I’m an artist whether you like it or not. My brushes are needles and my canvas is skin. You can call me Red or don’t call me anything at all, I don’t really care. Or at least I didn’t until a few weeks ago. Most folks want their skin art to say something, to mean something. Sometimes rebellious, sometimes tribal, occasionally cute, and yes, sometimes stupid. They think that a band of barbed wire around their biceps makes them strong. Or a flower makes them attractive. The worst, of course, is the Chinese characters that don’t mean anything close to what they think it does. But hey, who am I to judge. Sign the papers, pay the money, and I’ll ink you with whatever, well almost whatever, you want.
A few weeks ago I was just finishing up an ankle rose for a “don’t tell my mommy” but old enough to sign the papers blond chick when he came in. I’d inked his arms a few times in the past. Nice work even if I do say so myself. “I want this across my back, can you get it done in three weeks?” He says unrolling a sheet of tracing paper. The design was intricate and large, monochrome with lots of shading.
“Three weeks is pushing it,” I replied. “Turn around a moment.” Holding the drawing against his back I mumbled, “I’ll have the scale it down, and make several templates.” Setting the drawing down I asked him to turn back around. “It’s going to take a lot of sessions, going to be expensive, and it’s going to hurt like hell because there won’t enough time to heal between sessions but yeah, I can do it”. We arrive at a price, agree to start tomorrow, and he allows me to keep the original overnight.
Sometimes I can understand why someone wants a certain image. Sometimes I don’t. One time this one farmer boy from the sticks wanted some Chinese-looking characters that he swore up and down meant powerful dragon, they didn’t and I couldn’t talk him out of it. So now he’ll blissfully spend the rest of his life with “bird fart” permanently inked into his arm. Oh well. But this guy, I get this guy. What I don’t understand is the rush, but that’s his choice, his pain.
Over the weeks I learned that even though his credit card said Peter everyone calls him Ray, as in a ray of sunshine or something like that. Not that I could tell he was a ray of sunshine, he barely spoke at all except to ask if we were on schedule. He paid his bills so who am I to complain.
By the last day Ray could barely tolerate the needle but we did manage to finish his design. I tried to put him off a few times, even a day or two, but he insisted that it had to be done by noon today. At 11:30 I put in the last bit of shading. It was a good thing that the day was sunny and warm since he couldn’t stand to put his shirt back on. He paid for the last of the work and left without saying a word. I decided to follow, it was lunchtime after all. Besides, his large Silverado was easy to shadow from a distance with my Harley.
At the edge of town he pulled into the county cemetery and stopped behind one of those trucks from the monument company. The workers were in the process of lifting a new headstone from the truck. They wave as Ray walks up. With great care the workers and Ray gently place the stone on the foundation. From my vantage I can see that the back of the headstone is simply engraved with Ray’s last name. Ray inspects the headstone, shakes the worker’s hands, and they pack up to leave. Once they’re gone Ray walks back around to the front of the stone. Trying to respect his privacy I walk around until I’m behind him. By that time Ray is on his knees, one hand on the stone, the other covering his eyes. The stone is wonderfully carved with the image of a sleeping infant on a bed of rose petals under a blanket of fluffy clouds. The script beneath the rose petals reads “In Memory of Jessica, July 14, 2012.” It is the exact same image that I inked into Ray’s back.
I swear that what I saw next really happened, I didn’t imagine it. As I stood there a third image became visible, I don’t know how to describe it. I guess I was seeing Ray’s heart, not the pump thing, but his soul. And tattooed there was the exact same image on his back and the headstone. But as he wept beside her grave his tattooed heart changed ever so slightly. It seemed like the clouds parted just a bit, just enough to let a beam of light shine on the infant’s smile. It was there for a moment, just a moment, and then the image was gone. I left quietly, I didn’t even start the Harley until I was nearly out of the cemetery. Good thing it was all downhill.
Ray dropped by earlier today. I had emailed him about coming over so I could see if any touch ups were needed since the swelling had gone down by now. I also wanted to get a picture for my book if he’d let me. While I was looking over the ink it happened again. The soul thing from the cemetery. Only this time the sunbeam was larger and covered all of Baby Jessica’s face. Then it hit me. What the headstone guys carve into stone is forever and I can’t wipe away the ink on Ray’s back, but God can heal a tattooed heart.