November 28th, 2004

ledbetter tat

A tradition broken

I came up with the idea for the tattoo in a slap of inspiration. I’d take the poem he had scratched into a brassy metallic card, the one holding our silver rings he presented to me as a surprise in a Montreal hotel room in ‘97, and have it transferred onto my arm, Billy’s handwriting intact. For the past two years, I had gone under the sweet sting of a thousand bees to walk away with something permanent, a gift to myself, my skin a shrine to my Guyster.

On our tenth anniversary, I had the very exact tattoo Billy had on his left arm – VINYLDOG with a small heart underneath it. Vinyldog was our dog, the one before Bob Slobbers, the little black cocker rescued by Billy and me. Last year I was more ambitious, choosing an elaborate design on my ribcage that swept three words in a banner with a halo and angels’ wings, words to a game we played – LOVE/NEED/KEEP.

Once we returned from Montreal, the card sat on top of our dresser. It still does. I had it in my head that I’d trace along the grooves of the card, hoping to capture his handwriting exactly. Joe thought it best to scan it, fearing that I might lessen Billy’s imprint. Once scanned, Joe taught me the basics of Photoshop, and I sat at Joe’s desk, tracing over the lines that Billy had created. I know his writing so well that it was easy, at times drawing me closer, closer to the moment Billy carved it himself.

I guess doing something two years in a row doesn’t really make for a tradition but it was one that I wanted to start; a yearly sojourn under the needle. Last year I found Toad up in Mattoon about fifty miles northeast of St. Elmo. He did a good job on my ribcage although the words are a little murkier than I’d like. I was going to have him touch that one up a little after he was done with the main event.

I had my renderings in the manila folder that Joe gave me when I walked into Toad’s parlor, the place I went last year. A young girl was getting her belly button pierced when I walked in, her two friends surrounding her with encouragement. Toad looked up for a second, saw me standing there, told me he’d be with me in a minute. I heard him give lengthy instructions on how to avoid infection, sending the girls on their way.

“I remember you. You’re that Discovery guy.” I nodded, grinning, and told him about a failed project of a family of tattooists that one of our networks tried. I shuffled some until he asked to see what I had. I opened the folder. He was shaking his head as he eyed the design, his long gray hair shuffled against his shoulders.

“That’s very personal” He paused, looking at it some more. “I think if I did this, it’d run together. Not look right in twenty years.”

“Shit. I don’t care what it looks like in twenty years.”

“Not sure it’d be good in five. See. The letters are too close—“

“I don’t go out in the sun.” I was starting to sweat, wanted to cry, knew better.

“Don’t matter. Skin is always changing.”

“What if we just did this part?” My hand covered the top phrase. “Full scale?”

“Naw. Even if you blew it up larger—“

“What about a regular font?” I interrupted but I could see he wasn’t going to do the work. Walking back to my car, I started to cry, it lasting the fifty miles down the interstate.

Maybe I’ll wait for Christmas in LA, go to Sunset Tattoo where Billy got his one and only. Maybe it'll will be okay to do that even if it’s not carrying on my truncated tradition