland being a conspicuous exception). In most of old Europe, and the vast upper portion of Asia, and in the territories of the Inuit and the Algonquin, clothing marked age, gender, class and experience. One dressed one’s role. In the hotter lands, much of Africa and South America and Polynesia, clothing was less encompassing, and these markers were burned, cut, or dyed into the skin. Tattoos, in this original context, are external markers of internal qualities. The tattoos on a Berber woman’s chin signify her tribe; those on a Maori man’s cheeks show his profession. In other realms, tattoos might represent marriage or children, victories in war or politics, the place or circumstances of one’s birth, protections against diseases or dangers. These people may have seen beauty in tattoos, but getting them was not an aesthetic choice (of course, neither was most clothing at that time). It was a cultural necessity. Tattoos were a part of how they recorded their history and their being, and the art followed certain closely prescribed patterns. (N.B.: The only indigenous tattooing traditions in Western Europe were found among soldiers, sailors, and prisoners- professions likely to leave more than their share of scars- and in these contexts, meanings were again quite literal and socially communicative. The tattoo would represent a particular place visited or battle fought, one’s ship, brigade, or gaol, in a way that could be read by anybody living the relevant life.)

This kind of tattoo was meaningful in the true sense: it was an embodied text that could be read by nearly everyone with eyes to see it. Such things were social signposts, and rather than making the bearer unique or remarkable, it made him normal, and indeed comprehensible. A tattooless person in a tattooing society would be a strange creature, like a naked man on the streets of Ottawa, and might immediately prompt the same curious stares: who is he and what is he up to and how did he get here and is he possibly a crazy person? One was tattooed to fit in, as a ritual of conformity rather than individuality.

In the absence of such a culture of tattoage, most tattoos are, quite literally, meaningless. They communicate nothing, hold no necessary logic. They are, to the observer, empty curiosities. What purpose they have is embedded in the private iconography of the bearer, and often the more mysterious the intent the more awesome they seem. People have a fascination with tattoos in other languages, even those they don’t speak, precisely because they require translation. To know what a modern tattoo means, you always have to ask for some kind of translation, and the asking creates a pleasant space of plausible deniability for the bearer- for if, in the end, you decide you’re uncomfortable with the original purpose, you can always invent another, and none will be the wiser. The fashion tattoo is a mutable message. If you have a tattoo for purposes of badassery, the more incomprehensible, the better.

But, if you were to get a really, truly meaningful tattoo, an old-school tattoo, a tattoo that screamed loud and clear something essential about you, instantly comprehensible to anyone (or at least anyone of your own cultural background)… what would you get? And, frankly, would you have the balls to do it? To put something deep and honest about who you are right out there on the surface? For all to see and know? Forever?


Julian lies back on the big chair, leg positioned just so, and the artist begins to prepare his inks. The device looks sort of awkward and intimidating, like the low-grade power-tool that it is, with a buzz that recalls a particularly large and angry cicada. He revs it a few times- a motorcycle habit?- and then bends over the leg, and I look away. I don’t like needles.

Julian shrugs. It’s not, apparently, all that painful. But after a few minutes, he takes on an expression of very serious and abstract concentration, and I figure there must be some kind of endurance involved here. I want to watch, to see the pattern emerging on the skin, but there’s something about that noise and that needle tip that induces a million tiny, involuntary cringes. If I ever get a tattoo, it will be on my back, so I don’t have to see the process.

I go outside, back to the wall of tattoos. I make a great show of reexamining them, in the hopes that people will think I’m bored rather than nervous. I look, slowly, one by one, and most of them just confirm my worst suspicions about the process. Oh look, a sultry mermaid with momentous tits. A snake wrapped around a flaming sword. A name in nearly unreadable gothic script. I wonder, do Chinese-speakers prefer to have their names tattooed in the Roman alphabet? Apparently so, because this guy is doing way more English tattoos than he has Anglophone clients.

But every now and then, somewhere between a gambling skeleton and a vampire princess, there is something interesting. A photo-realistic rendering of an elderly woman in prayer. A young woman with chubby cheeks and narrow eyes. A sleeping cat. A house. A military insignia. Punk Is Not Dead. A motorcycle

These tattoos are not badass. They don’t look especially cool. No one is ever going to see that grandma and think, daay-um, he bad. However, similarly, no one will ever wonder what it means. No one will ever question why that tattoo is there. They mean something, something as real and as permanent as the skin they cover. They make the invisible apparent.


Julian does not really believe in the hockey gods. It is an open question whether anyone really believes in the hockey gods, but even if some faithsome wingers and superstitious puckbunnies take the metaphor for truth, my boy is not among them. He is a numbers boy, an evidence boy, a show-me-the-data boy, and though math itself grates on his neurons like darija on the ears of Saudis, he finds nothing more compelling than a well-presented chart. So when he says, as he does when pressed for an explanation, “I’m getting this tattoo because I made a vow to the hockey gods,” he is dissembling. Not to say lying, exactly, because he did make that deal in those terms, but he knows full well that it carries exactly the same weight as if he’d wagered with the Easter Bunny for more Peeps in his basket- he’s negotiating with nothing, and there will be no repercussions if he reneges.

The whole language of sacred contract is a kind of elaborate metaphor for something he cannot explicitly enunciate. It’s cloaking desire in a structure of necessity, because he is not the kind of person who gets tattoos, because this does not seem like an entirely rational thing to do, and because something inside him baulks at putting the thing in the simple language of want. He does not want this tattoo. He needs it, in some way so difficult or tender that it is easier for this most reasonable of men to appeal to the demands of entirely fictive higher powers rather than try to explain what it really means.

This is the kind of speculation that might get a girlfriend in trouble. Girlfriends are dangerous creatures when they get to speculating. They’re apt to come into all sorts of odd ideas, and speculating about the feelings of men is a torturous enterprise indeed. But if I were to speculate about why Julian needs this tattoo, (and I apologize for the following syntax but I must say this very quickly and quietly in the hopes that he does not notice):

I would speculate that it begins with a third of a life spent abroad, performing the role of Canadian, and that always-thousand miles between here and home, and being Canadian is not like being American with its banners and slogans and fantasies splashed across the continents in dance beats and military marches, it’s something every inch as curious and particular but quieter and tragically lacking in avenging avatars and not always so easy to feel from wherever you happen to be, and sometimes then the stereotypes prove themselves to actually be the truest parts of culture, and it is so rare that something echoes across the oceans in distinctly Canadian accents, but it does happen, and although he might never admit it as such, there is something transporting and unifying in seeing one’s own people triumphant over all others, no matter the context, and if one was going to speak of Julian, and the moments and experiences in his life that never entirely go away, that he will remember when he is old and gray and full of sleep and nodding by the fire, you might speak of jungles or farms or the waves on the South China Sea, but equally you might speak of Olympics and World Championships and Under-20s and that occasional transmorphic entity known as the Canadian National Ice Hockey team.

If you Google ‘hockey tattoo’, you’ll come across some strange things, and no few of them will make you laugh. Goalie Yoda, for example, or Islanders Winnie-the-Pooh. And you might wonder, who would get such totally unbadass, unmysterious, uncool things etched into their flesh? Who would go around with the Rangers shield or the Predators… uh… predator, I guess, on his arm for all eternity? But then again, how many of us are going around with hockey moments tattooed on our hearts anyway? How many of us- call us fans if you will but have a little respect for the term- have been changed by the game in ways so deep we could hardly describe? The same things we might mock in tattoo form on others are no less present in us clear-skinned obsessives, the only difference between us and the inked is that they aren’t embarrassed of how much this bizarre game has meant to them. Who goes around with Predators predator on his arm for all eternity? A Nashville fan with bigger balls than you.


The artist is putting on the finishing touches. He rinses excess ink off the design, checks the points, adds a few touch-ups. Done. Julian stands and stretches experimentally. The skin around is pink and puffy, but nevertheless, it is perfect: clear and sharp and logo-bright (it is a shame that hockey lacks untrademarked iconography, but there it is). Just as if it was printed on him with an inkjet.

“What do you think?” he asks.

I cannot tell a lie.

“It’s totally badass.”


Doogie2K said...

Nicely done.

Jeff J said...

Well, maybe it is badass, but it it is nowhere near as hardcore as posting one's 2010 CIHL predictions.

E said...

yeah, that might have been a mistake. i didn't take into account the hangover factor.