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21. Tattoos

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I thought yesterday that this memoir was over, but then a few of you have asked about my tattoos. You wanted to know if there was a “back story.” There is.

The Back Story

I already told you about Madoff, and how freaked out I was. Well, one day when I was picking up my wines from the UPS Store to review in Wine Enthusiast—this must have been around 2010–I noticed an unusual young man. He was cleaning out the shop next to the UPS Store, which had been a real estate office until the Great Recession wiped out real estate and just about every real estate place closed.

He attracted my attention, this young man, because of his exotic, artistic appearance. His arms and face were heavily tattooed, and he was wearing those big wooden earrings that are the size of silver dollars, so that his lobes hung down almost to his shoulders. I don’t normally introduce myself to perfect strangers, but in this case, I was compelled to. His name was Philip Milic, and he was opening a tattoo shop he called Old Crow.

Over the next few months we got to be pretty good friends. Philip suggested I get a tattoo, but I figured, why bother? I’ve gotten this far in life without one. But the Madoff thing continued to haunt me. One day, when I was particularly depressed, I told Philip how sad I was. He replied that a lot of people get their first tattoo in order to commemorate a significant event. It can be something sad, even tragic, but it signifies recovery.

That made a great deal of sense to me: a symbolic new beginning. What have I got to lose? So we talked about what the tattoo should be. The very first question Philip asked was: Do you want it to show? I hadn’t expected that. He explained that many people get tattoos under their clothes because they’re not certain it’s appropriate in their workplace. My reaction was immediate. Hell yes, I want it to show. I’m not going to hide anything anymore. If I get a tattoo, I’m going to flaunt it! I didn’t think Wine Enthusiast or Adam would care, but if they did, that was their problem, not mine.

So I got a flower bracelet on my left wrist. Just a little thing—I wanted to see if I liked it or not. The work was pretty painful—anyone who says tattoos don’t hurt is lying. But it was a short session, and once it healed, I found, to my pleasure, that I loved it. This is hard to explain. Maybe I felt a little younger and cooler, a little sexier. Nothing wrong with that. Whenever I looked at it, I’d think, “Hello gorgeous, you are the symbol of moving beyond Madoff into a more hopeful future.”

Once I had the bracelet, Philip and the other artists in the shop began to tease me. “Now you’re ready for a sleeve!”, a sleeve being an entire arm of tattoos. Now, that was an intimidating concept. A cute little bracelet was one thing, but an entire sleeve?

I pondered it for a day or so, and then decided, Yeah, let’s do this. Philip asked what kind of design I wanted. Since the bracelet was roses, I said, let’s do more flowers. Philip had some coffee-table flower books. I chose some of the most beautiful ones—California poppies, lilies, violets, tulips—and Philip worked up a design.

Since it was a sleeve, including the elbow, the sessions took a couple of months. Tattooing the muscles and fleshy part of the arm didn’t hurt so much, but anytime the needle got to a bone or a nerve, Ouch! The elbow almost drove me out of my mind; the underarm was as bad. I tried various analgesics: Vicodin, tranquilizers, wine, pot. Nothing really worked. The only thing to do was relax and breathe. You don’t really want to talk to your tattoo artist while he’s tattooing you because he needs to concentrate. And you can’t laugh or move at all. But the other artists were great. If they weren’t working on their own clients, they’d sit with me to watch Philip, the master, work, and they’d chat amongst themselves. It took my mind off the pain. The other thing that really helped was that Philip has a little chihuahua, Chlulu. When I’d first met Chlulu, she bit me: I hated that bitch. But during the sessions, she would jump up in my lap and stay there, sleeping and snoring. It was fantastically soothing, and I grew to like Chlulu quite a bit. (That’s when I decided to get a dog, so Philip also is responsible for Gus.)

Well, you know where this is going. Once I had one sleeve, the guys in the shop said you’re lopsided: you have to get the other sleeve. All right. I decided to have something to balance out the flowers, which were feminine, brightly colored and intuitive—the right side of my brain. Someone had given me, as a Christmas present, a book on Polynesian tattoos, and I’d been tremendously infatuated with their boldness, simplicity and power, and the modernity they display despite being so ancient a tradition. Tattooing in Guam, Fiji and Samoa thousands of years ago, artists didn’t have colors like they do now, so Polynesian motifs make use of a dark bluish-blackish steel color, utilizing negative space in geometric patterns that often symbolize spears, shark’s teeth and arrowheads.

Philip said he was fine with designing something Polynesian. Now, I should explain that, in my Polynesian tattoo book, they would show a full-color picture of a tattoo and then, on the opposite page, have an interview with the person who got it. And most of these people were young. A common theme emerged: they were of Polynesian heritage, but their parents had “lost the old ways” and these younger men and women wanted to reconnect with their traditional culture. There was something touchingly spiritual about them.

That got me thinking. I’m not Polynesian; I’ve never been to Polynesia, except for a couple trips to Honolulu. I don’t know anything about Polynesian history or spiritual beliefs. I’m a Jewish guy from New York City. Who am I to expropriate these tattoo motifs? Good question! But where to get an answer?

Another lightbulb went off. I decided I needed to find someone to give me permission to put Polynesian images on my body. But who? I reverted back to my old I Ching days: through randomness the gods speak. Obviously the I Ching couldn’t help me in this case, so I went to good old Google. I’ll search for “Polynesian tattoos” and scroll through the results, I figured, and when I find the right one, somehow I’ll know.

Buried way down in the Google hits was a woman’s webpage. Turned out she was an expert in Polynesian tattooing and actually taught it at the University of Hawaii. Moreover, she was herself a tattoo artist specializing in Polynesian designs. I just knew she was the one who could give me permission.

So I emailed her. “Hi, you don’t know me, but…” I explained my situation. Amazingly, within minutes she emailed back and told me to call. We had a little chat, and she said the answer was complicated. There were certain images that a Caucasian was not permitted to have. There were other images that could be placed only on certain parts of the body. Did I have a particular design in mind, she asked?

Well, yes, I replied. I have this book on Polynesian tattoos, and one of them speaks forcibly to me.

“What’s the name of the book?” she asked. I told her. She said, “I wrote that book.”

Now, you can imagine my reaction. Wow. Google really hit it out of the park. How do you explain these things? Referencing her copy of her book, she looked at the tattoo I liked and said that it was fine for me to use—but please, she urged, tell your artist not to copy it, but to use it only for inspiration. And that’s what we did: My right-hand sleeve is the complement to my left-hand sleeve: my masculine, warrior, rational side, controlled by the left brain. The two sides balance each other.

I love my tattoos and am very proud of them. Philip is one of the senior tattoo artists in the Bay Area. He’s won many awards. When summertime comes to California and I shed my outer layers of clothing, people stop me constantly—really—to remark on the beauty of my tattoos (Oakland is a very tattoo-conscious town), and I always tell them “Philip Milic, Old Crow Tattoo, Oakland.” Now, the guys at the tattoo shop tell me I should get my legs done, and my back and chest. But I don’t think so. Two sleeves are enough!

  1. Bob Henry says:

    Don’t you feel better now?

  2. Bob Henry says:

    Coincidentally, tonight I came across a 2018 “chat” between a blogger and Robert Parker — NOT discussing wine. Rather, society and politics and the arts.

    “One Way Ticket: Another Chat with Robert M. Parker, Jr.”

    URL: http://www.rhdrexel.com/articles/2017/2/8/one-way-ticket-another-chat-with-robert-m-parker-jr

    Let me quote this passage from Parker:

    “I have outlined and given a great deal of thought to writing my memoirs, but still have somewhat mixed emotions about doing it. Do I want to open up private areas of my life that are probably unknown to most readers? That said, I would also like to catalog the journey I have taken in life, and the reasons why I enjoyed so much success and had so much joy in climbing the mountain. As I have said to many people: The journey going up the mountainside is much more fun than getting to the top and trying to stay there.”

  3. Bob Henry says:

    Let’s not let the 2010 prequel blog go forgotten:

    “My tattoo is like a red, red wine”

    URL: http://www.steveheimoff.com/index.php/2010/03/25/my-tattoo-is-like-a-red-red-wine/

    So Joe (“1WineDude”) Roberts . . . you’re turn?

  4. Bob Henry says:

    Like Miles in the movie “Sideways” who was guilty of drinking and (pay-)phoning, I guess I shouldn’t drink and comment.

    Once again:

    “So Joe (“1WineDude”) Roberts . . . your turn?”

  5. Sorry, my girlfriend isn’t into ink so I’m holding off for now 🙂

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