I have not been in my right mind for quite some time, gentle friends. Before the amused chorus of “you don’t say” rises from amongst you, I should be clear, this time, I’m talking about the right hemisphere of my actual brain. You know how, apparently, the left side of the brain controls logic, reason, analytical thought, and verbal skills, and the right side is where creativity, art, music, imagination and rainbow unicorns live? Well, I’m a lawyer, so you know my zip code is on the left side of town. I’m all about words, not pictures. Recently, however, I decided to pay a visit to the other side, just to have a look around.
It all happened quite innocently, at first. As I’ve mentioned before, I love to take cooking classes. As most such courses focus on formulae (recipes) and technique mastery—i.e., science—my left brain stays comfortably in command, while my poor right brain stands off to the side, whispering ways to freestyle the recipe into something even more magical with other ingredients when I get home.
I took several cooking classes in Vietnam, and each featured a segment on fruit and vegetable carving to garnish the finished plates. I, of course, sucked at that part. I even cut the bejeesus out of my thumb while attempting to render a lotus blossom from the butt end of a carrot.
I do not like sucking at things. (Insert Beavis & Butthead snicker here.) Ordinarily, if I can’t do something well, I just avoid it. And, although one might argue that I could easily avoid fruit carving, something about it challenged me. I became determined to master at least one tomato or carrot flower, even if it killed me.
So, I hired myself a fruit carving sensei, and buckled down. And I must say, aided by good instruction and the proper tools (there are special fruit carving knives), as well as a bunch of practice, I got to where I could turn out a respectable variety of blossoms and woodland creatures from everyday items found in your local produce aisle. Not too shabby, eh? Remember me next time you have a buffet table to decorate for a bridal shower or red carpet awards show viewing party.
Emboldened by my admittedly moderate success at crafting fantasy vegenalia, I decided to take it to the next level: Tattooing. On people, not fruit. Such an obvious next step, I know, forgive my prosaicness.
As I quickly discovered, tattooing isn’t something you can just sign up for at the Learning Annex and go do. The people in the industry don’t make it easy to get in—and they shouldn’t. Basically, the way to learn is to get an established tattoo artist to teach you, in an apprenticeship. There are some instructional materials available for purchase online, but I wanted to do it properly, so I wasn’t about to go to correspondence school. After much investigation and multiple inquiries, the tattoo masters at Bangkok Ink agreed to take me on for tutelage.
Bangkok Ink has a deep bench of really talented tattoo artists, including Krit, who specializes in traditional bamboo tattooing—no machine, just tapping the tattoo into the skin by hand with long needles. This guy does cleaner, more precise work in bamboo than most artists can do with a machine. It’s something to behold. They also have a relationship with a Buddhist temple, where sacred Sak Yant tattoos—done bamboo style, and supposedly embodying a sort of protective magic charm—are blessed by a monk, and sealed with a piece of gold leaf.
When they have room, Bangkok Ink also takes on students. It’s kind of a commune of learning, where all the resident tattooists take part in helping out the newbies. You can even learn bamboo tattooing from Krit, if you want, but I wanted to start with the modern machine style.
I was so nervous. I had no idea if I was going to have any aptitude for this at all, and I sure didn’t know if I was going to fit in at the shop. I was the oldest person there by a good margin, and my image is pretty clean cut. I could just see the cartoon thought bubbles over their heads when I walked in that first day, words in Comic Sans font, saying “What’s that middle-aged Farang (Thai for ‘foreigner’) lady doing here? Someone give her directions to Starbucks.”
To top it off, the day I arrived, nobody knew who I was, because they had been expecting a man (I get that a lot because of my name), and Aum, the tattoo artist who was supposed to teach me, was in the hospital following a bad motorcycle accident. But, when the owner, Martin, arrived, all got sorted out quickly, another artist took over the task of instructing me, and I got down to work.
It was all very informal, but immediately hands on. My teacher printed out some illustrations of various things off the internet, handed me some special carbon paper, and told me to make a stencil of the image by tracing over it to get the carbon on the back side of the paper. My first several tries were dreadful, and I got purple carbon paper ink all over myself and everything around me. After I got a stencil of a big, cabbagey-looking flower sort of passably acceptable, she gave me a hunk of pigskin they got from the butcher, and showed me how to transfer the stencil ink to the pigskin using a tube of Mennen SpeedStick deodorant. Then, as the stencil dried, it was time to learn how to assemble and use the tattoo machine.
I labored over my first practice effort for almost five and a half hours. When I was done, hand cramped into a nautilus curl, Martin looked at my work, dispassionately said “not good enough,” and went on about his business.
I was so demoralized, I went home that night thinking, “what the hell am I doing here?” I was sure I’d made a huge mistake.
But, Day 2 went a little better. Same routine: pick an image, make the stencil, transfer to pig skin, and ink with the machine.
It was still not something you’d actually want to put on a human being’s body, but nevertheless, some improvement was evident. Praise was received. I verily skipped home. Maybe I wasn’t going to suck so much after all.
Day 3, tried shading. Another disaster. I almost cried. Suckage, assured. Dragged my ass home in a funk. This endeavor was going to turn me bipolar before long.
It didn’t help my morale any that there was another student there, Waf, from Belgium, who started two days before I had, and on his third day there was already working on real live people, doing beautiful work. In fairness, he was an artist to begin with, so he already had the skill and confidence to gracefully create images. This was just a new medium for him. He was great, right out of the gate. And, so nice and encouraging to me, too, as I struggled along my much steeper learning curve. If he wasn’t so nice, I’d have been really jealous of him.
Two other guys—Ori and Tom—who were not beginners (at least, not by the time I got there) were also in residence. When they weren’t cracking us up, they were spending some time polishing their already impressive skills, banking some experience, and developing their individual styles.
When the shop was quiet, Ori would get bored and tattoo his own leg, while sipping a beer for the pain. And, can I just tell you, even though he was half in the bag, and all twisted up like that, his lines came out as clean and perfect as if he’d used a ruler. Dude is a natural. (Click here to see more of his work.)
I, on the other hand, was clearly not a natural. You could just hear the rusty gears creaking in my head and smell the smoke coming out of my ears as I concentrated so hard on getting the lines even and the shading nice and feathery. My teacher was pretty laissez faire, which was probably good, as I get very frustrated and touchy when I’m having a hard time mastering something.
From the look of the work I was turning out, I was having a very hard time. The only thing I had any immediate gift for was creative draping of pashminas around the other guys’ more modest female clients who didn’t want to expose too much while they were getting worked on. A useful skill, sure, but not what I was there for.
But, around day 5, something shifted. Things started to click, and the machine felt more natural in my hand. I held it less tightly, and it flowed more easily over the pigskin, and suddenly, my lines looked better. The shading looked softer. The colors were going in nice and solidly. Day 5 was a good day, indeed. In fact, at the end of it, my teacher said I was ready to work on a person. I said no, I’m not ready. But, Pang, the manager came by and looked over my shoulder, clucked with approval, and went and put my name on the schedule board for a live, human model the following Monday.
I tell you what, if there’s anything that’ll motivate you to spend the whole weekend hunched over a piece of spoiling pigskin in the Bangkok heat practicing lining and shading, it’s the knowledge that some naïve kid who wants a free tattoo is going to be putting his pristine arm in your hands to indelibly mark for all the world to see. I didn’t want some epic tattoo fail ending up on the Internet—or anywhere else, for that matter—on my watch.
Monday arrived—Day 8—and I hadn’t slept much. I made sure to eat a good breakfast so my hands wouldn’t shake, and went to the shop to await my first victim. When he arrived, two hours late, I was nervous, but composed. He didn’t speak English, and I don’t speak Thai, so Aw, the shop assistant, translated for us. The model was a skinny slip of a kid of about 20, and he indicated he wanted his tattoo on the inner side of his forearm, but he didn’t have any particular image in mind. I found that strange, but I had bigger fish to fry.
We sat down at the computer together and sifted through various tattoo styles until he saw one he liked: a neo-traditional pocket watch flanked by some roses. He was a toothpick, though, so the image wrapped almost all the way around his arm, and he refused to let me shrink it to fit the flat part of his forearm. But, as Tim Gunn says, it was time to make it work.
In those last few seconds before I touched the needle to his skin for the first time, I stopped to take a breath, and looked at his clean, smooth baby skin. It was never going to be the same again. Whether it would look like a poem or like tire tracks by the end of the day was up to only me.
Unfortunately, I was beset by technical difficulties, right away. The power cable to my machine was wonky, and I kept losing power. Ori fixed that for me. Then, because of the location of the tattoo site, and the way we were sitting, my boob was in the kid’s hand the whole time I was working. He didn’t complain, though, and I forgot about it after a while. Also, because I was obsessively cleaning the skin as I worked, the stencil was rubbing off.
Aum, who had returned from the hospital a couple days before, was standing over me, his eyes still swollen and black from his accident, urging me not to stop, to just continue working freehand.
But, he had a whole lot more confidence in me than I did that I could do that without utterly defacing this child’s arm. So, I kept stopping, referring back to the printed image, and manually drawing the stencil back on. After about the fifth time redrawing the stencil, though, Aum was getting impatient with me, saying we were going to be there all night.
I said an inner “TAWANDA!!” and did my best to finish the rubbed-off parts freehand. And, for a first effort, I think it came out reasonably well. Only took six hours. And, boy, did I sleep like a rock that night.
The ensuing days were a flurry of sweet, tough, Thai kids happy to let me cut my teeth on them in exchange for free tattoos. Oddly enough, they usually didn’t have any specific image in mind when they came in, frequently saying “Up to you,” when I’d ask (through an interpreter) what they wanted. Up to me? Really? Well, then guess who’s getting a tattoo of a penguin in a hula skirt dancing on the tip of a giant corndog! That usually got them engaged in the image selection process pretty quickly. It also ensured that I ended up doing a lot of skulls flanked by roses. It’s a classic choice, easy to make on the fly.
In fact, there was only one time someone came in already prepared with a picture of what he wanted. It was a kind of rough illustration of a knuckle dagger that he wanted tattooed on his tricep, exactly as pictured, but embellished with some blood dripping from the blade. I had to do an especially good job on this one, too, as my victim had absolutely gorgeous work done already by my comrades—mostly by Tom—and I didn’t want my contribution to the glorious canvas of his body to be an ugly toad. In the end, both he and I were very happy with the result.
Once I found my footing, just being in the shop was a blast. We had a mild, comic uprising when someone put techno music on, as it made everyone’s lines come out all uneven and bumpy. In fact, the only music no one ever complained about was Johnny Cash. I settled a mystery for those who thought the clients were sniffing glue for the pain during tattoo sessions, by imparting my earlier acquired knowledge of the universal Thai addiction to menthol nasal inhalers (they really are great if you are feeling dizzy from the heat or pain). Waf painted fantastic graphic murals—his original wheelhouse—on the exterior walls of the shop. Tom would sing while he worked. Pang would bring us food, sometimes with chicken feet in it, that we’d eat at the picnic table on the patio, sometimes under the laundry strung up to dry. Groups of loud, vacationing blonde girls would come in groups of three or four, get matching tattoos, and squawk away at the top of their voices about their supposedly-wild-but-actually-pretty-tame sexual exploits in a manner clearly contrived to garner the interest of the guys in the shop, but that resulted only in us making vicious fun of them after they’d left. (Seriously, ladies…no one cares who you blew.) It was very colorful, in more ways than one.
One afternoon, we were all absorbed in our respective projects, and out of the quiet, Tom said: “Do you guys remember that Friends episode where Phoebe and Rachel go to get tattoos?” Ori, without even looking up, answered, “No, I didn’t watch that show.” I, however, had actually just been thinking about that very episode a couple days before, so I chimed in with, “Yes! And Phoebe chickened out, and just had a dot on her collarbone, saying ‘it’s a lily, as seen from space!’” To which, Tom responded “No, it was ‘This is a picture of the earth from space!” Ori finally interrupted us and said, in a mildly exasperated tone, “No, it was: “It’s the way my mother sees me from heaven.” Tom turned around, eyebrow cocked, and answered, “I thought you said you never watched it.” Ori shrugged. “Well, I didn’t want to admit seeing it, but if you’re going to quote it, you should at least get it right.”
(If the video doesn’t show above, click here.)
As my time at Bangkok Ink drew to a close, it was clear to me that, although I had come a very long way from that first disaster of a cabbage flower on pigskin, I still have a lot to learn and a long way to go if I’m going to be anything but a dilettante at this. I am really hoping to get back there someday, to see how much better I can become. I’m also looking into other places in the world where I can continue to learn and improve my skills as I continue my travels. We shall see.
If I’m honest, though, I think it’s safe to say that, unlike Waf and Ori and Tom, I’m just not an artist. I sense that the best I’ll ever be at this is a competent technician. I’ll always have to farm out creation of the actual artwork to a real artist, or, you know…the Internet. I can live with that, though. I’ve come to accept the fact that I’ll just never really be completely in my right mind. I mean, brain.