Following the Ink Drops…

Art by Greg Simkins

In the course of conducting research for this semester’s Research Methods for Writers class, I have been assaulted with ideas. The topic of tattoos and tattoo artists, is entirely too broad and so I had to choose an avenue that narrowed the field a bit.

I intend to write my final piece as a genre short story. The way my research is going, it may wind up as magical-realism, or some sort of dark urban fantasy. Anybody who knows me would not expect anything else, lol…

Though my research is really just beginning to get under way, some beacons have risen to provide guiding points of light in the dark sea of possibility. I’ve noted these as developing themes and plan to follow their lead in pursuit of my research. Let’s explore them…

The first is this concept of a hierarchy. There seems to me, to be a caste system in place where tattoo artists of various “position” are afforded certain rights, privileges and attention, befitting their “station”.  This is not to say that any one artist who has been relegated to a lower tier on the ink ladder is not capable (or deserving) of producing at the level of the Kings and Queens of the court. This is just how the system has situated itself. Why? How does this happen? Talent is obviously a key contributing factor, but to what ends are other factors such as media coverage, contacts, location, and luck? This hierarchical concept made itself evident to me while attending the 2011 Philadelphia Tattoo Arts Convention. The VIP artists had a room completely to themselves, with work areas easily six times that of the “lower nobility”. In fact, they were on their own floor, separate from the masses of other artists who had crowded into narrow stalls on the upper floor. There are local Kings, such as Philadelphia Eddie, who stand on a tier above their fellow artists, put there by time, tradition, respect, insight and talent. But even the Philadelphia Eddie’s must walk in the shadows of Emperors and Empresses like Chris Garver or Kat Von D.

Another observation in the vein of hierarchy, is that of the courts themselves. Drawing a comparison to medieval culture and fantasy fiction, there is a distinct parallel to the idea of “noble courts”. Indeed, each artist or group of artists seemed to have its own retinue, its own group of knights and maidens and hangers-on. There are squires as well, apprentices learning the art of the ink gun under the tutelage of a proven tattoo artist. State laws vary in the necessary period of apprenticeship, but I believe the average amount to be 2000 hours. During this period, apprentices spend a great deal of time drawing, learning and aiding the tattoo artists themselves. The ability to create the desired images on paper, to breathe life into thought (and to do it well) is the foundation of moving to skin.

Secondly, I want to explore a reference I heard in relation to the tattoo industry. I have mentioned in a previous post that the tattoo industry is the sixth fastest growing retail industry in the states. I also read a comment that referred to it as a “cut-throat business” What does that mean? What about camaraderie? This establishes conflict, and to write a story about this, conflict is necessary. This is an area worth exploring.

Third, is the belief or attachment of power to tattoos. Historically, tattoos have been used to promote fertility, immortality, or protection. The Egyptians and Maori tribes leap to mind immediately. There has been an inherent mysticism attached to tattoos, a magical association that lends itself perfectly to the genre I wish to write in. I am currently reading about the history of tattoos, in which a significant part of the book is devoted to this tenet. I am also intrigued by the notion of the connection the artists themselves forge with the piece they are doing. Again, I mention Kat Von D. I just bought her new book, “The Tattoo Chronicles” in which she records her personal level of connection to individual tattoos she has done. Kat claims to only do work that she feels significantly important to the customer and that she connects with on some level. I found this artist to recipient “thread” to be significant and attaching weight to the ink transfer.

Finally, as the creative cogs began to grind, an idea formed that I felt compelled to jot down.

From the notes of Joseph P. McGee

The pieces are still falling into place, like dandelion spores exploding across a field of windswept grass. I like the idea of warring gangs/courts/tribes of tattoo artists. Inkslingers? Ink Shamans? I like the idea of power infused in the art at the cost of a piece of the soul? These are all areas to be explored and, of course, more research is necessary.

How skeletons, dice, and a picnic table transformed a boy. Sharing the gift of your imagination.

“Crypt dust floats in the slanted rays of sunlight, filtering down between the age rusted bars. The stone is cold and reeks of mildew. Your breath forms ghostly clouds in the quiet tomb. There are no other doors out of this small, octagonal chamber. Six sarcophagi are laid out in a semi-circle. In the center of the room, atop a stone plinth, is the gem you seek. The Eye of the Seether. What do you-“

“I go for the gem,” says the teen with the mop of hair and backwards hat. “I shoulder through the group and grab it!”

“No!” says the group, almost in unison. Their faces bear looks of horror and exasperation.

The lanky teen with the old station wagon, the one surrounded by books and papers, the one lurking behind his cardboard screen, smiles and rolls some dice. Funny looking dice with bright colors and odd shapes.

What is going on, I think? What just happened? Why are they so upset? But I am not here. I am not at that splintered, wooden picnic table whose red paint is somehow symbolic of the blood that will begin to flow in that cold tomb, a thousand worlds away. I am not in that Pittsburgh backyard, in the middle of Summer, in my tank top and sandals. I am there, sword in hand and I. am. nervous.

The boy behind the screen smiles and leans forward. I lean with him while the others ruffle papers and flip through books, racing for spells or equipment.

“As your fingers brush the surface of the gem, there is an explosion of splintering wood and long undisturbed dust. A carrion stench fills the air, the smell of rot. You grab the gem, but stumble back in shock as you look upon the grinning skeletal faces of Lord Mazeer’s death knights. Six skeletal warriors, armed with the blades they wielded in life and armored in the ancient breast plates of Salazir, step out of the remains of their coffins. Their eyes are burning pits of hellfire and they are all. looking. at….you.”

Then, like the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, there was an eruption of questions, declarations, dice rolling, shoulder punching (upon the shoulder of he who grabbed the gem), book searching and paper rustling. Someone tried to “turn” them. Someone was raising a shield and swinging tempered steel. Someone else was searching their belt pouch for spell components. They wanted to cast some orb kind of thingy, but needed manticore blood. It was all a blur, to me, this enthralled twelve-year-old boy in a tank top and sandals. I listened as the boy behind the screen, this silver-tongued bard, this purveyor of absolute magic, continued to weave his tale with the help of those players whose characters helped decide the direction of the story. I was twelve and I had just walked through a door that would forever change me.I had become enlightened, in the purest sense of embracing our creative imagination.

I ran home, plundered the dice from the Monopoly game (they had only six sides, but they would do) and found an unused spiral bound notebook. I began to record the rules to my own game. The First of hundreds (literally HUNDREDS) of role-playing games I would play or own in my life. I wrote down what I could remember. Hmmm….let’s see. You can be a fighter, am elf, a dwarf, a thief….an axe does 1d6 (that’s one six-sided roll, in case you hadn’t figured that out)..and a sword does 2d6…..roll 1d6 for hit points (that’s your life essence. At zero you are dying)…you have strength, um..intelligence….

I wrote and I wrote, filling in that notebook. Then I went for the graph paper and I began to create my first dungeon. There would be fire traps and pits and monsters and secret doors.It would be the first of thousands (literally THOUSANDS) of dungeons, adventures and stories I would create and/or run in my life. With the rules and the dungeon ready for action, I invited my friend, Daniel, to play and we sat down in my backyard, under the boughs of a sagacious old tree and embarked on a journey that I still walk today.

I was twelve. That was twenty-six years ago (quick, do the math) and obviously it still resonates in the forefront of my mind. This experience, this image is a raging bonfire amongst flickering candles in the pitch of my memory. I believe that moment, that experience, laid the foundation for who I am today, for embracing the talents and gifts that I possess. Creative individuals are, inherently, creative, but that well can fill with an onrush of gushing water, pouring over the sides or it can run near dry, where only a puddle remains at the bottom, wishing, hoping for some rain to erase the drought.There are moments in our life, and in the lives of others, where we can experience, or we can BE that rain. And that is the point here.

We, as writers (and again, any creative enterprise works here: artists, musicians, etc) have the ability to share the magic of our imaginations with young kids in tank tops and sandals. Haha, ok, so maybe they can be wearing sneakers, or fuzzy slippers, or t-shirts, or hockey jerseys. Maybe it’s not at a picnic table, and maybe it’s not a role-playing game, like Dungeons & Dragons, but we can be foster parents of their imagination. We can enchant them in such a way that I was enchanted (and still am) twenty-six years ago.  We can create worlds, weave stories, breathe life into heroes, and show children today that magic DOES exist. That there are other worlds worth exploring and that one day, maybe, they will put “pen to paper” and offer lands of adventure that kids at picnic tables will wonder at and dream of.