17 December, 2012

Gettin' Tattooed in Mexico - Guest Post Fred

Another guest post from our dear friend Fred.  Boris and I have both been tattoo'ed on more than one occasion but I have never  been able to describe it more than to say, "Those that say it doesn't hurt are LIARS!"  Fred of course is far more eloquent then I and has described in detail his incredible adventure here in town getting one of the coolest tattoos that I have ever seen!

November, 2012

 --  ¡Mí  Tatuaje!  --

We'll, we've had this picture on the fridge for a long, long time, and I always liked it a lot.  It was me, all of five, standing in the driveway of our house in Chino where I grew up, not much on but shorts and a straw hat.  The back of a '39 Buick was visible off to the side, and a Walnut orchard was across the street.  I had bare feet, a six-gun in my hand, a bandana on my face, and a look in my eyes like I was ready for something.  I always figured it would make a good tattoo someday, especially with the words "You seen Diane?" printed underneath.
Well, someday came.  About a month ago we learned a new tattoo shop had opened here in town, and one of our friends said she’d heard they were pretty good.  We thought it over, figured Why not?, and down to the shop we went.  We had the picture with us, and as we showed it to the guys and described what we wanted they started furrowing their brows.  Part of this was no doubt because of our limited Spanish -- and yes, their limited English as well.  You know, it's one thing to say ‘I'm hungry’, but when you want to say ‘I'd like something to eat before too long but I'm not really sure what I want; do you know of a place nearby that has a lot of different things and might be open late?’ it becomes another.  Can you imagine discussing a tattoo?  However, everyone was eventually smiling, I think mainly because Diane and I are getting really good at miming.
The thing though, we came to understand, was they didn't think they were good enough there, but that their compatriot who worked in the Celaya shop was.  They could get in touch with him if we wanted, and maybe if he had time in a few days he could drive up and give it a look (Celaya is about an hour to the south, a nice drive over the hills and across 40 miles of rolling campo).  We said sure, exchanged e-mail addresses and Facebook tags, and walked happily out the door, pausing at the first cross street to check for traffic but then holding the pause after traffic cleared to think about just what happened.  A tattoo guy was going to be getting hold of us, right?  Sometime next week, right?  Here in San Miguel, right?  OK!  This is cool, isn't it?  Isn't it?
A few days later we got a Facebook hit letting us know he was going to be in town that afternoon, sometime around 2:00.  Could we stop by and meet him?  Well yes, we could.  His name was Miguel Ramirez, and he was an easy going Mexican dude that had laid-back written all over him.  Dark eyes, close-cropped dark hair, a trimmed Van Dyke; baggy, calf-length shorts, a simple, un-tucked t-shirt, main-stream tennies, not laced.  Walked with a little bit of a lean, had a bounce or two, and a smile that just said hello.  Cool as hell.
But spoke very little English, we came to learn, as we talked about the tattoo...
‘Well, here's the picture and some cutouts we made, here's the words we want underneath, here's a photo we took of the cutouts stuck to my back.  We want something about this big (spreading our hands), maybe off center a little?  Not too high, we want to leave room for clouds.  Maybe some cactus in there.  Some weeds or rocks by my feet?  And oh, maybe some mountains in back.  Would be good, no?’
(in essence:)  ‘Hmm.  This is not your everyday tattoo.  It's a lot of work -- a lot of work to make it right.  Probably take at least three sessions, probably three hours each.  We'd need to spread them out a week apart -- you going to be here awhile?’
‘Yes, got a month and a half in front of us.’
(in essence:)  ‘Bueno.  See you Tuesday at 3:00.  Let me keep the stuff you brought so I can think about it over the weekend...’
Walking out the shop, we again paused at the cross street and again paused after it cleared.  I started in:  Wow!  This is cool, isn't it?  I mean, isn't it?  He seems like a really nice guy, and the dudes in the shop recommend him.  And didn’t we understand each other pretty good?  Didn’t we?  Man, sometimes our Spanish gets out there a little, but it's OK, isn't it?  Isn’t this going to be cool?
Diane looked all the wonder, with a smiley face and furrowed brow and dancing in her eyes.  Yes, you crazy f*ck! – Yes!  It’s going to be alright!
So, on came Tuesday and we’re there at 2:55.  Smiles and idle chatter with the guys, waiting for Miguel to arrive.  At 3:15 he popped in, smile on his face and equipment in tow (a mid-sized case on rollers, two or three drawers on a side, a top shelf beneath the cover, doors that swing open wide, everything plastered with decals).  We met on the corner of the counter, squeezed in by the smallness of space and the handful of dudes milling about (lots of hangers-on in a tattoo shop, don't cha know).  He showed us some 8 x 10 glossies (yes, 8 x 10 glossies…) he pulled off the internet; three were different views of a Suguaro cactus, one was an up-close of an Agave plant, one was a picture of sand dunes (sand dunes!), and one was a picture of a rocky precipice.
(in essence:)  ‘Which one you like?  This one?  This one?  How about this one?
I'm thinking Dude, you got a drawing to show me?  I thought you were going to work out a couple of scenarios?  Of course, this is easy to type, but so incomprehensible to get across in Spanish, even with Diane giving her all.  He looked questioned, then a little puzzled, and even calling over the other people in the shop (surely someone here speaks a little more English) got to no avail.  I explained (at least I think I did) that I wanted something mexican; a mexican tattoo by him, of a scene that would go with the idea we were discussing -- me being five, looking for Diane, six gun in hand, she better be on the lookout, some cactus and clouds in the background, etc.  At times as I tried to get this across, charading all the way, he actually broke out in laughter, which I took as a (probable) good sign.
So, and with a shrug (I think that was a shrug), he went behind the counter and started to draw.  Of course, three other dudes were behind there too, shucking and jiving (is that what Mexicans do?) all the while, leaving little room for him or his elbows as he hunched over a tiny light table on a small cluttered desk and drew.  Didn’t even have a chair.  My.  This is going to be an experience.  That’s how my tattoo’s being drawn?
Diane and I sat and exchanged a nervous look or two.  And an accommodating smile or two.  We squeezed lightly-sweaty hands, listened to music we didn't understand, watched young Mexicans being mexican, and calmly (?) waited for Miguel.  After the longest time he finally stepped up to his side of the counter, elbowed a stack of magazines aside, and in another crowded space maybe six inches wide commenced to drawing again.  A flourish here, a flourish there.  A serious line drawn just like that.  He was in a zone -- you could tell.  Serious.
Oblivious to the commotion going on, he stepped around the counter and motioned me to come over.  Another motion had me turning around and taking off my shirt.  He held something up to my back, and he and Diane talked a little.  I felt it move to the right a little, then down a notch or two.  He and Diane were nodding as they spoke, which I took as a fairly good sign. We then went into a little curtained-off side room where he washed and lightly shaved my back.  I felt a spray, then something like cellophane being stuck. Another word and a nod from Diane, and he said ‘Bueno, we start in ten minutes.’  Ten minutes?  Start what?
Some things are on Mexican time, done in Mexican ways.  We sat again waiting for almost an hour, me with no shirt, feeling almost naked in just sandals and shorts.  Another group of young men came in, this time with a couple of girls; some looking for piercing, some for tattoos, some just wanting to hang.  I think it was Ranchero music that was playing, but it might have been Huapango or even Narcocorridos.  It certainly wasn't Disco.  Eventually Miguel came back in from being down the street (having a get-started drink?), lugged his gear up the steep ladder to the loft, and after a while beckoned us to follow.  My.  A ladder to a loft.  Nothing fancy here.  The ladder was actually two steel beams, each with alternating pads.  One foot on this pad and one foot on the other got you stair-steppy up to the top (with a skinny hand rail to hold onto).  Remember those sub movies when you were a kid?  Where the captain scurries down with his back to the ladder shouting orders to the crew?  Well, this was steeper, and narrower, and way less subby.  You got it?
Up top was not much, just a concrete slab, three walls and a railing, and a ceiling Michelangelo would have loved.  All five-and-a-half-feet-high of it.  I could not stand straight for banging my head, but as the center of the room had a skylight I could stand there full height and clear.  Felt odd having my eyes level with the bottom of the ceiling, felt odd the room being so bare, but as there was a table for horizontal tattooing and two chairs for the sit-down of same all that really mattered was there.  A large floor fan was going full blast, turned so the breeze bounced off the ceiling and slid back down the walls.  Miguel's case stood vertically by the chairs, drawers open and at the ready, and a small roll-around table was set up with all the gear.
A paper towel was taped down on the table, and on it lay a tongue-depressor stick with a big dab of Vaseline, four little tubs of black ink, some cotton swabs, a squeeze bottle of some kind of liquid, a large bottle of black ink, packaged (sterile) needles, some latex gloves and a scalpel.  (Well no, not a scalpel, but that was my first thought -- turned out to be a knife for just general knife purposes.  But now why would a tattooist need that?  To scrape off mistakes?  Oh God!).  There was another small table in the corner, topped with about thirty small bottles of different-colored ink, two large bottles of I-know-not-what, and a square, red-plastic container with the words “Hazardous Material” on the side.  Hazardous materials -- there's a thought.  But go ahead, let's needle the hell out of my back!
And he did.  He sat down in one of the chairs and motioned for me to do the same.  Without thinking, I sat down facing him, like maybe we were going to talk.  He smiled and looked at me like ‘No, estúpido,’ and made a motion for me to swivel around.  Oh, I get it.  My back is supposed to be facing you so you can tattoo!  God I felt stupid, but as he was laughing I figured we'd probably make it through.  Diane, too, had her smiling face swinging side to side, in total acknowledgment of just how stupid I can be.  What the hell, this was going to be an event.
A spray of something caught my attention, and then his hands on my back.  The drape of the cord to the side, the buzz of the machine at the ready, he started.  No ceremony, no ‘Here we go,’ no nothing.  Just that needle puncturing the skin.  What seemed a thousand times a second.  A line going down my back, a lift, another line started right there.  Then a drag, a bite, and a few more drags to the side.  Wow.  I guess we're doing this.  Ooh, there's that line again, clean and narrow and crisp.  Short.  Much shorter than the first.  What part is he working on?  Indeed, just what the hell is he doing?  Earlier he had wanted to show me the outline he drew on my back, but I declined.  I told him no, I trust what you see (imagine how that came out...), and I want a tattoo by you.  Well, we're certainly getting it now.
After Session One
The lines and drags and bites continued, but didn't seem going very far.  Are those my feet?  Maybe my arms?  I had no idea, and as the tattoo continued I continued to imagine what part it was he was working on.  Surely that right there was the line of my torso, and that just had to be the shorts.  There was a rise in the work, and I felt that that was surely my head, maybe even the top of the hat.  Wow, this is going well!  A lot faster than I thought!  But then Grrgghh! that's something deep, must be a shadow being filled in.  Arrggh!, what the hell is that?  Why are you dragging so much off to the side?  What are you dragging off to the side?  But then a line again, light and crisp and easy. Ayyeee! another shadow being gouged?  God!  He's cutting out my skin!  This went on for thirty minutes or so, and as I felt him lean back and motion for me to sit up straight for a break he said "Now you have a leg.  Almost finished!"
A leg?  Are you kidding me?!  That's all?  I thought we were way further along than that, and as I contemplated that there was still another leg to go, and some shorts, and a chest and a torso and some arms and a gun and a head and a bandana and a hat I thought My, this is going to be quite the ride.  We laughed at the thought of not being 'Almost finished' at all, and the joy in his eyes told you he really had a feel for what he did and truly loved his craft.  Diane, too, joined in the joy, and took a moment to exclaim:  "Wow, sweetie, that is really good.  I can't believe how he does it.  He's working along in what looks like a mess but then all of a sudden it’s clear.  You have a kneecap!  And an ankle!  And toenails!  Amazing!!"  This was encouraging to me, for during the work I was able to see Diane's face and sometimes she looked a little worried.  I mean, that was a brow that was furrowed -- what the hell does that mean?  (She was off to the side behind Miguel, but I could see her in the mirror I was facing.  She'd have this worried look, then a smile, then an exasperation, then a smile again.  Drove me nuts wondering!)  We talked a little more, Miguel asked me how I was doing, (How do you think, you f*ck! -- you're tearing the hell out of my back!) I said fine, and we sat back down to resume.  His hands on my back alerted me that he was ready, and the bite of the needle confirmed it.  Oh God, that is exactly how it felt before.
The first full break was at the hour; he stepped outside for a smoke and I chugged a bottle of water.  Stood up sideways for a while, then stood straight up over in the skylight well (it was just about two feet square, so although your head fit in it there wasn't much room to move).  Diane couldn't believe how the tattoo was coming and asked if I wanted to see.  I said ‘No, not till it's done, I'm really riding this trust.’  The thought intrigued me, and once I set myself that way nothing was going to change.  Miguel returned and resumed the work for the second hour, which went exactly as the first.  Didn't hurt at all, except when it hurt like hell.
After the second break, during which he grabbed a bite, I started counting bees.  Seemed a good way to take my mind off things.  Ooh, there's a couple.  Ohh, there’s a couple more.  He'd slide around a little, changing his position as he worked, adding flourishes I couldn't see and digs I couldn't fathom.  What the f*ck is that?  A crater?  Are we supposed to have f*cking craters back there?  Jesus!!  He continued, every now and then talking with Diane, who seemed more amazed with every passage of time.  Frowning, puzzling, smiling -- rising to take pictures as the process ensued, looks of astonishment crossing her face.  Is astonishment OK when you're being tattooed?  'You should see,' is all she'd say.  Then smile and sit back down.
Wow.  Those five bees just invited five more, and their hurried buzzing continued.  Some over here, some over there, some I was not sure where.  But Yowza!, there's the neighbors joining in!  And Yikes!, there's the god-damn hive!!  We were well into the third hour now, and I was really giving it a go.  I kept imagining almost being finished, and the more I thought about it the more I thought every bee was the last.  But No!  There's the god-damn hive again!  I think my sensitivity was really being put to the test, for the winces I was earlier holding back now just had to be shown.  Things continued, then eased, for at one point Diane rose with a look of wonder on her face and said 'I can see your eyes!  Oh Fred, I can see your eyes!'  (He had finished the bandana and my eyes peeking over the top, and it really struck her as me.)  'That's you!  My god, Fred -- that's you!'
This was good to hear, for not only was Diane a happy clam but it meant not much more was left.  Just a little forehead work, then some bangs and a hat and we'd be done.  Every stroke was still a tear, and every dab a gouge, but knowing the end was near was heartening.  When at last he straightened and sprayed my back with water, I truly felt relief.  We stood and smiled, and shook hands.  He took a few pictures along with Diane and asked if I wanted to see; I smiled and said No, not till the tattoo is finished.  'Bueno.'  He applied a layer of ointment, then covered the work with cellophane, taping the edges to my back.  I put on my shirt before we headed down the ladder, but at the bottom had to take it off again.  Everyone wanted to see, and I heard loud oohs and ahhs as they did.  And a lot of Spanish swear words, complementing Miguel as only Mexican slang can.  A lot of pictures were snapped, and many cell phones were offered for me to see.  But I declined every one.  This wasn't over.  And I was holding out to the end.
Santiago y Elena
Final Product after Three Sittings

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