I got a tattoo on my 19th birthday. I figured I was old enough to get one and I was definitely still young enough to dream of waking up one twisted dawn in Singapore or Copenhagen and looking in the mirror and remembering the wasted golden days of my youth.
I started thinking about the tattoo the moment I arrived in LA. I visited Cliff Raven’s studio. His specialty was Oriental design, but a tiny black unicorn, beautifully detailed, would’ve cost me about four months’ rent. I put the idea on a back burner until the afternoon of my birthday, when I found myself drifting around Hollywood, pleasantly pickled with my friend Matt Bauer, an ex-pro baseball player addicted to painkillers.
Mad life was streaming by. Huge fat Hispanic ladies screaming at their husbands, grotesquely powdered Jewish ladies arguing with shop assistants, car horns honking, music thudding, black kids dancing for money, cute little blondes in cut-off jeans, gays with their shirts off, old Italian men talking with their hands, old hippy ladies talking to themselves, Japanese tourists blinking in the sun after seeing Deep Throat a second time-a man in a straw hat talking about God, the Devil and retiring to Arizona.
Bauer kept saying it was important that I do something significant for my birthday. I told him about the tattoo idea. He became obsessed. I tried to fend him off. When it came down to it, I was a little nervous. He kept at me. Finally, we came across this place called the West Coast Tattoo Studio. Bauer said it was now or never. I said I had to find the right tattoo. Bauer asked what I had in mind. I thought for a second, and figured that a clown was a pretty unlikely design for them to have. And it couldn’t be a wimpy clown. It had to be cool, like one of those old circus posters. It had to have a certain look, a certain expression-it had to capture that vanished sideshow-ghost carnival feeling. I said, “I’ll do it, if I can get a clown tattoo.” Bauer slapped me on the back.
The place was up on the second floor in a window overlooking the street. I don’t know what I was expecting-some big bearded fellow chewing Red Man tobacco-a lot of skulls and Rebel flag designs in glass cases on the dirty walls.
What we found was a cross between a Sam Spade-type office and a veterinarian’s. A Korean-looking guy without a shirt on was working on a longhair’s forearm-putting the finishing touches on a coiled rattlesnake. He was locked in sweaty concentration and his own chest and back were entirely covered with an elaborately detailed series of dragons, imperial warriors, winged horses, naked women, and suns with fiery faces.
The next customer, or patient, was a vaguely Latina woman who lay back on a vinyl seat with her pants down and her you-know-what right up in the guy’s face while he gave her a bright pink strawberry just above her pubic hair. His back was to me. He had a hatchet-head and a white T-shirt with huge sweat stains under the arms.
The third tattooist looked like a skinhead version of Richard Chamberlain. He was wearing a white cotton madras shirt that disguised but didn’t hide the most disturbing tattoo I’ve ever seen. Fortunately, he didn’t show it to me until after mine was done or I’d have chickened out. I was plenty ready to chicken out and of course I had my excuse all ready-they didn’t have the clown face I wanted.
Skin Man listened to my description, scowled and lit a cigarette. He pulled a ring binder off a shelf and flicked the pages. He stopped, then showed the page to me. It was exactly the face I had in mind. I looked at Bauer who grinned hugely. Skin Man said, “The colors will fade a little in time, but when you die they’ll be nice and bright again.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. I took off my shirt and Skin Man traced the outline from the stencil. The humming, sewing machine irritation was just enough to keep me alert. Bauer went over to chat up the strawberry girl while I sat observing the swarming little dramas of Hollywood Boulevard unfold.
What I became fixated on was a wino-at least I thought he was a wino-lying motionless in the doorway of the International House of Pancakes across the street. I concluded later that if he was a wino, he was a fairly well to do wino because at first he had on a green fedora, a herringbone jacket, burgundy polyester trousers, white leather loafers and pale pink socks. It was a bright warm afternoon, thousands of people in the street. This guy was lying down in the doorway of a popular restaurant and people were stepping over his body to get in and out. Hundreds more were stepping past him every minute.
I looked away to ash my cigarette and when I looked back, his green fedora was gone. I turned away to answer Bauer-for a split second-and the guy’s shoes were gone. I thought I was seeing things. He was being picked clean and it was happening before my eyes. The crowds kept churning past. Then I lost sight of him again-and when he reappeared I got a glimpse-the guy was barefoot!
Finally, I watched an actual derelict steal the man’s coat. It was done cleanly, but not so fast that it couldn’t be seen by me, and about five hundred other people. I didn’t see who got the trousers. Bauer came over after the strawberry girl left and I got distracted. When I looked back the man was lying in a short-sleeved shirt and a pair of boxer shorts. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t even notice that my tattoo was finished.
As if to welcome me to the fold, Skin Man took off his shirt. His chest was white, surprisingly delicate and hairless. Then he slowly turned to show us his back, which was entirely taken over by an enormous octopus-something out of an opium nightmare-Bosch meets an old Dutch map. The sheer intensity of the thing made me cringe. In each tentacle was a sword or an axe or-something. There were mermaids crushed in the grip of the suckered arms, black ink rising-sailors’ knots, sunken ships, skeletons and sharks.
“It took 75 hours,” he said without emotion. I nodded. He nodded. I paid and we left. We looked in a couple of store windows and watched this guy performing on the corner. He must’ve had double jointed jaws because he was able to open his mouth, or what seemed like his whole head, just like a Pez dispenser. Anyway, by the time we got over to the I-HOP, an ambulance or the cops had taken the guy in the doorway away. Completely gone. The slow fade finally finished.
It was frustrating because Bauer hadn’t seen the guy from the window and hadn’t really believed me when I told him what had been going on. What could I say? The mysterious thing is that later, whenever I tried to point out the West Coast Tattoo Studio to anyone, I could never find it again. It seems to have vanished off the face of the earth. No one even remembered where I thought it had been.
Of course I only have to roll up my sleeve to prove that at least for one warm afternoon, it existed. No matter if I wake up in Singapore or in the doorway of an International House of Pancakes. Even when I’m gone, the glitter in the clown’s green eyes will still be bright. Skin Man told me.