Peace, Love, and Lowriders
by Nicole Freire
I'm still doing Bikram Yoga, and that means I'm still hanging out with scantily dressed people. Which means I've been spending a lot of time looking at and appraising tattoos of all sizes, colors, and shapes.
Did you know that there is a movie coming out soon called "Hot Tub Time Machine"? You can catch the trailer online. I will probably see it, as not only does it star John Cusack, whom I adore, but they also go back in time to the 1980's! Wow! That was so long ago. I was but a wee thing back then. Actually, that's not true. I lived through the 80's as a teenager. I can tell you every single video that appeared on MTV for years. I had bangs.
But let's go back to the early 1990's, where this story takes place. 1993.
I was 23 years old and living in San Francisco, two blocks from the intersection of Haight and Ashbury. In fact, during the nearly 10 years I lived in San Francisco (except for 9, not brief enough months living in a loft in Oakland) I always lived near the Haight. And no, not just because I spent quite a few summers wearing Indian cotton dresses at Grateful Dead concerts -- although I did have an anklet bracelet with bells on it. I just always liked the neighborhood.
I had just escaped a brief and ill-conceived marriage, one where my ex-husband ended up in the Castro. You can figure that out.
I had a darling studio apartment all to myself, and two silly cats. I painted every wall in my apartment a different color, and I could climb the fire escape to the rooftop. There was a Ben and Jerry's ice cream store nearby and an antique store three blocks away. And a coffee house one block away, one where I once chain-smoked and cured myself of ever wanting to smoke again. I wrote about that experience.
And I wanted a tattoo. Actually, I had wanted a tattoo since I was 12. By then my body had acquired 4 or 5 scars that weren't my choice, so to speak. I got them without my permission. And ever since then, I had a desire to mark my body with my permission. My mark. My choice. My own design. But since it was my own mark, I wasn't interested in sharing it with the general public. No arms or legs. No shoulders or backs. Somewhere just for me.
In 1993, even in San Francisco, there were not many people sporting tattoos. You might see a daisy on a girl's ankle or a smiling sun on someone's shoulder. They were still pretty rare to see. Heck, having your ears pierced two or three times was still considered daring.
Although I wanted a tattoo for years, it wasn't until 1993 that I thought of an image I wanted on my body permanently.
Nowadays you can't throw a firecracker in any given town without hitting a tattoo parlor -- swanky ones too. Lots of red velvet curtains and ironwork sconces. They have dentist-like chairs you can recline on. Pretty girls who know how to ink in different languages. Everyone wears tank tops to show off their tattoos and brandings and piercings. The walls are covered with Buddha quotes and elaborate flowers and snakes and sleeve tattoos. They are everywhere. And no one considers a tattoo a rare thing, something only seen on felons and sailors.
There were no swanky tattoo parlors back in 1993. But a few blocks from my apartment, right next to a pretty dicey park and a head shop, was a teeny tiny tattoo place. It was smaller than my studio apartment. It didn't even have a sign that might indicate you could get some ink. I peered in the window one day, discovered it looked like a place I could get a tattoo, and WHAM! Just like that, an image came into my mind.
I opened the door and cautiously walked in. A big burly gruff man stood at a ratty looking counter top. He was covered in blue ink. I tried not to stare.
I ventured a question.
"Um, I was wondering if I could get a tattoo?"
He looked at me dubiously and asked, "Do you see anything you like?"
I looked at the drawings that covered the walls of the shop. There were low rider cars, pictures of guys with their hats worn low and dark sunglasses, knives dripping blood, guns, hearts dripping blood, tattoos spelling out, 'Viva Chicano', rosary beads, a weeping Mary holding a bloodied Jesus -- nothing in color, just your standard tattoo blue.
"Um, I was thinking of a bird?"
He pointed to a drawing of an eagle, carrying a sword dripping with blood.
It quickly became obvious to both of us that my tattoo was not going to be found on any of his walls.
Finally he said, "Look, you bring me a picture and I'll see if I can draw something you like. Ok?"
"Ok" I said, nearly sprinting from the tiny storefront.
I walked down to a store that you could find anywhere on Haight Street. One that sold incense, anklets with bells, these giant and heavy Peruvian sweaters, tie-dyed t-shirts and uh, let's just say 'accessories'. I found a bumper sticker printed with the word peace on it and a bird. My bird.
I went back to the burly man with the mustache and showed him the bumper sticker.
"I want a bird like that. But smaller."
He took the bumper sticker, we discussed the size I wanted and he told me to come back the next day. As I was leaving I turned to him and asked him if I should take a muscle relaxant or something else that might be relaxing.
"No!" He practically yelled at me. "It makes the muscles too jumpy!"
The next day I got up early, showered until I was squeakily clean, put on a pair of shorts and a shirt, and sat on my couch until the time came.
I walked into the tattoo place (I refuse to call it a tattoo parlor because there was nothing there that would call to mind the word parlor) just as three guys came out. "Hey," they asked me, "you're getting a tattoo?"
"Yeah. I am."
"Yeah, I bet she is!" They laughed a bit and walked on. I took a big breath.
The big burly tattoo guy perked up as I came in. He showed me the drawing - I loved it. "Hey," he said to me, "where's your boyfriend at?"
"Uh, I don't have a boyfriend. It's just me."
"Well, you see, uh," he almost stuttered, "it's going to be a little awkward, so don't freak out or anything."
At this point, nothing was going to stop me. I stepped around the ratty counter top to find a card table, two folding chairs, a mirror and a small television.
I hiked up the legs of my shorts and sat down, half of me lying in the guy's lap and half of me sprawled uncomfortably on one of the folding chairs. This position is probably why he wanted me to have brought a man with me. It was a little awkward.
"Now, where you wanna put it?"
I pointed to the lower part of my stomach. "Somewhere around here maybe?"
He shook his head, "No, no, no. You put it there and you know, someday you have a baby or you get fat and then? It's gonna look like a big chicken. A big big chicken."
A big chicken was not what I was going for.
"Well, how about here?" I asked, pointing at my hip.
"Ok, I do that, but I'm gonna tell you now, there's no fat there. Just bone. So it's gonna hurt more, ok?"
Seeing as how I was sitting in the man's lap with my shorts tucked up into my underwear I agreed to the hip placement.
He turned on the little television. "You don't mind right? I like this show."
For the next hour I sat on his lap while he pricked my skin with his tattoo gun and we watched "The Golden Girls".
It could not have been more surreal. Finally he put down his gun (pen?) and gestured to the mirror.
"Go see it. You like?"
I went to the mirror to see. "Yes!" I said to him. "I like!"
"Didn't hurt too much, eh?"
"Nope!" I said happily. "Not too much."
We shook hands. "I like it. I think I did good work." And he had.
I paid him the $75 and floated out onto the street. A block from my apartment I encountered the three guys I had seen earlier. They were carrying giant burritos.
"Hey! You really got a tattoo?"
I pulled up the hem of my shorts and showed them.
"Yes I did. And here it is."
I kept floating down the street as they walked on, saying to each other, "Holy shit man, that was so cool!"
It was cool. And it was all mine.
Now, not a lot of people have seen my tattoo. Mostly because of it's location and mostly because I am not in the habit of wearing shorts that are that short. Or bikinis. And mostly because it's mine.
Anyway, now you can see a photograph of it.
Here is my big chicken.
Yes, a dove, carrying an olive branch in its beak, a sign of peace and respite and hope.
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Nicole Freire is a freelance writer who lives in Santa Barbara.