Skin Deep
Tattoos, the Disappearing West,
Very Bad Men, and My Deep
Love for them All

Karol Griffin

    Wipe a folded paper towel across the top of a tube of deodorant and smooth a film across the skin. The deodorant makes the stencil image stick .... Dip the needles into a tiny cup of black ink; press the foot pedal as the machine is lowered to the skin. Carve the needles along the stenciled line, wiping away the excess ink with a paper towel twisted between the fingers of the hand holding the machine. The skin gives slightly before the needles push through... Dip, press, pierce. A thousand times a minute.

When Karol Griffin was fifteen, she was traveling west with her parents through Canada. They stopped at a gas station in Kamloops, and she saw a man resting on a "long, low chopper." Her heart stopped: "He was a wild, magical man. A creature." It might have been his lanky legs "poured into tight black jeans," but it was more probably a tattooed snake that

    curled around his biceps and disappeared into his armpit. The tattooed snake undulated as he pulled a bandanna from his pocket and wiped the sweat from his neck. I stared past the horrified look on my mother's face and caught his eye through the heat waves rising from the asphalt. He looked right at me. Into me, it seemed. The snake rippled and flexed as he patted his thigh and cocked his head, daring and inviting... My mother told me to get into the car this instant.

That must have been what did it. As she says in the subtitle, she loves the old west, tattoos, and "very bad men."

She tried one, normal, brief marriage. He was a San Francisco lawyer. It didn't last long. He wasn't, one is led to believe, bad enough. Thus, her men are into tattoos, dope, too much whiskey, driving fast on the wrong side of the highway, heisting things, and occasionally beating up on her. The last one we get to meet, John,

    decided I must have been the person who tipped off the cops. At least that's what he said while he was beating the shit out of me and his unborn child .... He picked me up by the neck and slammed me into the side of my car. When that wasn't enough to make me cry, he pulled out a .357 Magnum.

But this rough type is but one of her loves, and possibly a minor one. The one that owns her, we learn, is tattoos and tattooing. There are whole long, involuted, poetical passages in which the magic of it gets communicated to the reader, with a breathlessness that is more than compelling.

She paints a portrait for us of her with the tattoo machine, doing her first tattoo, on the leg of her newest love, Rick:

    Then the thrill set in, a combination of fear and uncertainty and adrenaline mingled with glee and uncontrollable excitement. The thrill coursed through me like electricity, and the pulse of my own blood pounded in my throat. I looked down at the tattoo machine I was holding, and my hand felt like it belonged to someone else, cold and distant.

"Before long, I was lost in the sensation, and the vibrations from the machine sang along the nerves of my hand and flickered up the insides of my wrists," she concludes. The sensuality of it: we become part of her skin, our pores infused with the ink, the smell of the shop, the blood, the vaseline used to soften and hold the image.

§     §     §

Skin Deep is an autobiography, yes: but it is also a textbook --- a very funny textbook --- about those who go into the tattoo business, or who come in to get tattooed, and the art of tattooing itself. We get to meet all the characters who come into Ms. Griffin's parlor in Laramie. The one that sticks in my mind is Michelle, "a big girl, the kind of big that's on the far side of Rubenesque by even the most charitable stretch of both imagination and euphemism."

    A lifetime of self-conscious embarrassment had kept her out of tanning salons and swimming pools, and she wore clothing that covered as much as possible all year long, which meant that her skin was translucent and soft, more taut than skinny people's skin, a dream canvas.

"A dream canvas." Most everyone else would look at her and think "fat." Griffin finds, instead, a home for graceful art. Michelle wants hummingbirds, "as many as it took, from the bottom of her shoulder blade, up and over her clavicle, down the side of her breast."

    There was no black ink at all in Michelle's tattoo, no discernible outline. Each hummingbird was a different part of an Impressionist spectrum, and they were beautiful, hues of blue and green, red and orange, vivid against her pale skin.

Let's forget about the author's taste in men with funny eyes and big fists; let's forget her regrets about what is happening to Laramie, the upscale tourist stuff and corny parades and dude ranches; let's forget about the trailer trash and flipping cars and going 90 on the highways. Let's think tattoos.

As she tells us, after getting her own first tattoo, "I have become a work of art." And as Slade, the one who tattooed her, the man who taught her most of what she knows about tattoos, says, "You make your choices and you stick with them."

Ms. Griffin ends up being more than any stock western character. She's feisty, and dopey, and I swear to you, she is making me think about getting a tattoo on my saggy old seventy-year-old body. There on my pendulous tum, perhaps. A Chinese dragon, say, running from groin to heart. What am I waiting for? I should be on the horn to her right now. This canvas is going to be laid in the grave in a few years --- why wait?

She'll have to help me pick my picture, the dragon with reds and blues and yellows. She'll shave me, "even if the hairs are few and baby fine." She'll make a stencil on the thermofax machine. She'll get the needles ready, fasten the tube into the machine. Wipe some vaseline on my belly, all the way up to my bursting heart. "Perfect," she'll say, lying gently. Stretch the skin with her hand, "leaning into the body with a pressure that is both comforting and intimidating."

You have to sit still, she'll say. Lady, I ain't going nowhere. Not at my age. You expect me to be jumping out of my skin? I've been around the block. Want me to tell you how many needles they've stuck in me over the many years in so many doctors' offices, so many hospitals?

I watch her dip the needle into the blue ink. "The skin gives slightly before the needles push through," she tells me. Colors added from darkest to lightest. "Red here, blue there, yellow blending from orange to green." Ow. What am I doing here? Being brave, right?

Because, you see, I'm her slave. She is turning my old geezer body into a work of art. You think I am going to blow it by moaning and groaning while she is doing a Li Po masterpiece on the most prodigious part of me? Hell no. I'm tough. She's tough. We're tough but in love: in love with the process and the blooming dragon --- perhaps, even briefly, with each other, joined together at the bloody fast churning needle, joined at that holy moment when she turns my body into something else again, something that I've never had in these seven decades, something that will be with me for the rest of my days, a living pop-up masterpiece, something that will surprise and possibly even delight and amaze my friends.

"What got into you?" they'll ask. "What do you expect?" I'll say. "I had a choice between shuffleboard in Miami, poker in Las Vegas, or getting a dragon on my tum from the masterful (and loving) Ms. Griffin. Which would you choose?"

--- C. A. Amantea
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