A funny thing happened on the way to the tattoo parlour

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It takes about ninety minutes to get from Oxford train station to the Brixton tube station in Southwest London. This means that if you want to be first in the queue at Sacred Ink Tattoo Studio, which opens at 11AM and takes walk-ins only on Saturdays, you need to catch the 9AM train at the latest because you never know what’s happening with the tube at the weekend. With the Olympics just around the corner the construction can be horrendous, it turns out the entire Jubilee line is shut but that’s OK because Sacred Ink is nearly a straight shot from Paddington Station, take the Bakerloo line down to Oxford Circus and then boomerang around on the Victoria line to Brixton, the last stop on this train, everyone please exit the train.

Sacred Ink is run by Martin Morrissey, who has been tattooing for over thirteen years on three continents. He’s originally from Brixton, a fact which I learn from Pat, the only other person who has braved the weather and the early hour to arrive before the opening of the studio. Pat has known Martin for years, they both grew up in the neighbourhood, and after trying a number of places around London Pat can honestly say that Martin is the best, to be entrusted on this day to inscribe the name of Pat’s second child on the inside of his right bicep, “Luice” (pronounced “Lucy”). This is Pat’s sixth tattoo so I feel good about his endorsement: even if he has known Martin for ages, surely he wouldn’t let just anyone carve something permanent into his body, at least not twice? Pat is actually the second person who has told me to expect great things from Martin. The other person is my friend Kilian, whom I met on a boat in Turkey two years ago and who has many, many elaborate tattoos. When Google returned 44,800 results for “London Tattoo Parlours” I cut to Facebook and checked with Kilian: “Wow you asked the right guy! I have a really good friend named Martin Morrissey who does great work out in London…”

The walk from Brixton tube station to Sacred Ink is along a busy road called Acre Lane, lined with shops selling affordable consumables, layaway furniture and used tyres, franchised fast food everywhere. I pass an off-license selling espresso, cappuccinos and popcorn out of a newly built window in its store front; why not, everybody is diversifying during the recession. I arrive a few minutes before eleven, standing outside in the rain, counting the white people that walk by on one hand. It’s a good thing I wore my tweed (collar popped!) and skinny jeans so I would look especially ironic huddled under my dandy pink and blue umbrella, eating cous cous that I brought from home because I’m giving up being skinny for Lent to pursue the even greater vanity of bigger muscles; if you don’t eat you can’t grow.

This would be the time to mention what I have come all this way to have inscribed onto the middle of the right half of my back: Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo (“Without fear of infamy I answer thee”), from Dante’s Inferno and also the last line of the epigraph to T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. I have it typed out in just the font and size I want, on a little piece of paper just for Martin, absolutely no room for error.

How many Oxford students does it take to screw-in a light bulb?

Pat has brought his wife and young Luice, still in her pram, except no prams (or bikes, or loud music) are allowed in the studio, so he settles down to wait by himself while I go first. Martin is running late, “stuck in traffic” says his assistant, who busies herself getting me signed-in, cash in advance, sign this waiver, I hand her my design, “Where do you want this?”.

“On my back, under my right shoulder blade.”

“Is this your first tattoo?”

“Yes.”

She smiles, I think impressed, “Well, it’s not the least painful place you could have picked…”

Martin arrives, traffic was terrible, he checks my design and approves, “Let’s tattoo!” The studio is very neat, very clean and very small. The waiting area is a square of gray carpet with no chairs, just a bench along the plate glass storefront on which Pat has perched, declining my offer of a newspaper while he waits. The tattooing happens on the other side of the high counter, a little square of white tile where everything that can be is sterilized. Martin dons latex gloves, unwraps a new needle, pours fresh ink into a disposable plastic thimble, washes my back with alcohol and disinfectant, smears Vaseline over the first letters in the design now stenciled on my back and steps on the foot pedal: dip, buzz, cut, wipe; dip, buzz, cut, wipe. This is the rhythm of the next ninety minutes of my life. The telephone rings periodically, Martin’s assistant issues the same refrain each time: “Hello, Sacred Ink? We’re open 11-6 today. No we don’t take appointments on Saturdays, it’s first-come, first-served. No, we can’t give you a quote over the phone, you’ll have to come down. We’re open 11-6 today. Thanks.” My arms, stretched above my head to keep the skin on my back taught, fall asleep.

In the end I am not nearly so counter-culture as I thought. (Perhaps the pink and blue umbrella should have tipped me off?) There isn’t even any real pain to brag about, although the letters along the spine do make my eyes water. When we’re all finished, Martin covers his work with cling film which I am to keep on for the entire afternoon. He wraps scotch tape around my chest and I feel momentarily vindicated: this is going to hurt like crazy when it comes off, ripping out a huge strip of chest hair. Martin hands me a card with after care instructions. “Twice a day you need to put this cream on your tattoo until it heals, called Bepthanol.”

“Will do. Can I get this at any chemist?”

“Yeah, just go to the baby aisle. It’s nappy rash cream.”

Of course it is. Story of my life.

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