In his 2003 novel Yellow Dog, Martin Amis analyzes the style choices of young people. "The secret purpose of fashion on the street," he writes, "is to thwart the lust of your elders."
That thought came to mind as I passed my middle-aged eyes over "Lord's Eye," my friend John Buffalo Mailer's deeply engaging 20,000-word account of the two-year-long process of getting tattooed by master tattoo artist Josh Lord. John Buffalo's piece is being serialized starting this month in Inked.
Inked is a magazine and website devoted to "tattoo culture, style, and art." The website features long-form journalism, photos of astonishing tattoos, plus -- more provocatively -- "Inked Girls." And let me tell you, these women are really inked. The ratio of tattoos to skin on their rather voluptuous bodies approaches the ratio of frescos to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. That said, I can report that -- true to Amis' thesis -- all that ink strikes me as anti-erotic. So the tattoos are doing their job: they render the inked women more attractive to a self-selected group of their peers while scaring away the likes of me. This is as it should be. Good for you, kids!
I approached John Buffalo's piece in Inked with something of an anti-tattoo bias. There's my childhood memory of numbers tattooed on the arm of an Auschwitz survivor who worked as the cashier at a delicatessen my family frequented. Later, when I was in college in the mid-seventies, a friend showed up in art history class with a small tattoo on her shoulder. It was only a pretty little flower, but as quaint as this sounds, I was close to being shocked. Yet I remember contemplating with some erotic fascination what other transgressive activities my friend might be capable of. Well, times have certainly changed, and these days I often think: Wouldn't it be nice -- just once -- to see a young woman bend over and NOT reveal a tattoo just above her butt?"
But "Lord's Eye" produced a shift: it slowly washed away my prejudices with its
seriousness and good humor -- and its appealing cast of characters.
John Buffalo's account uses a literary device that deliberately evokes the style of his father, Norman Mailer. The elder Mailer routinely placed himself at the center of his journalism, writing about himself in the third person. In various books, he was "Aquarius," "The Prisoner," "Mailer," or simply "Norman." In "Lord's Eye," the great writer's youngest son goes by "Buffalo."
Buffalo begins his story on a spiritual note, suggesting that "your tattooer is like your priest, scraping the confession you choose to be reminded of every day for the rest of your life into your flesh." Buffalo is in search of a tattoo that will be the modern equivalent of a medieval sigil, "a symbol to show your gods that you fight the good fight for their team." And, of course, it also has to look "badass."
Josh Lord, the wonderfully named tattoo artist working on Buffalo's shoulder, is the owner of two New York tattoo parlors, plus an East Village bar. Lord is a legend in the tattoo world with a three-year waiting list for new clients. He is, Buffalo, writes, "part priest, shrink, historian, and surgeon." Lord, Buffalo, and Buffalo's girlfriend -- the artist/photographer/model/lingerie columnist Katrina Eugenia -- are fine company. They're sincere, thoughtful, and fun to hang out with.
Much time is passed as Buffalo and Lord -- two serious men who are seriously good drinkers -- wax philosophical about tattoos, and it's good to be on the barstool nearby.
"Tattooing properly is just an act of physical meditation," Lord says, "...You can never really make it perfect, 'cause it's skin. ...So you get as close as you possibly can with it." There's something reassuringly wholesome about Lord's attitude towards the craft that has provided him with a great job, an outlet for artistic expression, and a redemptive structure to his life. "If it weren't for tattooing," he says, "I don't think I ever would have found something in my life that used my skill set in happy productive ways. " Later he adds, "Saying I've always enjoyed it doesn't even do it justice. I LOVE TATTOOING."
Buffalo seems to love it, too. He describes being "high on the adrenalin of getting more ink" and "flying for hours." The process is painful, of course -- especially when he has to have the traces of a earlier tattoo removed -- but it is "perhaps the most fascinating pain Buffalo had ever experienced."
There is also a dark side to this dark art, and at one point Buffalo tells Lord, "You know, Josh, meeting you might be the thing that takes me over the edge to where I end up having more tattoos on my body than not."
Buffalo -- so far -- has resisted the temptation, but it's a measure of the power of his writing that the reader understands the urge to be inked all over, given the charm of Josh Lord and his fellow tattooers. As Buffalo puts it, "Who wouldn't want one of these guys to fuck around and make art on your body?"
I'm still not ready to sign up, but I feel enlightened and relieved of my antiquated prejudices.
Which brings to mind another sentence from Amis' Yellow Dog: "See the young kissing and run it by your heart; if your heart rejects it, retreats from it, that's age, that's time -- fucking with you."
To this, I'll add only: See the young with their tattoos and run it by your heart, if your heart rejects it....