I won’t lie and tell you I remember the day exactly. I was after all, about five years old at the time of my vision. I do remember taking a long drive with my parents. We had a brown POS with half a dozen large patches of dark rust and pink Bondo. The vinyl seats burned your ass on summer days, and it stank pleasantly of oil and gas. Staring out the window at the buildings, and workmen we passed, I found myself lulled into a meditative state. There, I had a kind of out of body experience. I saw myself in twenty years, standing by the side of the road, next to a massive tractor, twisting one end of a sinister looking patch of hair on my upper lip. A bump in the road snapped me out of my reverie and I was suddenly five again. I declared from the backseat that I should be a tractor driver with a mustache. My father smiled, either proud of my career choice or imagining his own handsome mustache, I did not know. My mother looked less delighted, so I decided not to tell her the rest of my vision.
Cars of that era, I’m talking about 1979 here, were all various shades of brown and orange and smelled of cigarettes. Virtually indistinguishable from one another on the highway, there was only the endless pulse of cloned cars, which didn’t interest me one bit. At night, roads seemed like invisible veins of light, red going and white coming. But I loved driving because every now and then, we’d pass some hulking muddy tractor looking like a robot tank doing some kind of construction. I didn’t know much about tractors or mustaches but had often admired them both from my backseat vantage point. Big tractors hauling gravel, digging holes and luxuriant mustaches that caught sunlight like flytraps. It was a modest ambition, but to me, these guys looked like real men.
These days, the mustache continues to fall out of favor everywhere except among a subspecies calling themselves hipsters, the entire town of Oshawa and perhaps the Swiss. The lure of heavy machinery has lessened over the years as well, if only slightly. The point is at the time I had formed my first ideas of what kind of man I would be. My “Vitruvian Man” had evenly masculine proportions, a truckers tan and the keys to a yellow back hoe, never mind that he looked like one of the Village People. He was also mostly covered in tattoos, like all great men.
I didn’t express it at the time to my mother, but the older me in the vision was covered in tattoos. I knew they were there, even though I was wearing a shirt. It was a plain fact that I would be covered as soon as I could reach the chair. Really, what could she expect? She was white trash, my Dad was white trash, and they had spawned little white trash babies. My mother strongly objects to that characterization. I present the following as evidence… A) There is at least one beer bottle in every one of my baby pictures and often I am drinking it. B) We have no fewer than 5 family recipes that call for diced hot dogs. C) My father actually lived in a trailer until it was repossessed. D) Most damning perhaps, my mother stills insists on pronouncing the “LL’s” in “quesadilla”. I’m proud to call myself white trash and I will venture one step further and call it our culture. Indeed, there are many intelligent, successful people out there leading extraordinary lives who wear white trash with panache. Since you can’t hang trophy shelves and diplomas on the walls of a trailer, we hang our achievements on our hide, the only thing the man can’t take from us.
However the main reason I knew I’d be as tattooed as I am today is my Granddad, Dick Shields. He’s Irish and like all Irish men, he is handsome, charming and has “muscles on his piss”. I remember thinking he looked like the hulk when I was a kid. He was broad, and stocky and almost always wearing nothing but some ragged shorts and flip-flops. His rough hands were always stained with eggshell latex paint that clung to the hairs on his forearms in droplets, but it was his other markings that interested me most. By the time I could speak I was keenly aware of all the blue-black images that stretched across his arms, chest and back. He was a sunbather and a drinker back then. I’d often find him in the back yard having a beer and building a wind screen so he could get a bit of colour in the dead of Scarborough’s fall. He’d brush the snow off the lawn chair and Granny would bring out a cup of tea for us both and shake her head.
“You’re mad Dick!” Her head would bobble and she’d gum her dentures admiringly, almost girlishly and then smile at me and then leave for the warmth of the kitchen or living room where she could watch “Days”. I, suited up for the frost, would continue to bang on whatever piece of wood required my immediate attention, usually with a Phillips head screw driver, always keeping an eye on Granddad. He’d make shirtless trips to the shed, either for more wood for the wind barrier, or a can of paint to dress it up a bit. When he leans over to adjust his chair, I see my favourite tattoo. Neck to tail bone, shoulder to shoulder, is Jesus Christ on a cross. I didn’t know the word for this then, but years later I learned the term “badass”. Standing to appraise his new wall of tarp and plywood, he’d sip his tepid tea, then the beer, and knit the long hairs on his brow into a deep furrow. He’d smile at me, then glancing at the direction of the sun, he’d adjust the chair accordingly and then he’d lie down until dusk.
My little sister Sarah and I would always ask about his ink. Who was the guy in the sombrero on his arm? Why did he get the sword there? Is that naked woman Granny? What the hell is that inky stain on your chest? (I still don’t know and he’s long since forgotten). He’d tell us the story anytime we wanted and then would always wrap it up with the warning, “Don’t ever get a tattoo, they’re stupid”. Sarah would say, “OK” and I would laugh.
Dickie Bird (as he is known to almost everyone) got all of his tattoos when he was nineteen and a soldier. A friend with no discernible talent was learning the trade. He needed subjects to practice on and Granddad offered the better part of his torso as a sketchpad for the fledgling artist. A two-inch sword that looks like a doodle sits awkwardly on his forearm. A nameless Conquistador that holds no apparent significance is prominent on his right bicep. Even his piace de resistance, the Jesus back piece, was slightly buggered. Apparently the artist had Granddad lean over a chair with his arms draped forward to make the holy drawing on his back. When Dick stands up straight, the arms of the cross hang down slightly. The family calls it his “droopy Jesus”. He seems unbothered by the fact, but still, one day he turned on his tattoos or they turned on him. I don’t know why. Part of me still thinks it’s an act.
By the time I was eighteen, I had completely replaced mustaches and tractors with a need to be a rock star, a bit like hoping to win the white trash lottery. The desire to get tattooed became unbearable. It was time to get my first, a claddagh on my shoulder. Something small and sentimental, just to test the water, like blowing on a hot spoonful of soup, or washing the same spoon before you cook heroin in it. It cost me fifty dollars in a Toronto dive, and I loved the experience completely. From the moment I walked in, there was the popping sound of the needle that carried over the bad metal soundtrack, I didn’t ask who the band was. There was a strong smell of deodorant used to apply the stencil and make it stick. There was an air of sterility, but in a rock and roll kind of way, more like a meth lab than a hospital room. It was decorated tastefully with flash artwork on all four walls and a handful of severed heads at various stages of decomposition.
My best friend Adam came with me and watched, first as the guy shaved my arm and then applied the small stencil in front of a mirror. Jason, the artist, seemed like a really friendly guy. He had a tattoo of Donald Duck saluting in a Nazi uniform on his forearm. I thought that was strange for such an affable fellow. He also had a painful looking scar on the back of his hand where he’d burned off an old tattoo. At the time I wondered what it could have been that was so offensive to him that he burned it off and yet left that horrendous Nazi duck. I figure it was a girl’s name. I focused back on my arm in the mirror and looked at the shiny blue stencil. It was glorious, wasn’t it? I mean, I looked like an entirely different person. I turned to Adam to see if he had witnessed the same metamorphosis. He looked just as impressed. When Jason the Nazi asked if it was good, I nodded casually, but prideful tears made a wet home on my bottom lids. I sat in the chair and Jason ran through the checklist of things he’d do before every tattoo. It’s as familiar as anything to me now, but then it was a strange ritual that seemed at once clinical and mystical. Once he snapped on some rubber gloves and plucked the elastic band that held the needle in place. Lowering the gun precisely into a groove in my skin, I felt like a turntable about to play my favourite song.
The first blood, the first few millimetres it’s happening send a hot rush down my arm. It hurts but not badly, just in a tolerable, annoying way. Herr Artist checks to see if it’s OK. “Ja vol” I mumble. I want to see the next line. I’m not a masochist, pain is just pain for me, and it sucks. Somehow watching this black and bloody line form on my arm made an instant connection between my pain and pleasure centers. I winced a little at the blood and in about fifteen minutes it was all over. I wanted to take up smoking immediately. I wanted to rob a bank. I would have to race home and tear the left sleeve off of every shirt I owned. The world must see the new dangerously powerful me. A little red heart held by two hands, and crowned by a little yellow crown. It spoke of my proud heritage. I dedicated it to my first love and believed it was my passport into counter culture. I wasn’t a poser anymore. That’s what the first tattoo felt like. It felt like another.
I managed to keep the tattoo a secret from my mother for six months until my sister, Sarah and I told her about it. She took it much better than I thought. My poor mother was prone to violent attacks when she got upset, mostly violent attacks on me. I was nervous in the telling.
“Oh it’s cute!” She said. What a silly woman, tattoos aren’t cute, they’re “sick” or “badass” but she wasn’t beating me for disobeying her so I ignored her ignorance. “Just promise you won’t get anymore,” she warned.
“Well, I won’t get anymore for a little while. How’s that?” to which she said simply, “No more”. By now, I was much bigger than her and her power was mostly ceremonial, like Canada’s Governor General. Still she had yet to be challenged in her house so I waited a full year after my first tattoo to get my second. It’s a compass like you might find on an old map, or say on the RISK board. It was exactly what I had in mind, so I simply photocopied the game board at Kinko’s after double-checking it wasn’t the Parker Brother’s logo. It was nautical and classy and reminded me of the sort of tattoos granddad had, kind of old fashioned. The experience was just as good and it even seemed to balance my shoulders (since the first I walked with a slight lean). It stayed well hidden from mother until I was heading to work one day. I wore a rather blousy white shirt (it was the fashion at the time, I’m sure) and both my tattoos were clearly visible under the fabric. I had just bought my first motorcycle, and was all set to join a gang or something when she stopped me on my way out of the house.
“What’s that?” She asked, pointing through my gay shirt to my shoulder, dead center of the compass. You are here.
“What’s what?” I asked, already feeling the hot blood in my cheeks.
“Is that a new tattoo?” she was curt and slightly trembling. There was no trace of the softness I remembered from the first time we chatted about tat’s. I thought fast.
“No it’s not,” I laughed my lying laugh. These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.
“What is it? Some kind of fake?” I nodded since it seemed like a perfectly reasonable explanation. Better than anything I could come up with at the time.
“Yeah, it’s some kind of fake” I gulped and smiled but had dead eyes like half eaten prey.
“Let me see it.” I fumbled with the buttons and slid my arm out of my shirt. There were a couple of spectators now. My sister and stepfather had heard us talking and now enjoyed watching the scene unfold in the dining room. They clearly didn’t grasp the severity of the situation. I was almost twenty years old and deathly afraid of my mother, but for good reason. She closed in on my new mark and studied it from all angles. She touched it. Pawed it even. I believe she sniffed it a little and said, “Go wash it off”. All right fine, I thought. I gave her a lie we could all live with, but she wants to know the truth. Time to grow up and be a man.
“OK, fine” I said, “I’ll wash it off”. I went to the bathroom and closed the door. I turned on the water and when it was warm enough, I lathered soap thickly through my fingers. I looked in the mirror. I prayed for a miracle. I directed my prayers to Droopy Jesus, Lord of the Inked. I washed vigorously. Silky white bubbles slid off my elbow, when I’d hoped for traces of ruddy ink. If anything, the compass looked much nicer now wet and glistening in the bathroom light, but I doubted it would impress my mother much. I tried to think of any reason I might not have known it was a real tattoo.
“It’s not coming off is it?” her tone carried easily through six layers of chipped lead paint and the solid wood of a good quality bathroom door. She was mad, but I could hear she also wanted to cry, maybe because she would have to beat me now. The beatings didn’t hurt so much anymore, but I knew they were damaging me psychologically. There was only one way around it. I opened the door.
“It’s not coming off. But I won’t keep the motorcycle”. The bargain was my best hope to assuage some of her anger. Fading also was my dream to join Hell’s Angels.
“You look like a fucking sailor!” which brought our conversation to an abrupt close. She was actually weeping when she ran off to her room. I looked in the mirror once more. I could be sailor, I thought. Badass. And so it was, I didn’t keep the motorcycle. I never even sat on it. I even waited a full year before I bought another one. I got another tattoo as well and then another. I became a touring singer and let my affection accelerate slightly out of control. You could call it addiction.
I collected work from artists in cities all over the US and Canada. Some were very talented and others much less so. Often I was too eager for ink and ended up with really terrible work and other times I had to leave for the next city before it was finished. Still, most of my tattoos have somehow become much more a part of me than I thought they would. Others, like a sunset and waves I had done were so atrocious I had them covered. I had the cover up done in LA by a talented guy named Bryce. He smirked at the offending tattoo.
“You ain’t shit until you got a shit tattoo”, was all he said. It was maybe the coolest thing anyone had ever said to me and had the effect of making me feel like I was finally some part of tattoo culture like the Tattooed Order of the Freemasons. I still had the Jones for more. Most recently, I got my entire back finished by a masterful artist. It’s an amazing piece, but I can’t really see it without hurting my neck. I had it done in Bangkok in the Lumpini Night Market. It’s a colorful collage of images, each reflecting some proud memory, or obsession. It’s definitely the work I’m most proud of. Enduring over 70 hours of needle pain was certainly worth it.
Now I feel satisfied, or I’m just running out of space, so I’m stopping. I watched them grow in quality and in number from one to fourteen, and then contract into three as they bled into one another, like a badass quilt. It makes me wonder if I’ll ever tell my grandchildren that I hate my tattoos and that I wish I’d never gotten one. If like my granddad, I’ll resent them. Maybe I’ll try and explain the blotchy purple mess that used to be a cave of some kind, or how the naked Asian on my arm could have been their Granny, had she not run off with some Korean hip hop dancer. Maybe they won’t understand why a decidedly ex catholic would choose a massive cross spanning his back. I will tell them the story of another great man who once unconvincingly told me that tattoos were stupid. I suspect any grandchild of mine would have the sense to see that two thirds of our family over three generations all bore some kind of ink. Perhaps that legacy of stupidity will pass on to my kids. I just hope they have the good sense to find a good artist when the time is right.