I have always been intrigued by tattoos, and perhaps a little afraid.
I think the first time I ever saw one that sticks in my memory is on an episode of Doctor Who: Jon Pertwee’s doctor is pictured, at the very start of the run, with a tattoo on his arm. I think it’s a question mark, a very Who thing to have – but I can’t be sure. At the time – and this was during my prime write-to-actors period – I think I felt it was a Pertwee tattoo: something that belonged to the actor even though I know he was playing a character.
(It’s a weird time, that – where you’re old enough to know that the person you think is cool on TV is just a grown-up pretending to be someone, but in fan letters and consumption you switch off that piece of knowledge, so that the person is really just Doctor Who foremost. Cognitive dissonance before I knew what it really was, maybe.)
But regardless, I recalled seeing it and wondering who’d get that? Why would you? Was it drawn on? Did it hurt? Sure, I was aware of Popeye, and I’m pretty sure that Captain Haddock from the Tintin series of books – probably my second-favourite thing after the crap-sets and robot masks of Doctor Who – had some ink. But I never really thought of having any of my own. It just never appealed to me at that point.
Fast-forward a couple of years. My interest in Japan had kicked off, and coupled with a love of elegant, clean design, I thought about having something done. The designs of Hokusai, the history of Yakuza tattoos, my love of fish (but fear of the ocean, or of having to clean the bastards) and my interest in the clean lines (and meaning, at least personal) of the Rider-Waite tarot design kept pushing me towards having something done.
But still I didn’t do it. Partially this was due to a deeper immersion in Japanese culture through taiko; I knew that there’d be lots of places I was locking myself out of should I embrace the ink, as they’re still viewed – in lots of country areas, at least – as being indicative of gangland associations. (And frankly, being a gaijin in some areas can be problem enough, without the association of organised crime, though with me this is probably a pretty comical supposition.) So I didn’t.
Prior to this, I’d hung out with a bunch of friends and partners who had tattoos. It sort of broke the mystery, the cabal of it. A dear friend in NYC has lots and lots of animals tattooed all over. A local mate had intricate, fully meaningful sleeve-work. My best mate from uni, a very scholarly chap (the UN seems to like him, even) is, beneath business duds, completely covered. These people selected their ink on whim, after consideration, because the felt it was right. Crucially, I think none had just pointed at flash on the wall, or had selected sleeve-work as if you were buying lengths of fabric.
As taiko increased, my desire decreased. The shoulder-to-arm koi idea is still appealing, but it doesn’t feel like me. I’m not an enforcer, Japanese or otherwise, and while I’ll always like that image, I don’t think it will be done.
I am at the point, though, where I’m thinking again about having something done. I turn 40 in a couple of months, and I figure it would be informative. Like my learning (or not) shakuhachi, this is something I kind of want to do for myself; the design, the pain, the life-long nature of it is something that if I do, will be done entirely for me.
Where I’m in a quandry, though, is about what to have done. Tentacles are passé. I’ve always liked tarot imagery but I a wary about having something put on lest it become some kind of psychic magnet – a laughable consideration for a skeptic such as I, but I figure the bubbling worries of the psyche are always worth heeding, even in jest. What does that leave? A ship’s plimsoll line. A circlet of unbreaking waves. Raijin, the Japanese God of Thunder. The mark of Kih-Oskh from a Tintin story. A compass rose. Constructivist nonsense.
Nautical simplicity seems to be the thing I’m after, though I suspect – if I go through with it at all – the frontrunner in Einstürzende Neubauten‘s little Toltec man.
On his own, he means nothing. He’s a glyph, removed from his context. But to me, on my inner right bicep (the rhythm guitar arm, the hi-hat arm) he’s a walker and a timekeeper. A motivation. A marching man with the sun in his head, corralling the strength of the past with the ceaseless pace of the future. A reminder to keep time, to make time. That silence is sexy. That sometimes, all you need is HEADCLEANER. And that really, the marks of others can become our own, even if nobody else sees them.
(I still don’t know if I’ll do it. But it feels maybe I should. If you’ve any suggestions, let me know.)