My uncle has skulls that start at one wrist, wrap up one arm, around his back, down the other arm to the other wrist. It’s like a necklace of skulls except it’d be the biggest necklace in the world that melted onto his body. When I was a kid I used to pinch the skinless mouth of one of those skull tats and make it talk: “Please Uncle Paul, please release me from your arm! Why did you make me? I could have been beautiful but you wanted me screaming and on fire! How could you put me in this arm-hell?” He’d swat my hand away.
On my uncle’s back is a whole graveyard display. Ghosts coming out of a cemetery like they’re on a mission to assassinate the sky. I can’t really remember what it looks like exactly ’cause he doesn’t take his shirt off that much, but that’s what I thought tats were for—people who don’t like shirts. Your tats become your shirt. But not him. Maybe he doesn’t like it though. Hell on his back. Hell on his arms. My uncle used to be a heroin addict. Now he’s a methadone addict. I don’t know why, but I thought I’d tell you that. Maybe then you’ll understand the graveyard better. Understand the skulls.
His son, my cousin, has skull tats too. And he’s got one of a girl with big boobs burning in hell trapped inside a mouth that’s about to shut its jaws down on her. He’s married. It must be weird when his wife looks at that tat. He’s got other tats too. I think a Ted Nugent Fred Bear one and a Rolling Stones lips one if I remember, but those go ignored when you’ve got that girl burning in the depths of hell. He’s got cerebral palsy too.
This one hot—and I mean hot—girl who was in Prague when I was there when I got a scholarship to write about the international homeless situation, she wanted me to get a tattoo with her. We did spin-the-bottle. It was like eight girls and one guy. I’m not homophobic, but I didn’t want to kiss a dude either, especially not the guy who was part of that spin-the-bottle game because he looked like an alcoholic poet’s electrocuted son and he had given tattoos to himself and I never trust anyone who tattoos himself. But I risked it, figuring that if it landed on both of us (low odds), I’d bow out to moans and groans and in the meantime I’d see how many girls I got to kiss. And I swear to God, when it landed on me, every single time the bottle then pointed to the hot girl I liked, Ashland. She had a name like a goddess. And the bottle—every time. Like God loved me and only me that day. Three times I got to kiss her and it was like suddenly landing in a heavy metal video where everything’s perfect, because she was all Goth and amazing—someone whom usually I couldn’t get to even think to consider to wonder about looking at me. So every kiss was just this wave of absinthe. (I’d gotten drunk off absinthe in Prague and it was the deepest drunk of my life, where the table started moving, like hallucinating drunk. Pretty cool.) Anyway, she wanted me to get a tattoo with her at a shop, but it was Prague and I was worried about the needle and I had no idea what I’d get and if I’m going to get a tattoo with a girl I’d better be engaged to her and she better be pregnant, because tats last longer than marriages and wars.
This girl I hooked up with in Waltham even though my roommate told me not to, she was tatted. My roomie said she was schizophrenic and he didn’t want her coming over to the house. Keep in mind that my roommate had a rule where he cut his hair only once every year and it had to be on New Year, so he was flirting with schizophrenia a bit himself. So I ignored him and we were in my room with the mattress on the floor and the road construction going on outside the window and she took her shirt off and her back had these big (and I mean big) devilish angel wings and it kind of freaked me out. It felt sort of like she wasn’t fully human, like I started wondering if maybe she was actually part demonic-angel and so I didn’t fully sleep with her, if you know what I mean. I don’t want to get into sex, because that’s not cool—to kiss-and-tell or fuck-and-tell or kiss-and-fuck or whatever. But I miss her angel-devil wings sometimes. I think it’s the weird things about people that make them unforgettable. I’m freakishly tall, like so tall that every day I either get stared at, pointed at, or asked how tall I am, so I don’t really have to work for circus freak status. It comes with my body. It’s central to my life.
When I was in the military, my bunkmates got some cartoon penguin tattooed on all their asses. They did it as a drunk joke. I forget the name of the penguin. It was famous at the time. A really famous cartoon penguin. I think it was called Opus if I remember. One day this girl on base asked if she could sleep with me and I said no. I was a virgin at the time and that just seemed odd, to just say sure and then screw her. It seemed like a waste. If I waited that long, I wanted at least one of us to be in love. She went and married one of the penguin butt tattoo guys, a guy who poured beer in my orange juice for no reason other than he was a dick. I was curious if she still wanted to sleep with me, so before I left to go to another base I asked her if she wanted to and she said no.
When I taught in prison, this one prisoner had his entire head tattooed. It was pretty intimidating. Especially the colors. His head was all orange and yellow so he looked kind of sick, like his head was ill. Maybe it was. He looked like what I always thought LSD would make a head look like. I tried to get him to write non-fiction, because he always wrote about guys flying around on dragons and fucking women and I told him he had more important things to say than that. He asked what I wanted him to write about. I said to just be simple and honest. Write about prison. People in the real world don’t have any idea of what prison is really like, just the bullshit they see on TV and film. I told him to write what it’s like when no cameras are around, because cameras change everything. He said he didn’t want to write about prison, which I could understand. If you were in prison, why think about it all day by writing about it too? So I told him to write about what it was like before he was in prison, to write about what it was like when he was out in the free world, what was his family like, what was he like before he ever did any crime? He said he didn’t know. I asked what he meant and he said that he didn’t remember his childhood except for prison. And I said there had to be a time he remembered in his entire life when he wasn’t in jail and he got angry and said that when he was really young he started doing drugs, like really, really young and like really heavy drugs, so he was always fucked up and he got put in prison at a young age and he actually did not have, honestly, one single clear memory of not being behind bars, because he’d lost so much of his memory from the drugs and he stormed out and he never came back to the writing class again. He had hundreds and hundreds of those pages of guys riding dragons. And paper is hard to get in prison.
In high school, I went to a bonfire with my cousin who hung out with all the Thai kickboxers from where I’m from. This kid at the party had a swastika tattoo on his forehead. We started making fun of him, laughing really hard, because doing something like that guarantees the rest of your life is fucked and we thought that was about as funny as anything. The kid came up and started talking to us and said he used to be in the KKK and we didn’t really talk to him much after that. None of us were really interested in learning about the KKK, at least not from someone who was once in it. It would be like talking with a devil worshipper; you’d be kind of worried it’d rub off on you or something. Like Satanic osmosis.
I wrote about that KKK kid and my uncle’s tats in a novel of mine I was working on for a creative writing workshop and this German girl in the class asked me if I had any tattoos and when I said no she got upset and said only people with tattoos should write about tattoos and I asked her if she had any and she had one and she showed me it and it was like this little tiny wimpy thing that I wouldn’t even call a tattoo. It was like a microscopic dolphin that was so small you’d need a telescope to be able to tell it was a fish at all. It was like a birthmark she was pretending was a tattoo.
This kid at a school where I got an MFA gave himself a tattoo of a chicken. It looked like a connect-the-dots chicken that never got finished. It looked like he got it on the back of a moving lumber truck. It was easily the shittiest tattoo I’ve seen. I told you about anyone who gives themselves tattoos. I can’t hang out with you. That simple.
In Detroit one time, when I was working for VH1 for I Love New York if you remember that show, all these contestant wannabes were in line waiting for the casting agents to look at them. I just kept everyone in line, which was easy to do because there was a rope that did a better job than I ever could. These were all hard core Detroit guys and, bored, they started comparing tats and then one guy noticed a bullet hole on one of the dudes and pointed it out and this other guy said he had a bullet hole and then all the guys in line started pulling down their socks and loosening their belts and pulling up their shirts and sharing and counting bullet holes. I asked if any of them were in a gang and they all started laughing.
I had a roommate in Kalamazoo who got a Jesus fish tattoo on the bottom of his foot. He went to the beach and walked around all day and wore the tattoo off. I asked him if it was one of those scratch-on tattoos, but he said no it was the real thing. Apparently if you get a tat on the bottom of your foot, those are temporary, if you don’t wear shoes.
The best tat ever though is Phil Anselmo from Pantera. UNSCARRED across his stomach. When me and my cousin saw that, we died laughing, but we also respected it. At least I did.
Once, I tried out for that standup reality show that was on TV forever. I forget the name. The one that Josh Blue won. I got snuck into the auditions at Zanies in Chicago and the judges were two writers for The Tonight Show. I said, “Instead of Thuglife, Tupac should have got a tattoo that said Huglife. And started cuddling with little puppies. That would have been cool.” The fat grumpy of the two judges said, “That all you got?” Then I told them, “I don’t see what’s so hard about being a hostage, I could do that blindfolded. With two hands tied behind my back. In fact, that would make it even easier.” But they didn’t like that one either, so they booted me off the stage.
I don’t have any tattoos, if you’re wondering. My cousin said I should get a bunch of face tattoos. I’m 6’6″ and he said that if I got my face covered with tats I would look insane and scare everyone. He actually sounded all Tony Robbins motivational telling me this, as if looking insane and scaring everyone would be the best thing in the world. I don’t know. I’m not dead yet. We’ll see.
Ron Riekki’s books include U.P. and The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works (Wayne State University Press, a 2014 Michigan Notable Book and Foreword Book of the Year finalist) His plays include All Saints’ Day (Ruckus Theater, Chicago Theater Beat Award nomination for Best Actress for Elizabeth Bagby), Dandelion Cottage (Lake Superior Theater, published by the Center for U.P. Studies), and Carol (Stageworks/Hudson equity production, published by Smith & Kraus).