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I’m sitting on a very uncomfortable bench, surrounded by Polynesian and Japanese art, placed on reddish walls. There’s bamboo pressing into my back and Flogging Molly is doing something unconscionable to the memory of The Pogues on the stereo. I’m in a tattoo shop just off South Street on a Saturday night, so the place is jumping with tattooed hipsters and South Jersey Wannabes hanging out by the counter. I’m also pretty sure that the place has an all female tattooing staff and the ladies are damn talented. My wife is getting a new piece done tonight and as I sit here, shifting every ten seconds so my butt doesn’t go numb, I think back to the places I got my tattoos in. One in particular….
We’d been in Kings Lynn for about three weeks, living in a hotel during the day and working all damn night. Kings Lynn is about 100 miles from London, tucked away in the northeast part of the country and home to virtually nothing but a few memorable pub names and a pie plant. Meat Pies, to be precise. The company I was working for at the time owned this plant as a subsidiary, and my partner and I were there to work out a few things for a project we were on. The majority of the work my partner and I were doing had to be done at night, so during the day we’d sleep and sight-see for a while. Nights out were few and far between, until, near the end of this project, the boss invited us out for drinks.
My partner and I met him at a pub in the center of town called the Pigs Whistle. Smallish place, lots of wood and brown. It was exactly like every other pub I’d been in while in Europe. Marco (my partner at the time, he was a great beast of a man who used to play American football and could drink many men under the table) even made a comment about it when we walked in. We’d been eating in pubs and small restaurants for months and after a while they all looked pretty much the same. He and I ponied up to the table we saw the boss at, and, after the usual greetings, he was off to buy us a round. Let me state for the record, I have no idea what type of whiskey I was drinking that night. All I know is that it went perfectly well with Newcastle Brown and after a bit, I was ordering them as boiler makers and slamming them down. It didn’t take long for me to get what I call “Douglas Adams Drunk”, the point at which you can mumble to yourself at an empty table for ten minutes and still have a great time.
We’re sitting around, drinking and laughing, when Marco nudges his empty pint glass my way. “It must be my round,” I think as I leave the table and head for the bar. The bartender is standing there, and she might be pretty if she had her front teeth. Kings Lynn was a blue collar town and after a while you just got used to things like that. I place our order and she smiles at me again, just for good measure. She turns to get our drinks and I see that she has the most beautiful tattoos I’ve ever seen in my life. I can see a Japanese swordsman facing off against something peeking up from beneath her tank top. Sakura tracing down her left arm, the faces of oni peeking ever so slightly through the flowers themselves. It was some of the most beautiful and detailed tattoo work I’ve ever seen in my life.
She brings the drinks back. I ask her where she got her tattoos done, half expecting to hear “London” or someplace else that was a hundred miles away from where I was. She smiles at me again, and tells me that a local kid by the name of Laurence did them. He’s got a place not too far from the pub and he takes appointments. She tells me to hold on and roots around in her purse for a minute, to produce a simple black and white business card. Laurence’s name and a phone number. The plainness of the card reminded of the ones I’d get from guys who ran numbers. I told her so and she just laughed and walked away.
We drove around for a while, completely lost and trying to find a specific address without the aid of Mapquest, a GPS or any general knowledge of how the town was laid out. Finally we found the place, a hobbit-sized gray house on a trash ridden corner that was right next to an empty lot. There was blowing trash and empty Silk Cut packets fluttering about. We got out of the car and knocked on the door, looking like a couple of enforcers from the local mob. Marco, a giant in a track suit and me in my standard T-shirt and jeans. We knocked on the door, and it opened as far as the chain would allow. A shaved head and beady eyes peered out at me, a Camel clenched between his teeth. The smoke curling around his head and the barrel of a 9mm peeking out from behind the door frame.
“Who the fuck are you, then?” he inquired as he slowly shakes the barrel in our general direction. “Um, we’re here for Laurence… Tattoos….,” I stammered. It’d been years since anyone had pointed a gun at me and I guess I was a little out of practice.
“Oh,” he smiled, “You’re the Yank that called about the tattoos… Fucking hell, why didn’t you just say so, mate?” He instantly went all toothy grin and wide arms as the door swung open. The gun had magically disappeared and we were let into a small waiting area with a couple of couches, a TV and a Playstation. The room smelt of smoke and whiskey and herb. It looked more than a little shady, and certainly not sanitary, so I asked for a portfolio or a flash book. I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t getting the runaround, you see.
“Portfolio then ?” he asked. “Come with me,” he said. I followed him up the stairs in the back of the room and into what I can only describe as the World’s Messiest Gallery. He had pieces everywhere; canvases piled against the walls, bits of paper here and there, sketches on the walls themselves. As well as a metric ton of clothes, overflowing ashtrays and empty lager cans. But, fuck me… They were all beautiful. There were reproductions of Lichtenstein, Japanese stuff that looked like it was from the Edo and Meiji periods, Sailor Jerry ripoffs and some things I didn’t recognize, but that were instantly familiar. I quickly became convinced. This kid was the real deal.
As he’s starts sketching, he tells us to hang out in the waiting room for a bit. We did and twenty minutes later he came over with the sketchbook in his hand. He’s grinning from ear to ear when he shows me. And what he shows me is dead on. It’s exactly what I wanted and full of the intricate line work and small details that make his work so good to look at. I tell him it’s a go and he’s off like a shot to prep the chair and the stencil. He tells me to head into his “studio” and makes another motion with his fingers, showing me the way.
Laurence’s “studio” was also the kitchen, but at this point, I’m too excited to care. I headed over to his workspace, a drop leaf table slightly off center in the room and close to the sink. He’s got a couple of armchairs on either side of it. He offers me a cuppa from the kettle on the counter as I check the rest of the table out. Stencils, ashtrays and old mugs mar the surface of what used to be a beautiful old kitchen table. His gun and inks, however, are lined up directly behind the ashtray and there’s not a spec of dust on them. He sits me down and places the stencil on me. “Ready, then ?,” he asked.
I’m not going to give you the same, tired rhetoric. Yes, getting a tattoo hurts. But pain is relative and I’m sure that you’ve withstood worse. Okay ? That being said, Laurence lit another cigarette and started going to town. He’d pause every ten minutes or so, to light another cigarette or change inks. But his hands were flying. He finally finishes and sits back on his stool, looking a little more exhausted. “Well ?” he asked as he exhaled another plume of smoke. It was odd. I’d watched him work on the entire piece, but it never came together the way it did when he had finished it. And I love it. I tell him so and he just grins.
I paid him and left his kitchen, more excited than I had been in a long time. So, how about you ? What’s your favorite tattoo and where’d you get it ?