"My first tattoo–I was 19, I was a punk rock kid, and I had been thinking about getting a tattoo for some time. I had had a dream in which I had a tattoo of a skull and crossbones design in which the skull had peace symbols for eyes. When I was shaving the next morning, I was surprised I didn’t have the tattoo. So I called up my friend Melody, whose uncle was Tattoo Ray–one of the best tattooists on Staten Island. She made the appointment and came with me to her uncle’s house.
Photo by Joy Gaines-Friedler
In New York at the time (the mid 1980's), tattooing was still illegal: most tattoo artists worked out of their homes and their clientele was through word of mouth. Ray was pretty famous–and I have met a number of people over the years on Staten island who had work done by Ray. He was funny, sarcastic, and quick-tongued. I remember asking him about his needles (this was in the midst of the AIDS epidemic) after all and he asked me right back “How clean is your blood?”
I liked him immediately. He did the work. His niece and I talked. I just remember being surprised how much the tattoo gun sounded like a dentist drill. The little whine, the humming buzz.
My second tattoo: I got my senior year in college. We found somebody in Westchester who did the work in his suburban neighborhood house. I remember little of the experience. The tattoo was not the one I wanted: what I had hoped to get – Tigger with a microphone and a mohawk jumping on his tail – I ended up not being able to afford. Instead: I went with symmetry – and more pirate stuff: a rose with crossed swords above the left bicep. In hindsight, this tattoo has held up better than Tigger probably would have....
Photo by Joy Gaines-FriedlerWhat lasts though are the tattoos I wanted to get but didn’t: After the rose I wanted to get Charlie Chaplin tattooed on me. I asked several artist friends of mine to make me a design, and I got a few of them, but none of them “worked.” And for several years I wanted the logo for my old band tattooed somewhere. But neither happened.
So I went with two for a long time: but I often thought about getting new ink. I wrote. I taught. I created a program for young writers in northern Michigan called the Controlled Burn Seminar for Young Writers. I committed 13 years to that project, and after the tenth seminar, I thought I would get its logo – a lit cherry bomb – tattooed on my right forearm. The logo was important to me: I believe poetry and all art should be a lit cherry bomb. It should be a potential explosion. But it should be fun, too. I looked into it a few times, but I finally made the decision on a lark a few days after my birthday. I was walking on Carson Street in Pittsburgh – tattoo parlor row. I liked the name Flying Monkey Tattoo. So in I went.
Photo by Joy Gaines-Friedler
The tattooist was a kid, He could have been one of my students–he was finishing up his apprenticeship and mine was one of his first tattoos. The seminar after the ink ended up being the last one. It seemed fitting that the creative writing kids got to see it before the seminar ended.
And now, for one of Gerry's poems:And now I’m back to collecting designs: this time, though, I know who’s going to do the tattoos. The next one will be a Buddha carrying a tattered pirate flag on my back. These are the two strains of my life. And I want the MG logo somewhere. I’ve been driving an MGB for 15 years. The tattoo is a commitment and the things I am committed too, the things that define me, that continue to define me I want inked on me. I spend much of my life putting ink on paper. I think it’s only fitting to have some ink on me, too."
Avenues A through D, Lower East Side, NYC
After the ambulances left but
before the sun finally rose above Avenue
C, I walked toward Tompkins Square Park where the heroin
dependent rockers slept, addled on benches, while
ex-punks huddled in their leather jackets
for the morning was still damp. One of them called out,
Gerry? What was I to do when I saw her, recognized
her hesitant familiar eyes. How could I have
imagined things would turn out this way when I’d call out her name —
Joanna — those sleepless nights of high school &
kept a photo of her deep into college.
Longing has such a sense of history.
Morning was approaching in its colorful coat.
Not once those months of kissing her, had I wakened beside her, but
oh — I’d wanted to. She was thinner & glanced away when I nodded;
pigeons surrounded her bench but would take off
quickly with the first sudden movement or when the next squad car
revealed itself in flashers & sirens.
So what did I do? What could I do?
The three five dollar bills folded in my pocket, what
use were they to me? I gave them to her, she who’d once been beautiful. How
victorious I’d felt that first time I kissed her.
We didn’t look at each other, nor did we look askance. I thought of the little
xiphoid syringes she might load with that money. This was my sin.
Two young black kids with dreadlocks walked by singing
Zion! Take me back to Zion! & I knew I’d never be saved.
– Gerry LaFemina
from Vanishing Horizon, 2011 Anhinga PressGerry LaFemina is the author of seven books of poems, most recently Vanishing Horizon (2011, Anhinga Press) and a collection of short stories. He directs the Frostburg Center for Creative Writing at Frostburg State University where he also teaches. He splits his time between Maryland and New York City.
Thanks to Gerry for sharing his tattoos and poetry with us here on Tattoosday!
This entry is ©2011 Tattoosday. The poem is reprinted here with the permission of the author.