It is now hard to remember what my ideas were about tattoos before I got one, however I want to reconstruct them because the experience of being tattooed, of having an artist treat my skin as a canvas, was an unexpectedly sacred one.
Reaching back in my childhood memory, I imagine sailors and pirates, men who live on boats and spend their time in dark bars at the edge of the city. I remember sitting on the rug in the living room, my five year old eyes watching Popeye the Sailorman chugging down a can of spinach as the tattoo of a warship on his bicep came to life – big guns firing away. Macho images of screaming eagles, skulls and daggers, island girls in grass skirts. Even having long since seen books of body art and witnessed the popularization of tattoos – yin yang symbols, unicorns, flowers, runes – somewhere I still harbor the pirate, the sailor, the biker. Something profane. Something that would not age well.
As I mentioned in the prequel to this blog entry, my decision to get a tattoo felt less like a decision and more like an alignment of factors: seeing Luli’s tattoos regularly, getting to know her own work, the image of Torres Garcia’s América invertida.
Luli’s workshop is in a shared artist space in the neighborhood of Once, historically the Jewish Quarter of Buenos Aires. Of course, we Jews live all over the city, but Once is traditional, religious, orthodox, kosher.
As I walked past the kosher markets, the wholesale fabric stores, a schul, boys with yarmulkes, women with wigs, I was very aware of the date: January 10. It was the centennial anniversary of the largest massacre of Jews on Argentine soil that took place during the famous Semana Trágica (Tragic Week) of 1919. And here I was, a most secular Jew, walking the very streets where this pogrom took place on my way to get “gashes in my flesh” in direct violation of Talmudic law. Not that this caused me the least hesitation, but I like to be aware of such frictions, or “noise” as I would say in Spanish.
I followed Luli up the stairs to the workshop she shares with another artist. The space was decorated with drawings, sketches and objects: flowers, portraits of women, hearts, and hybrid creatures. We chatted as she prepared my skin, placing a decal of the image upon my arm, and she surprised me with some unexpected news, “I just realized you weren’t at the café when I told everyone: I’m pregnant!”
She put on some music and asked if I would prefer that she tattoo me using a machine or manually, “hand-poked”. “Hand-poked will take longer, but…” “Hand-poked!” I answered quickly not waiting for an explanation. I liked the sound of it. Luli said she was glad because it was a more beautiful process, more personal, direct from her hand, to the needle, to my flesh.
I sat back and listened to the music, a recording of a Chilean band called Bloque Depresivo (Depressive Block) in concert, performing boleros, romanceros, romantic music. I watched Luli gently work the pigment into my skin following the coastline of South America, marking the coordinates of The Battle of Piedras in Uruguay, as the singer interpreted a song I first heard 15 years earlier from the voice of Chavela Vargas.
Uno vuelve siempre / One always returns
a los viejos sitios / to the old places
donde amó la vida / where one loved life
y entonces comprende / and comes to understand
cómo están de ausentes / what it means that
las cosas queridas. / the beloved things are no longer there.
Por eso, muchacha, no partas ahora / So, dearest girl, do not leave now
soñando el regreso / longing to return
que el amor es simple / because love is simple
y a las cosas simples / and it is the simple things
las devora el tiempo. / that are devoured by time.