PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Fads and fashions: a tribal bracelet, stars, surnames (Beckham, Scarface, Soprano…)
Chinese characters on your neck – avoid the neck if it’s your first time.
Guns: liner, shader, magnum. A noisy or a silent machine. Ink. The quality of the blacks. Pure pigments, dense black, its scarcity justifying the price. Ink capsules. Gloves. Dettol, alcohol. Cellophane.
On your stomach, feeling like being sick.
Your ribs are so sensitive you can’t think. Ankle, collar-bone, solar plexus, elbows and armpits: unforgettable pain. The feeling that a fingernail is scratching you, slowly. The burning sensation brings to mind a well-known, stainless-steel instrument with a precise cutting edge: the scalpel… The most painful part is filling in, colouring the space between two lines dot by dot. It is advisable not to have it done on an empty stomach.
I’d never stopped thinking about it. For twenty years at least. The temptation had grown stronger with the years. The taboo surrounding it had not lessened its attraction, on the contrary. Without this taboo on the part of the family I would have given up the idea fairly quickly and turned to something else. It wouldn’t have been worth wasting my time over it. The taboo gave substance to the fantasy.
At fifteen I was thinking of totemic emblems, wolf jaws, clan symbols. I dreamt of being the leader of a gang, of a political party. Ideologies gave me a thrill: power, yes, that was what it was about. At that time I felt totally detached from everything. That year I’d been in hospital with a serious illness. Shut up in a room for months on end, my thoughts just went round and round inside my head. That was when I started drawing. The pages in my notebooks were covered with weapons, crosses. Crosses that weren’t Christian symbols.
I got better, I was no longer the boy obsessed with the idea of being a leader, with war and theories claiming to justify it. Getting better was not just a physical matter.
I turned my back on the thrill of conflict but I retained my taste for crosses and tattoos. It is a taste I will never lose. If one can ever say never.
I was sure that one day I would give in. It would have the symbolic force of military service, losing your virginity, marriage and death. In certain civilisations being given a tattoo is a rite of passage for young people reaching adulthood. Being behind schedule with my biological clock, I had not yet come to a final decision. Have it done, yes, but that still left the where, when, by whom and, above all, what. I surveyed those I saw on other people. Theirs looked botched to me, ludicrous. Had these people given serious thought to the meaning, to what it made them look like? Had they decided on the spur of the moment? Had they been disappointed when it was done? Those aren’t the kind of questions you can ask openly but I thought about them all the same. In their place I wouldn’t have put that star there and, anyway, I wouldn’t have drawn it like that. Time to think about drawing.
Drawing opens up your mind. You think you know shapes, but no, you don’t. The line draws you towards something you hadn’t thought of, that is, you had been thinking: something along the lines of that, but once you get there it’s a rather different that from what you had in mind. That’s the surprise. The difficulty too. How to capture the trailing tentacles of the jellyfish, the wind in the blossoming cherry tree, the glassy sheen on the barrel of a gun, the flakes of black on a Bhutan’s dagger? (Love precision.) A difficulty that’s even greater if you intend to put the drawing onto a body. Remember the artists of the Lascaux caves who knew how to exploit the contours and curves of the walls, including them in their drawings, for example making a bulge in the rock represent an animal’s hump. Play with what nature has given you. Practise on a flat sheet of paper, in the knowledge that nothing is flat on the human body. The body abhors flatness. Which part should you choose? Your side, your arm (the eternal tradition of sailors), your neck? Know that the elbow, the solar plexus, the soles of the feet, the palm of the hand must always be avoided. Apart from that everything is tattooable. Tattooable? So what should you choose? What meaning should you give to the part of your body you’ve selected? And feel like God in designating the spot the needle is going to pierce, for it is God alone who singles out which limb will suffer in an illness or in an accident in which bones will be broken.
Tattoos tell you about the world, about men’s beliefs. The Greeks and Romans used to tattoo their slaves. With an owl for the Greek thralls whilst the Romans preferred to place the first letter of the master’s surname between the slave’s eyes… The man found in the Alps whose mummified body showed that he lived in the year 4,546 before Christ, the one they called Ötzi, was also tattooed. From the Picts in Scotland and right across Asia to the Aborigines in Australia people pierced their skin in order to inject pigment into it or – what was equally a sign of its importance – found this marking of the skin offensive (tattooing was forbidden by Judaism: ‘Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the Lord.’ Leviticus, ch. 19, v. 28). And what about the mark of Cain? Is that not the ultimate tattoo? The mark that follows you, that gives you away for ever. Tattoos are the most important of the distinguishing marks that are of interest to the police: it wasn’t that long ago that such an adornment would only be worn by a man who was a bad lot, a man with a murky past and nefarious intentions. Can one imagine Jean Genet’s Querelle without an anchor tattoo? Every detail of tattoos was noted down on index cards and used to identify criminals.
Roses blown apart by a bullet from a gun, an Indian goddess with arms stretched out in a lascivious dance, a Rottweiler tearing its owner’s shoulder to pieces, a clown, a juggling monkey, a ship’s prow emerging from the flesh, a spider with a human face puffing at a Lucky Strike, a bear, a lone wolf, from Kazakhstan or Tasmania, a pin-up, I-love-you-Mum, forever-yours-Lola, nobody’s-perfect, etc. And then the crosses, all kinds of crosses: Latin, Greek, Papal, Celtic or Egyptian. Hundreds throughout the world. Esotericism, spiritualism, a symbol: religious, military, political. Poetic.
I’ll know more about you when I’ve seen: What image, what phrase do you have profaning your skin? What could be worth lasting as long as your body, of decaying along with you?
I went to several studios looking for a tattoo artist who would be willing to talk to me in detail about his work. I wandered round the 9th, 10th and 11th arrondissements in Paris. They weren’t friendly, weren’t chatty, there was something not quite right about them. I wasn’t interested in some loutish ex-sailor who’d settled down with a well-established studio and works crudely. If he presses too hard, draws badly, economises on materials, I turn away. I’ll call back another time, I say for the sake of politeness.
Then I met Dimitri.