When I was in my first year at university, I went one break with a friend named Alice to a tattoo parlour in Wardour Street where she had two black butterflies engraved on the soft skin just above her left hip. 'Why do you want them?' I asked her. ...
When I was in my first year at university, I went one break with a friend named Alice to a tattoo parlour in Wardour Street where she had two black butterflies engraved on the soft skin just above her left hip.
'Why do you want them?' I asked her.
'I don't know, it's just a bit of fun.'
She shrugged and looked away. There is something sad about England on spring days with the rain beating against the window and the people in the street hurrying by with umbrellas turned inside out. Alice went with the tattooist into the clinic and I studied the display as the electric needle buzzed through the open door.
It had never occurred to me to mark my body, but I suddenly understood why a tattoo made people feel as if they belonged to something they would find hard to explain or identify, a tribe, a mind-set, a new era in which social media and marketing has sucked the marrow from our individuality.
Who was I and where did I belong?
I had no interest in ornamenting myself and knew girls who had been inked as a dare and then regretted it. My abrupt desire to have a tattoo wasn't to show that I belonged, but to remind myself that I didn't want to belong. The tattoo would be an aide memoire, a metaphor. To quote JG Ballard, I was living life as a bourgeois but was secretly an anarchist.
My eyes ran over the designs on the wall and one of them jumped out at me like a dancer in a club picked out by a spotlight. The shape was like a dancer, a continuous swirling line a little over three centimetres wide at the base and vanishing to the point of an inverted spiral of the type calligraphers placed at the end of hand-written manuscripts. I sat and watched the rain until Alice and appeared, the job done, her hand nursing her hip through her skirt.
'Do you have time to do another?' I asked the tattooist.
Alice looked at once shocked, then pleased. She wasn't alone. The tattooist was a Rastafarian with dreadlocks down to his waist and the face of a saint. He smiled his laser-whitened teeth.
'I am so happy, and it will make you happy,' he said. 'You have chosen?'
'That one,' I said, pointing.
'Bit small,' Alice remarked.
'Small is beautiful,' I responded.
We went through to the clinic. I laid on a leather-topped massage bench, lifted my hair above my head and indicated the back on my neck at the point immediately below the hairline.
'There,' I said.
'No one will see it.'
'Yes, I know.'
'You won't be able to see it.'
'But it will be there.'
'You, you crazy girl...'
'Thank you,' I said, and he laughed.
Like my friends, I immediately regretted having the tattoo and it hurt for weeks. There were scabs, the skin was bright red and I laid in bed at night having imaginary discussions with my mother about life being a journey and if you take a wrong turn you can never get back on track again.
Then the scabs fell off, the red faded and in the three-way mirror I stared at the reflected spiral and changed my mind. I had at the time been reading a book about geishas in ancient Japan and discovered that these devotees of passion covered their bodies in heavy kimonos exposing only their hands, face and the nape of the neck, an intensely sensitive spot for women and one of those zones that can drive men into paroxysms of desire. It had not entered my mind when I had the tattoo inked into my skin that rainy day, but I had in my first year at university placed an extended foot on the road to the erotic.