Lord’s Eye, Part 3 (Ink for Ink)

Over the course of a year, INKED will be serializing John Buffalo Mailer’s literary tattoo memoir. If you missed the first two installments, visit Lord’s Eye, Part 1 and Lord’s Eye, Part 2.


and Katrina were back for round two, this time at Graceland, Josh’s tattoo shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Josh had another shop, East Side Ink, on the lower East Side. That shop had become so successful that Josh opened Graceland, and that had been so successful that Josh decided to fulfill a childhood dream and open a bar around the corner from East Side Ink, V-Bar on St. Marks Place and 1st Avenue. Within a few years of moving to NYC, Josh had managed to successfully flip being one of the most desired tattoo artists in the city into becoming the owner of three businesses. Now he was showing up at the shop to do the next round on Buffalo’s arm, ink in exchange for ink, as Buffalo had been commissioned to write a piece about the experience.

Something about that particularly appealed to Buffalo, the ink-for-ink exchange. Is this how each of them would survive in a society governed by the bartering system? After all, they were living in a time when one hack could take on the U.S. banking conglomerate and could rule all credit null and void. Would the technological revolution ultimately bring everything full circle to a time when one had to trade whatever skills he brought to the world for whatever he needed to survive in it, be it food, water, air, or a new tattoo? Was this a plausible scenario?

His morbid thoughts were cut short by Josh suggesting they grab a bite to eat around the corner at a place called Beco, so they could continue the interview and discuss what they were going to do to Buffalo’s shoulder that evening.

“Steak sandwich looks good, doesn’t it?” Buffalo said, noticing his Southern drawl coming out. It was one of three accents he would fall into whenever he was not paying attention to his cadence. There was the neutral accent, which he put on whenever speaking in front of a crowd or at a fancy New York cocktail party. That was the accent he had learned at Andover and Wesleyan, a creation designed to give whomever he was talking to no evidence of where or what or who he came from. It was a device that had morphed into an unconscious reflex. The other two were more guttural, Brooklyn and Arkansas, due to the disparate parts of the country Buffalo’s parents had come from. His father was, among many things, a rare roughneck Jewish intellectual from Brooklyn who grew up during the Great Depression and came of age fighting in World War II. Buffalo’s mother, on the other hand, came from mule-skinning pioneers in the heartland of Arkansas and was 26 years younger than his father. The result of this mix created, as Buffalo liked to call himself, a Jewish Cowboy, a man whose pride comes from being comfortable walking into any type of bar in the continental United States.

But Buffalo had worked with a speech coach to learn how to control both his Brooklyn and Arkansas tongues in order to become a character actor. He had proved successful and was now the proud owner of a non-accent. But after a few drinks, when he was not paying attention, one or the other would come out, depending on how the person he was talking to made him feel. Josh was bringing out the Southern accent, which Buffalo fell into when he was at ease with a person—a good thing, as it would have really honked not to feel comfortable with the guy who had penetrated him with an electric needle a week and a half earlier.

“Did you say you wanted another beer?” Josh asked him. The employees at this restaurant, just like those at the bar they had gone to after Buffalo’s first tattoo session, were treating Josh like an egoless emperor, hopping to at his every need. Buffalo would not have been surprised if Josh snapped his fingers and a belly dancing beauty suddenly appeared at their table.

“Absolutely. Thank you. What are you having?” Buffalo innocently inquired, wondering how much Josh was going to drink before they began.

“Jameson. Simple and elegant. For the sake of the interview, there’s supposed to be no drinking,” Josh laughed.

For the sake of the interview? Buffalo mused to himself. What about for the sake of my arm, Josh? What about that? I’m about to trust you to ink me for life, and you’re shooting back brown liquor?! Due to the time constraints of Josh’s schedule, the only way to get this tattoo done would be for Josh to work on Buffalo’s piece after hours, when the tattooing in the shop is done on friends in a party-like atmosphere. But Josh assured him that he would not drink to the point of affecting his tattoo skills.

“Nice.” Buffalo turned to the waiter. “You know, can I do a shot of Jameson as well. I like to get my tattoo artists liquored up before we go into a session.” Uneasy laughter, but Buffalo was not worried, not in any real way. He had already experienced the laser-beam focus Josh brought to the table when- ever he put his needle to flesh. It was a focus strong enough to penetrate any fogged-up layers a little booze might provide. Like Yoda, Josh did not need to try when he was tattooing someone. He just did it perfectly, sometimes in ways that were so deep they took time for the person getting the ink to know exactly how perfect their particular tattoo was for them.

Buffalo asked Josh about his childhood, and his eyes lit up as he talked about how he’d loved Cape Cod ever since he’d landed there when he was 15 and first ran away from home. Buffalo was recording the conversation, as he anticipated it would be essential to record everything he could for this piece, Hunter S. Thompson style. He was seasoned enough at this point to know that in order to scratch at the truth of what was going to transpire during the course of this assignment, he must collect hours and hours of audio files, not think too much about it until the piece was complete—then when all was said and done, sit down, listen to the journey straight through, and figure out what it meant.

A section of the transcript from the pre-tattoo dinner:

LORD: When I first left home, it was my junior year of high school. I hitchhiked out to Cape Cod from Rochester.
BUFFALO: Why Cape Cod?

L: It’s a little confusing, my family. But my stepfamily had a house out there that I was very fond of. In Woods Hole. But when I got there, I had to break into our family house, ’cause no one was there. I didn’t break anything, but that did get me into a lot of trouble with our family over the years.

B: But if you’re breaking into the family house, and you’re part of the family, is it really breaking in? Or just using a creative key?

L: Indeed. But that was one night, and then I basically stayed out there for that whole summer.
B: In the house?

L: No, no, just that one night.
B: Where’d you go the next day?

L: Well, I wandered around aimlessly all over the Cape. Fell in with a nice group of people. And there was an amazingly lucky circumstance, where someone was going away for the summer and in an incredibly generous gesture that still boggles my mind, let me stay on his houseboat for the summer.
B: Someone you had just met?

L: Yeah, pretty much.
B: Was it a young kid?

L: He was probably in his early 20s at the time, and I was a young 15-year-old at the mercy of the world. But luckily the world at the time was not the dangerous world I experienced in some other places I’ve lived. Cape Cod is maybe the last world you can let your kids roll around alone in and none of them will be kidnapped at the end of the day.

Josh looked at his watch, ever mindful of making the best use of his limited time, but he didn’t feel it in his wrist, the clients whose tattoos he had started on and not yet completed weighing on him like a chain around his neck connected to an iron ball. “I didn’t have one day off in the last 12,” Josh said. “And four of those days I was working until four in the morning.”

Buffalo asked if Josh thought they’d get his piece done before he and his girlfriend, Katrina, were to take off in two weeks for a buddy’s wedding in Colorado. He hoped to get a lot of this story done on the plane, but would not be able to start writing until they finished the piece. How else could he understand what the hell it was all about, what the deeper meaning of it all would turn out to be? Josh was optimistic that they would only need one more session after this evening.

As Josh was finishing the last of his first and only beer, Buffalo realized that eventually he was going to have to figure out some way to explain Josh’s artistry to an audience that knows its shit. So he asked, “Do you like explaining your art?” Was he hoping to get an easy answer with that question?

“No, I really hate it. A lot of art nowadays, particularly in the highbrow places, it could be anything, anything that we see in front of us. But if you explain it well, then it becomes legitimate art.” Josh held up the last sip of beer in his mug. “The reason that I made this glass with just a little bit of beer in it, is because of the dichotomy of the lower class from the middle ages and the people that suffered during the Boxer revolution.”

“I’m so sick and tired of explaining shit!” burst out Katrina. Buffalo was slightly uneasy with the connection he was seeing between her and Josh. He felt compelled to say something witty and true about art, but the best he could muster was, “It speaks for itself.”

They both looked at him, unsure of what he meant by that. “What is art?” he tried to recover, but had no idea what he was trying to say. “Art is whatever you take from it.”

Josh saw his floundering and quickly hopped in to save him. “It’s a language,” the philosophical tattooist said. “You’re really trying to speak to somebody without saying anything.”

“Yeah!” said Katrina, who was without a doubt turned on, at least in Buffalo’s mind. Fuck. I hope Josh doesn’t steal my girlfriend. The whiskey was strong with Buffalo by this point.

As they sampled the homemade traditional hot sauces Beco offered, Buffalo tried to take the reins and bring it back to his playing field, back to where he could stand on equal ground. He shifted into journalist mode, turning Josh once again into the subject instead of the guy who was doing the work. Was this for the assignment, or simply to save face with his girlfriend? Was Josh his friend, or a serpent in the garden, come to steal his paradise?


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