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, and Lord’s Eye, Part 4.
PART 5 OF ONE MAN’S JOURNEY INTO THE ELITE WORLD OF TATTOOING ART AND CULTURE.
“Chaos is fun,” Buffalo said in response to Josh Lord’s statement about enjoying working in the midst of chaos.
Which was a good thing, as chaos was suddenly all around the tattoo artist as he fi lled in the white of the new cherry blossoms on his client Buffalo’s left shoulder. It was after hours at Josh’s shop Graceland, and a guy named Steve was about to get a spontaneous, freehanded tattoo of holly leaves and berries up and down his sleeve. Far from a paying customer, Steve was best friends with tattoo artists Patrick Conlon and Jonah Ellis, which accounted for the party-like atmosphere in the shop. Patrick and Jonah had set up right next to Buffalo and Josh. Buffalo’s girlfriend, photographer Katrina Eugenia, documented the scene with diligence.
Graceland was hopping after dark, but you could only attend this party if you were a friend, or in Buffalo’s case, doing a magazine piece on one of the artists for INKED. Steve raised his bottle of whiskey high in the air. “Gentlemen!” he shouted. “Tattoo me!” He took a swig from the bottle and sat down in the chair as Jonah and Patrick looked at his arm, deciding what they were going to do to it this evening.
Josh stopped his machine. “You’ve got a mole here.”
Buffalo looked down at the mole. It was right in the line of fi re of one of the Celtic squiggles Lord was putting on his shoulder. “I was wondering about that. What do you do about those?”
“You’re pretty much not supposed to go over them,” Josh told him.
“Well, say if it’s a bad mole, the doctor’s got to be able to see them.”
“This is a funny canvas you’ve chosen to work on, Josh. There’s already marks on it before you begin.”
“I love that, though. That’s what I love about working on skin—before you’ve started, you’re already working around things. You already have your challenges.”
They talked about Game of Thrones and how awesome it is. They talked about the performance artist Matthew Barney, and the odd similarities between the effect Twitter has had on the English language and the effect Big Brother had on it in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Their conversation was all over the place, and yet the themes kept coming back, as if there were some sort of cosmic scenario that promised to play itself out by the end of this journey.
Josh subscribed to the notion that every man has an inner woman, and every woman, an inner man. Buffalo agreed and they quickly deduced that both of their inner women had to be lipstick lesbians, due to the fact that each of them looked at women in the same way lipstick lesbians do, with simultaneous respect and savage desire.
“Bethany frequently tells me I dress like a lesbian,” Josh said, referring to his partner at Graceland, Bethany Paul—a tough, sexy lesbian herself whose inner man looked like he might be Elvis. Come to think of it, Buffalo was friends with more than one tough, sexy lesbian whom he’d seen rocking a similar style over the years, but he decided to keep that remark to himself as Josh went over the outlines close to the sensitive part of his armpit.
“Yeah, she doesn’t mean it as a compliment,” Josh went on. “She’s gotten me clothes out of sympathy.”
This made Buffalo think about his mother, who had passed away only a few months before. He was still at the stage where he almost welled up with tears from something as mundane as thinking about the fact that she was the one who had always made sure he had enough underwear, socks, and shirts. He had always grudgingly gone shopping with her. Boy, did she love to shop! She was a master shopper, among all her other extraordinary qualities and talents. Buffalo had certainly enjoyed having the items to keep him warm in winter and cool in the summer. So why had he, more often than not, taken some of the joy away from her by looking bored or wanting to rush through the time they spent together shopping? He felt guilty about that now and he could not get it out of his head that she would never make him go shopping again.
It came out before he realized what he was saying: “I used to take it for granted that my mom would always get me the essentials. I sure don’t anymore.” Buffalo looked over at Katrina.
Without Katrina, I would have been dead by now. He knew it was true. There had been too much heavy shit too close together for someone with his proclivity for pushing the limits of his body to their extremes to have been able to walk without going over the line. His mother had died in November, when Buffalo had two fulltime jobs, one as an editor for a new Native American magazine, the other playing Renfield in a new off-Broadway production of Dracula. Katrina moved in with him in December and had Buffalo to herself only one night a week, as he worked during the day and did the show at night.
He had somehow convinced himself that he could maintain both jobs in spite of his mother having just died, and perhaps he needed to for his sanity as much as his pocket.
Most relationships don’t go through the test of all tests—the truly hard shit that leaves couples with no choice but to reveal the limits of the full extent of love one has for the other, like seeing one through the death of his second parent—until they have been married for years and bonded by children and half a life of memories. But Buffalo and Katrina found themselves running just that gauntlet when they were no more than four months into their relationship.
Buffalo’s mother, Norris Church Mailer, had liked Katrina upon first meeting her, when they shared a bowl of pasta for lunch at a local Italian restaurant in Brooklyn where Buffalo insisted they meet for the first time. It had been important to Buffalo that they get to know each other, as he knew his mother did not have long left and he wanted Katrina to get a tangible sense of how magnificent Norris was before it was too late.
Although they did not get to spend a great deal of time together—barely three months before Norris’s health rapidly deteriorated—the time was well spent, and long enough for Katrina to truly come to love Norris and understand Buffalo on a profound level. But before she knew it, Katrina was holding Buffalo’s hand at a funeral home as the undertaker explained cremation, which had been his mother’s wish. Later they would learn that the time Katrina and Norris got to spend with each other was enough for Norris to see what she needed to see, being an extraordinarily sharp judge of character. On the day of Norris’s funeral, his mother’s best friend from Arkansas, whom Norris had shared an e-mail correspondence with every day, took Buffalo aside and told him about the last e-mail she would ever receive from her best friend. It read: I know I don’t have long now. Maybe a matter of days. So much left I wanted to do. So much more I wanted to see. But I think John has found the One, and that makes it easier to go.
It made it easier for Buffalo too, knowing that in spite of what her doctors had told her 12 years before, his mother had held on to life long enough to see him truly in love. And what a love. It had somehow seen them through all of it. A passion neither of them had ever known before. Buffalo was smart enough and had been around the block enough times to know that such love is not something one is blessed with time and time again, but rather once every few lifetimes or so, if you’re lucky. So the thought of cheating on Katrina or doing something that could fuck it up in any way was insane to him. The only area in which he was blind to this was his excessive drinking. He wasn’t able to see how it frightened her, for truly he was taking it too far, even for a hairy writer like himself. But, as with all souls who walk that perilous line between adventure and substance abuse, Buffalo always had an excuse.
Despite this one thing, Katrina was there for him, putting together their home while he was at work with the Indians or at rehearsal or having a few with the cast when his long day was finally done. She’d be waiting at home with that seemingly bottomless well of love that always blew his mind. It was never lost on him that she managed to figure out how to run a household while nourishing her first relationship at just 22, only a few months out of college.
Dracula ended up receiving what some might consider the worst reviews any piece of art in existence had ever seen, and closed in under a month. The day the show ended, Buffalo went to an all-staff meeting for the Indian magazine and saw their first issue for the first time, as he had been gone for the past two weeks due to rehearsals. It didn’t take long for him to notice that he was not included on the masthead. Wow. Two jobs in one day. Could that be a record? The next month, February, his grandmother died. Once again Katrina found herself holding Buffalo’s hand at the same funeral parlor with the same undertaker they had seen three months before, only now he was explaining the process of how one ships a body to Arkansas, where his grandmother wanted her final resting place to be.
Not the easiest few months Buffalo had ever experienced, but he was always trying to grasp the silver lining of any situation, and so he took stock of the fact that all of the chaos had made it easy to see that he had found his true partner in crime, his real love, the One. Buffalo had known all along, really, which is why he’d asked Katrina to design the tattoo he was now getting back when they had just started dating, before all that shit went down.
When Katrina had sat down to sketch out what she imagined he wanted on his shoulder using the elements he had provided for inspiration, she decided that the piece must begin with words, as he was a writer. She called the piece Vagina Fireworks. Her original notes read as follows:
You don’t want to break the circles because they are everlasting. The solid Celtic designs symbolize your strength, courage, and wisdom. The cherry blossoms are a celebration of life. They are vagina fireworks, protected by solid Celtic circles, representing how protective you are of those closest to you.
All of this together represents love. It is the balance of these elements that makes it so beautiful. You are a gentle, organic beast, created to serve and protect those you love. You bring joy and comfort and excitement to the world. This tattoo shows the balance of those elements within you. Visually, the piece is balanced, but not exactly, because you are organic, and everyone and anyone—even a hairy animal like you—can only try to be as balanced as you can. But we’re not perfect. None of us are.
The Celtic elements Buffalo had asked her to include in the design were a shout-out to the great lady and all of Buffalo’s ancestors, descended from Vikings, who had braved the Southwestern frontier in the time of the pioneers.
What had their sigils looked like? Buffalo wondered.
“This is looking cool.” It was actually looking more than cool. Buffalo was a ruminant in shit.
“It looks way cooler with all this stuff filled in, huh. Now let’s do that to this section over here. With a little bit of shading over there, this is going to look sick. That really makes it. This should stay subtle, but this should be nice and dark. That okay with you?”
Patrick passed Josh a beer and looked at Buffalo. “You all right, Buffalo? You want another beer?”
“I would love one.” What a great guy Patrick turned out to be.
The party atmosphere was intoxicating. Who wouldn’t want one of these guys to fuck around and make some art on your body? They were all tipsy and tired and so comfortably in the zone that it almost felt as if a misstep could not be taken. Almost.
They talked about how Buffalo had introduced Katrina to the editor of Playboy, and how millions of red-blooded Americans were now enjoying the beauty of her naked form. Buffalo explained that it would have been hypocritical for him, as an actor, to try to keep her from doing it. How could he do a love scene for a movie, then turn around and tell her she couldn’t take her clothes off for the camera?
“You’re both very artistically supportive of each other.” Josh seemed to read Buffalo’s mind. It made Josh think of his own relationship. “My girlfriend was already a model when I met her. So I had to deal with incredibly sexy pictures of her being out there when we got together.”
This was one arena where Buffalo had become an expert. “Yeah, but if you look at it right, that’s an awesome thing. I mean, you’re the guy who’s with her. Everyone else just gets to look at her. I take comfort in the fact that I’m the guy who’s rubbing Katrina’s belly at night.”
“I never thought about it that way.” Josh was beginning to hope that Buffalo might actually be able to understand enough about him to pull off at least a somewhat decent magazine piece.
Buffalo was hoping for the same. He looked at the tattoos Josh had. There were a great many. Tribal markings on his neck and arms were the most prominent, but Josh had all sorts of other work on his body. “Who did all these? You didn’t, did you?”
“No, the only ones I did on myself were from a very young age, from the ages of 12 to 16 maybe. The rest are either from people that I’ve worked with over the years and really got along with well or, actually, I have a lot that I’ve just gotten from friends of mine, a lot of first tattooers. My friend Ellen did that. My girlfriend did that. It was her first tattoo. My body is basically like a scrapbook.”
Josh was suddenly distracted by something. “Hey, you see what Jonah is doing?”
Buffalo looked over to where Steve was getting inked. Jonah was tattooing his arm with nothing to trace, creating the line as he went. “That’s called a freehand.”
“Freehand!” Jonah screamed as if it were a battle cry.
Weeeeeentz. The needle was back on Buffalo’s shoulder.
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, and Lord’s […]