The Tao of Tattoos
Jonathan Kemp and I were on a crammed, clattering subway in New York City a few years ago, both lost in our own thoughts, as we were wont to be often; relationships between writers are studies in non-verbal communication as we float in and out of the various personal parallel realities we inhabit concurrently. We were both sucked immediately back into this world when a Latina woman with a small child screamed out to me from halfway down the car, “Hey! EXCUSE ME! Are those abstract?!”
She was referring to the tattoos on my forearms, and she was quite correct. In this Golden Age of Tattooing mine are something of an anomaly: they have no obvious meaning. They are purely decorative. I get asked several times a week by strangers what they symbolize. My stock answer is, “I don’t know. What do they mean to you?”
Having said that, my very first tattoo—back then radical for someone from my socio-cultural background—was what is nowadays a non-descript band of symbols around my right ankle. At some point, I’ll integrate it into a larger piece up my leg.
I got the first symbol in the cluster, my zodiac sign, for my eighteenth birthday. I’d known the tattooist, Bruce Bart, most of my life, so there was no faking my age, and there was no way my mother would give permission before I reached my majority. As a resident of the local town near the Victorian gated community my family’s country house is located in, Bruce had his own opinions about mothers like mine, and was more than happy to mark one of their children indelibly.
My mother had told me expressly not to get it. She had “forbid” me, in those waning days when she could still use that word. “I forbid you to get a tattoo!” she said in that signature Australo-American accent over and over in the weeks leading up to my Great Emancipation; I had given her fair warning.
The War of the Killoughs was raging at that point, a long-overdue divorce imminent. My father was banished, no longer part of my parenting equation. Mum had successfully enlisted me on her side of the battle—as Oedipus will tell you, never a tough task with an eldest son—and in preparation for the second act of her life she had fallen in with a group of other attractive well-heeled New York divorcées in their early forties, what we would now call MILFs or cougars.
The day after I got my zodiac sign put on my ankle, Mum and I were headed up to Martha’s Vineyard for a long weekend with Kate, a fellow member of her particular NY Legion of MILFs, Fifth Avenue Chapter. While we were on the ferry, she looked at my ankle—one my few acknowledgements to my socio-cultural background is I wore no socks—and said, “You didn’t.”
“Oh, my God!” she exclaimed, before launching into a torrent of woe-is-me invective, sprinkled with something about her perfect baby boy being scarred for life; for the second time in his life, to be precise, after that circumcision she ordered when I was a few days old. “Don’t you say a word when we get there, you understand? I want you to keep that covered up the entire weekend. I forbid you to tell anyone about this.”
However, no sooner had she stormed full-diva into Kate’s house on Chappaquiddick than the first words out of her mouth were, “Kate! You’ll never believe what the little son of a bitch has done. Go on, show her your ankle! I think I’m going to be sick.” Now that I think about it, she was actually dead proud; both she and Kate had artistic aspirations.
The black and white zodiac symbol was never exactly what I wanted, but I was having a hard time expressing to Bruce Bart where I wanted to go with my tattoos. This was still pre-Golden Era, when you had an option of Sailor Jerry/Grateful Dead/biker stuff if you were a guy, or butterflies and unicorns if you were a girl. Whatever it was, it was usually figurative and in color.
Not only didn’t I want color, I wanted something more like decorative markings, adornment, not pictures, no images. I said to Bruce, “I want it to look like something you’d get in prison, but more refined.”
I should have known just to go tribal Maori with it, but I was still eighteen and there was little reference in the tattoo world at that point for the style I was searching for. I also wanted geometrical, which was hard for Bruce to render because his hand naturally tended towards curves for figurative drawing.
I was also still part of the general belief that my markings needed to mean something.
The ankle was completed a year later with a five more black-and-white symbols, none of them well executed, paid for by my mother, who sat there watching to make sure “that Bruce Bart fellow” did it properly. My sister was tattooed at the same time, with a blossom branch. On the same ankle, of course.
Ten years later, when the Golden Age was dawning and black-and-white tribal tattoos were all the rage, I realized what I should have done in the first place, but I was also horrified this was becoming something of a cliché, and there’s nothing I abhor more than being part of the herd. I backed away from the whole idea of getting tattooed for another ten years, until it had all settled down into a norm of Western culture.
I met the legendary Xed Le Head when he was still at Into You, the equally legendary Alex Binney’s shop in London. I’ve met a lot of hip in my Baron Munchausen-esque life, run with celebrities and socialites both crazy and fabulous, had tea with dreadlocked cannibals in India, and I’m not pre-disposed to be afraid of much, but my first encounters with Xed really unsettled me. His was a whole other level of cool, a parallel reality of cool, from a universe that has little regard for mine or yours with our petit bourgeois moralities and notions of the way things should be.
The moment I saw Xed’s portfolio at Into You, I knew I’d met my maker. His work was what I’d been trying to express: pure adornment without meaning, the celestial beauty of geometry, divine chaos intuitively brought to order. All executed with painstaking craftsmanship and detail. Above all, it was his; his bodies were just his canvases, they no longer belonged to themselves.
When I met Xed, I must have taken a step backwards. Emerging from behind the curtains of the main parlor at Into You, snapping off his latex gloves, he was a scowling Vulcan disrupted at his forge, crossed with a bit of battle-weary Maori warrior, as interpreted by a heavily inked skinhead from East London. Xed was absolutely unimpressed with what I wanted: a cluster of hexagons around my left wrist, which could be either renderings of chemical compounds, clusters of crystals, a honeycomb, or all or none of the above… Whatever thought I had given this, it just withered as insignificant before the maestro.
One of the busiest tattoo artists in the world, Xed hesitated for a moment, probably thinking about whether he would take such a minor job at all. Then he looked at me, squinted, perhaps recognized the glint of a madman in my eye, and agreed. I was given the earliest appointment, which was three months later.
Xed talks a lot. So do I, but Xed really talks a lot. He’s completely taciturn during the first hours of a job because he’s somewhat paranoid and untrusting, but once he’s feels comfortable with you, the drawbridge of his mouth lowers swiftly with a THUNK! and you are forever more trampled by a wonderful stampede of riotous, taboo-free, Cockney-accented confabulation and raunchy teasing.
There is something dizzying, surreal about Xed’s world. You feel drained by the mundane normalcy of everything else when you leave it, which is saying a lot because I live in an almost completely creative reality most of the time. He quickly convinced me that the wimpy wrist tattoo wasn’t enough for a man my size and personality, so he grew the hexagonal pattern until it covered my entire forearm. And then it burst into flame.
Such a glaring piece was made even more important in my every day life by the fact that, as someone raised in Italy, I gesticulate a lot. It felt like I was listing to the left like a one-armed gorilla, so the other forearm needed to be done to even it out. I only understood the full genius of what Xed had created when I was standing on set with my arms crossed a year or so after they were both finished and I saw how the negative and positive geometry of both forearms complemented each other. I looked like some sort of alchemist tyrant. Me to a tee.
Xed is still working on my back, which had to be halted along with all unnecessary expenditures during the Recession, and the fact I moved away from London and nobody worth his salt at Xed’s level in the tattoo business will touch it. It’s now his back, not mine.
While all this might sound overly worshipful, to give you an example, I am treated like an aristocrat at my local parlor here in Hollywood, an epicenter of tattooing worldwide, because I am a walking Le Head original. When he saw me, the head tattooist gasped and said, “I have always wanted to be tattooed by him!” and went to get his colleagues so they could all admire his work, even incomplete. As my local jewelers—I have double-zero gauge earrings that can only be bought in tattoo parlors—they refer to me not by name, but as “the guy with the Xed Le Head tattoos.” And I’m fine with that.
There are two basic guidelines that I’ve come up with in my years of pondering and experimenting with ink and skin:
1) Unless you have suffered an amputation, your body is balanced. Tattoos should become and integrated part of your body. They don’t need to be symmetrical, but they need to have balance or they will weight you down to one side when you look at yourself, or, worse, when others look at you.
2) Tattoos are adornment, decoration. Your clothes and furniture don’t have meaning or symbolism—even feng shui only has covert context—so your tattoos don’t need it either. Choose a design because it is aesthetically pleasing, a work of art, not because it is a sign of something, whose meaning will become irrelevant over time. And if it’s in another language that neither you nor others can read… Don’t get me started on that.
I could come up with a whole list of peeves in tattooing, but I don’t see the point because it is so subjective. As Xed once said with a snide cackle, “All ta’oos are beau’iful.” While I struggle with that koan from Master Le Head every time I walk into the gym and see a Superman symbol delusively tattooed on some muscle queen’s bicep, there is something about his philosophy that is probably the only true Tao of tattooing.