Over the course of a year, INKED will be serializing John Buffalo Mailer’s literary tattoo memoir. If you missed the first four installments, visit Lord’s Eye, Part 1, Lord’s Eye, Part 2, Lord’s Eye, Part 3, Lord’s Eye, Part 4, and Lord’s Eye, Part 5.
PART 6 OF ONE MAN’S JOURNEY INTO THE ELITE WORLD OF TATTOOING ART AND CULTURE.
“I think I’m gonna put a little bit of shading in between these two.” Tattoo artist Josh Lord was great about talking Buffalo through each stage of the process. He could tell what a tourist Buffalo had been in that first session they’d had several months back. Four tattoos on Buffalo when they began this process, and none of them looked particularly good or had any art to them worth speaking of. The closest one to having artistic merit was the buffalo head Buffalo’s brother had designed for him back in the ’90s. It was located on his right shoulder blade and was a simple design, outline only. Very hard to fuck up. Had the man who did that tattoo on Buffalo been more of a sensible aesthete, then perhaps it would have been a decent tattoo. But unfortunately for Buffalo—and for his brother who had created the design—the man was not. So due to the way he had Buffalo hold himself during the session, the head on his back looked more like a goat’s than that of a buffalo. But now he was changing his record. With this piece Josh was putting on his left shoulder, Buffalo was adding a work of art done by one of the hands-down masters of the craft.
Someone kicked over a beer in the area next to Buffalo and Lord, where a skinny kid named Steve was getting freehanded by Patrick Conlon and Jonah Ellis. It was truly late at Josh’s Brooklyn shop, Graceland, and it was starting to look like Patrick might be getting too tired to continue. He mentioned as much to Jonah and a sudden bolt of panic shot through Steve. “No, you and Jonah are in this together. You can’t just suddenly back out, Patrick.” There was real fear in his eyes.
Josh tried to put Steve at ease. “Are they doing a double sleeve on you?”
“I’m doing, like, total freehand right now,” Patrick said.
“I’m getting double-teamed by Patrick and Jonah!” Steve raised what was left of his whiskey.
“Well, I could have told you that was gonna happen,” Josh smiled, his focus never leaving the section of Buffalo’s shoulder he was working on. “I’m just surprised it’s tonight.”
“Well, why not?” Steve paused, as if something had occurred to him for the first time. He stared at Josh with drunkenly serious eyes. “Should I not?”
Should he not get a spur-of-the-drunken-moment double sleeve tattoo of which he has no idea what the finished look will be because he’s letting his best friends freehand the entire thing? Buffalo thought it was a fair question, although perhaps he would have been better served by asking it earlier in the evening, or not at all.
Josh did not hesitate in answering him. “No, you totally should. You couldn’t be in better hands than with the two of them together.”
“So you’re both going to finish it, right?” It was that or the deal was off in Steve’s mind, even though Patrick and Jonah had already started and he was more or less at their mercy.
“Yeah, we’re both gonna finish it.” Patrick sounded pissed off again. Much more irritated than Buffalo imagined the skinny kid had meant to make him. “We’re gonna draw it on you. Stop freaking out!” There was laughter throughout the shop.
“So are you guys going to do this or not?” Now the kid—who turned out to be Steve Mercado, a founding member of the beloved band Robbers on High Street and closer to 40 in age than 18—was getting impatient.
Another mistake, Buffalo thought. Never rush your tattooer.
“I was gonna draw this next part from this,” Patrick said holding up an image of holly leaves and berries on his smartphone. “But if you want us to just go straight at it, I’ll go straight at it.”
“Hmmmmm.” Steve dragged out his pensiveness dramatically. Was he going to back out, or prove brave enough to commit his arm to a completely freehanded piece? “No, pre-draw a little. A little pre-draw is in order, I think.”
Buffalo liked this guy. He had balls, but was not totally insane.
“Okay.” Patrick was all business suddenly. “I’ll do the first part, you do the second, I’ll do the third,” he said to Jonah. “Tag-team style!”
“Do you hear that voice in your head?” Josh had that devilish grin as he queried Steve.
“Which voice?” Steve responded, as if he heard several.
“The one that says, ‘What the fuck am I doing?’” Josh had to stop working to laugh, as did the rest of the room.
“What’s funny is, these guys actually think I’m gonna pay them,” Steve said. There was nervous laughter from Patrick and Jonah. Katrina, Buffalo’s girlfriend, who was sitting nearby, looked at Steve. “So you weren’t even planning on getting a tattoo tonight?”
“Nope.” He finished his bottle of whiskey.
“That’s what happens,” Josh said with a knowing nod. “A couple of oysters, a few drinks. That’s why you shouldn’t hang out with tattoo artists.” He finished working on Buffalo’s shoulder for the night. “Okay, let’s check it out.”
“Wow, Buffa!” Katrina said with a beaming smile. “That was a lot of work.”
Buffalo crossed over to the mirror to see what his shoulder looked like. The sensation was not unlike meeting someone for the first time, when you already know you’re going to live with each other for the rest of your days. He stared at the piece in progress for a long time in silence, taking it all in. To Buffalo, the tattoo looked extraordinary—layered, magical, and complex, but still like the badass shoulder plate he had wanted. Unfortunately, at this point in the evening, all he was eloquent enough to say was, “That’s fucking cool.”
“That’s not bad, huh,” Josh said as he took off his gloves. “Stage two, finished. Stage three should be a lot easier.” Buffalo liked hearing that.
“Good job, Josh!” Katrina’s voice was sweet and enthusiastic.
“You like it?” Josh was characteristically humble.
“I like it! It’s very unique. It’s very Buffalo,” she said.
In truth, Buffalo was probably more ready than Katrina, Josh, or anyone else still at Graceland to call it a night. But the party was just beginning. As a serious journalist, he knew it would be simply irresponsible for him to leave now.
This is a dangerous world to get sucked into for a civilian like me, Buffalo thought. The skinny kid’s logic already seemed to make loads more sense to him than it did when they had all begun this session so many hours before. When Buffalo had first set foot inside Josh’s shop, it would have seemed like madness. But here, staring at his fresh shoulder in the mirror, those 10 days felt like a lifetime ago.
Katrina was showing Josh pictures of some of the flowers she was considering getting tattooed on her butt.
“You should just get that right now,” Josh said, apparently willing to do it right there and then. Wasn’t he tired from the hours of work he had just put in on Buffalo’s shoulder?
“No, no, no,” she said, trying to avoid the impulsive temptation. “But aren’t they pretty?”
Josh was right: It is dangerous to be friends with tattoo artists. One can easily slip out of the normal social restraints of getting a tattoo, and start to see it as something that makes a Saturday night just a little more special. For it is impossible to sit in the room with Josh Lord working on your shoulder, and Patrick Conlon and Jonah Ellis freehanding their buddy, without understanding the allure of becoming covered in ink from head to toe. “I don’t think I would want outlining.” Katrina had never been closer to getting a tattoo in her life. Secretly, Buffalo knew that it would add to the piece he had to write for the magazine if she went for it. But he was not keen on pushing the idea on her for any reason. That would just be fucked up. But if she really wanted to do it, and only needed a little encouragement …
“I’ll be happy to rub Bacitracin on your behind for a few days,” Buffalo generously offered.
“Buffalini!” Katrina looked at him, concerned. “Are you drunk?”
“Nope.” Buffalo smiled drunkenly.
“You’ve just been steadily drinking a little bit for several hours,” Josh said, coming to his defense. “How could you be drunk? Would you like a little whiskey?”
Buffalo wanted nothing more in that moment. There is nothing but nothing like a shot of whiskey after some serious hours spent getting a tattoo. “Well, um, if you want to put a little splash of whiskey in this glass, I’m not gonna stop you.”
“So Josh,” Patrick called out, still hard at work on his friend. “You wanna piece of this fine young man?”
“Sure!” Josh wasn’t gonna let this opportunity pass him by. Three tattoo artists, one skinny sleeve. No matter how many hours he had spent on Buffalo’s tattoo, and no matter how many people he knew, he would have to ink tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day, and the next. The thought of partaking in this venture that had spontaneously materialized in his shop got Josh completely fired up. Before the night was over, Jessica Mascitti—or Jess the Machete, as she is known to friends—an artist Josh and Patrick were mentoring, decided to hop in as well, making the skinny kid Steve’s holly berry sleeve the first four-way tattoo any of them had ever done.
“Let me get a few more of these berries and then you can take the bottom leaves,” Patrick offered. “How’s that sound?” His eyes were blurring over, he had been working so long. But his work was pitch-perfect. Man, Buffalo thought to himself. These guys really do go into the zone whenever they pick up their machines. If only we all had something that could force us to pull our shit together like that.
Over the course of a year, INKED will be serializing John Buffalo Mailer’s literary tattoo memoir. If you missed the first four installments, visit Lord’s Eye, Part 1, Lord’s Eye, Part 2, Lord’s Eye, Part 3, Lord’s Eye, […]