Tuesday, September 02, 2008

My Father, The Tattoo Artist

These days, having a tattoo isn’t a big deal. Lots of guys have them. For that matter, any time a young woman bends over, and skin appears, it’s about even money that you’ll have a chance to spot some sort of ink above her ass crack. Back in the 1950’s, though - when the story I’m about to relate took place - tattoos were almost never seen in public. The only folks openly sporting them were circus freaks and military men. And, among the military, sailors were the ones most often known to have them.

The tradition of getting a tattoo, among men who go to sea, goes back centuries. Sailors were the first white men to encounter the art among various Polynesian and Asian peoples. Sailing to the then-mysterious and exotic ports of call in the South Seas, they saw that the island natives had intricate designs permanently etched onto their skins. Being adventurous and romantic men to begin with, many had these natives put designs onto their skin as a sort of permanent souvenir of their far-flung travels. It was a point of pride, and machismo, to have such artwork adorning their bodies.

My father was a sailor. He served in the United States Navy, during the Korean War, onboard the USS Mindoro, an aircraft carrier. One day, he decided to carry on that grand old naval tradition. He decided to get a tattoo.

OK. Truth be told, it was night, not day. And, prior to his decision to get a tattoo, he had been following another grand old naval tradition. While on shore leave, he had been helping the indigenous personnel to clear the area of toxic liquid substances. That is, he had been pouring them down his throat as quickly as possible. He was knees-buckled, eyes-crossed, barely-able-to-talk, ossified-drunk.

My Dad, Tom Sullivan, and one of his good buddies from the Mindoro (whose name is lost to history, but who, nevertheless, could be readily identified even today, and you’ll find out why) had been imbibing at an alarming rate. For the sake of expediency in telling the tale, let’s call his buddy, "Jack." Jack was originally from the hill country of Tennessee, while my father was from the Forest Hills section of Boston. Perhaps having both grown up on inclines was the original basis for their friendship. In any case, these regional beginnings made little difference in their current state. They were both equally plastered.

They had left the ship together in the morning, clean and sober. As night fell, and they increasingly became in danger of also doing so, Jack noticed, through the window of the bar they were now occupying, a neon light flicker to life on the street. Squinting through the haze of rye surrounding him, he saw that the sign said “Tattoos.”

Jack elbowed my father, pointed in the general direction of the sign, and said, "H’Sulla! Lesgeddussadadoo!"

(Translation: "Hey, Sully! Let’s get us a tattoo!")

My father, who had been busy trying to light a Camel without also setting his nose on fire, replied, "What an entirely splendid idea, old chap! Yes, let us adorn our bodies with artwork. We will no doubt be the envy of the entire fleet once we have a cartoon of a smiling skunk on one arm, with the legend ‘I’m Stinky’ emblazoned underneath! Good show, old man!"

(Translation: "hnnn…")

So, both of them slid off of their barstools, stumbled out of the bar, and stumbled into the tattoo parlor. Once there, they somehow made the proprietor understand that they wanted to be decorated. Even being as inarticulate as they were at that moment, it probably wasn’t too hard. Why else would two drunken sailors have been there?

They looked at the portfolio of drawings, and chose what they wanted him to draw on their flesh. The tattooist excused himself, going into his back room to wash up and otherwise prepare. Jack flopped into the artist’s chair, while my father stood, unsteadily, next to him.

Jack turned to my father, and said, "H’Sulla. Hahziswork?"

My father, ever helpful, told him, "Seazy."

With that, my father picked up the electric tattooing needle that had been resting on a tray next to the chair.

He said to Jack, "Hole out ya han’"

Jack did so, palm up. Whereupon my father took the needle, pressed the button that turned it on, and then dragged it across Jack’s open palm.

Jack regarded his palm. It now had a thick blue line running from about the middle out to the base of his thumb.

He said, "Huh. Zat all?"

Then, he wiped his hand on his shirt. After doing so, he looked at his palm again. The line was still there. He squinted at it, spit in his hand, and wiped it on his shirt again. When he brought his hand up to eye level once more, the line was still there. He laughed, and said, "H’Sulla! Thizint comin’ off!"

Jack continued spitting into his hand and wiping it on his uniform, in a vain attempt to erase my father’s impromptu artwork. Meanwhile, my father had sobered up dramatically. He now understood the permanency of what was in store for his body if he sat in the chair after Jack. When the tattoo artist reappeared from the back of the shop, and Jack was otherwise occupied with having his body professionally inked, my father bid a hasty (if somewhat uneven) retreat towards the Mindoro.


The next morning, when they both awoke on the Mindoro, neither one had much memory of the night before. They were both wickedly hung over, of course, so they knew why they didn’t have any memory, but beyond that, the night was a mystery. They rolled out of their bunks and hit the showers.

My father noticed the bandages on Jack’s shoulder before Jack did. He said, "Hey, Jack, what did you do to your arm?"

Jack said, "I don’t know, Sully..."

Jack carefully removed the bandages so he could see what tragedy might have befallen him. When he did so, he saw not the wound he was expecting, but instead a big red heart with the word "MOTHER" written in flowery script beneath.

Jack looked with dismay at his previously virgin shoulder. "Aw, Sully! What’d I do t’ mahself?"

My father laughed a little, but then dimly began to recall the previous night. He gave himself a quick check for bandages and drawings. He offered up a quick prayer of thanks when he found none.

Jack now noticed his hand. He rubbed at it. The line was as recalcitrant as it had been the night before. He uttered a soft moan, and said, "Oh, man! Where else’ve I got drawin's on me?"

As Jack checked himself for further desecrations, it all came back in stunning crystal clarity to my father. He now said another prayer, this one that his buddy wouldn’t remember where he got the tattoo on his hand.

Well, according to my father, Jack never did remember a thing about that night. For the rest of his time on the Mindoro, there was always a slight foreboding, in the back of my dad’s mind, that somehow Jack would have something happen to him that would dredge up the memory of just how his hand became tattooed. Thankfully - for both of them, I suppose - it never happened.

(On the off chance that "Jack" is reading this: My father is dead. For what it’s worth, every time he told this story, he expressed his sincere regret about what happened that night. He also expressed his sincere thanks that he wasn’t the first one in the chair.)

Soon, with more better stuff.

(Photo of The USS Mindoro comes from this webpage, wherein a former crew member is searching for some folks who served with him from 1953 - 1956. This is slightly past my Dad's time on the ship, I believe. In any case, his name isn't listed among those that this fellow is searching for, so it's probably safe to assume he isn't "Jack.")

(Should you wish to have some artwork on your very own body, the image of the tattoo needles came from here. I'm sure he's wonderful.)


lime said...

when i was about 16 i foolishly made the comment in my grandfather's presence that i wanted to get a tattoo. now understand my grandfather was one of the most even tempered people i've ever met. he was also a ww2 navy vet. when he heard those words issue from his young granddaughter i watched the blood rise, turn his face red then purple with rage. he informed me that tattoos were only for drunken sailors then proceeded to take his shirt of and ask me if i saw any marks on his skin. when i answered in the negative he looked me dead in the eye and growled, "you remember that, girl!"

aye, sir.

lo, these many years later i am ink free and plan to stay that way (the cool thing is that with tats being such a fad now it's rebellious NOT to have one).

i've kept myself busy with acquiring scars from accidents and surgeries instead. 12 and counting. bwahahaha

Pam said...

ah, yes...tattooing while intoxicated. no one should ever do that!

i know of other peeps that would have tattoos...how bout prison tatts? didn't that start way long ago?

anywhoo..my dad is retired navy. he has one tattoo on his hand or just above it really w the name PAT. guess it was one of his old gfs. putting someone's name on your body is a sure way to make sure that that relationship doesn't last for long! LOL heck, i only have my ex's initial and we're divorced. ha ha.

anyways, i have two tatts, and i want at least one or two more. not really cuz of rebellion, i just happened to like them. then there's this whole thing that once you get one, you kinda want more. of course, this doesn't mean i'm going to get sleeves, full body, etc. LOL

i used to even have a tongue piercing long ago. i have a story about it somewhere int he archives in my blog. kind of funny and kind of gross. but we won't get into that. LOL

Suldog said...

Truth be told, I almost got one back when I was a teenager.

I was in a band, World's End was the name - there are some stories about that here somewhere - and we all gave serious thought to having the band logo - a stylized Celtic cross, which I designed - tattooed on our calves.

(No, we didn't own cows; The bottom of our legs, silly!)

Luckily, we never did, as the band broke up about seven months later. That's the closest I've ever come.

Buck said...

I came close... many, many times. And often under the circumstances you describe, Jim. I lost count of the number of times I watched buddies get ink in some garden spots (and hell-holes) in various places on the Pacific Rim.

But the closest I ever came was when The Second Mrs. Pennington and I considered getting each other's names tattooed on our asses. We were in the parking lot of the local ink parlor when we thought better of it. I kinda sorta wish we had done it tho. I'd get a LOT of psychic gratification knowing her beloved would see MY name on her ass every time she stepped out of the shower, or on other occasions. Long story, that. So I'll just stop now before... oh, well.

Suldog said...


What saved us, in the band, was that tattooing was illegal in Massachusetts at that time. We would have had to drive up to New Hampshire to get the deal done. By the time we had a ride, we had thought better of it.

fuzzbert_1999@yahoo.com said...

Simply wonderful...what a tale and one I seemed to be witnessing as I read. Thanks for making my day Sul.

Janet said...

I'll have to look up my relatives and see if anyone has a tattoo on their palm.
I thought about getting a tattoo when I turned 40 (mid-life crisis, etc.). But I couldn't decide what I wanted, where I wanted it, plus I was afraid of the pain, and the PERMANENCY of it all.
So I had a baby instead.


I have however, discovered the joy of temporary tattoos. For three weeks I had a dragonfly on my ankle, then a sun. I didn't like the sun so much, but I loved the dragonfly. Painfree and you can change the location and design. And you can take them off when you go to visit your grandmother, who would just NOT approve.

Michelle H. said...

You already know I'm a tattoo girl, so I don't have to explain it again. My father was a US Marine who fought in Nam, and he never got a tattoo. I remember when my parents saw the thing on my leg and asked, "What's that?" I said I forgot to wash my leg and it's just dirt.

SandraRee said...

My Daddy made the military his life and he's got one tattoo on his arm, military related. I've got a sister that has a tattoo on the back of her neck she inherited after running around with a motorcycle gang in the early 80's. As wild as I was as a young girl I never even considered one or even piercings for that matter.

I've got a plate and screws in my left leg. Compliments of an accident, that's enough for me!

Melinda said...

The only tattoo I ever considered getting was a little maple leaf and the words "Made in Canada". But I could never decide where it should go, so it never happened. Probably a good thing - cause I'm sure Made in Canada turns into something either rude or illegible once it gets wrinkled up ;)

Great story!

Hilary said...

What a wonderful story. I'm glad your Dad handed these tales down to you. You do them such justice in the telling. And I don't even like tattoos.

kuanyin333 said...

I have one---a big blue angel on my left leg. Sometimes I regret it--sometimes I don't. It all depends. I was told I had to be totally sober during the ritual, and so I was even though the work took many hours. No pain killers either. Now I don't know how I did it.

Chuck said...

I never have gotten a tattoo but if I ever do I'm going to be sure to be sober. A guy I knew in Vegas wouldn't tattoo intoxicated people...although he would happily take a deposit from them. He said 90% of the time they never showed back up.

Cath said...

You tell such a good story. My hubby and son can't understand my sniggers at the screen....

I must say though, your father was remarkably eloquent in his speech whilst somewhat inebriated. I wonder, pray, do tell, is there an element of *ahem* English in his heritage?

(And if there is, how did he lose it before you arrived? No just kidding. Couldn't resist. Hahahahaha! Love you really. Truly. I do i do i do!) Mwah.

Elaine Denning said...

What a wonderful tale!

I have a tattoo on my shoulder which I got about 20 years ago - sober. I've never regretted it, but I do get disappointed looking at the thick lines of it. Twenty years on, the needles are so much better and the work can only be described as art.

Unknown said...

Fantastic story! Your dad apparently missed his calling as a tattoo artist, he left his permanent mark on the first try. I have wanted a tattoo for quite some time but am a little chicken to actually go and do it. Regardless if it ever happens though I will NOT be getting a "tramp stamp" applied to this bod. I like my spine the way it is thanks.

This was definitely a fun read!

David Sullivan said...

Cuz: I love hearing stories about your dad. We would have gotten along famously. My Shamrock tattoo which sits on my left shoulder is not just a relection of my Irishness, but I got it on the third anniversary of my mothers death. As St. Patrick tried to teach the Irish savages about the Holy Trinity (father, son, holy ghost) using the three leaved Shamrock, I wanted to honor my Mother, Aunt Rosie and Grandma Norton, my holy trinity.

Neponset River Bridge Dig said...

My dad has a tat on his arm that say's "MOTHER". That was a big one with the sailors back in the day.

As for women and the tramp stamp on the lower back - I wouldn't want to see my daughter with one but they are fun to look at.

Shrinky said...

Oh Suldog, you sure know how to relate a story (even if your English fake accent is piss poor)! I could see the scene play out as I read.

My big bruv' thought tattoos were dead cool (well, he was only 16). It had the desired effect - my parents freaked. Mind you, they cost a fortune for him to have them removed as an adult. Mum would have been proud.

Shrinky said...

forgot to add, big bruv' had a thing about having his latest love tattooed on his arm. He's five times divorced.

Suldog said...

Thanks for the many kind words, friends. I thought this was a good one, and I'm glad to have that verified by you.

Shrinky - Did I say it was an English accent? I don't believe I did. It's actually a dialect known only in a three-block area of the Boston community of Jamaica Plain.

Jeni said...

I love reading your stories about family adventures -or sometimes "mis-adventures" too. You spin a good tale, my friend.
Tattoes and me though -never gonna happen! I've always had a huge aversion to needles of any and all kinds meeting up with any part of my body! Plus, the fact in my generation this was definitely only done to women who were carny workers or convicts. Today, not so but I'm thinking back 40-50 years now too and it was way different then.

rosecreekcottage-carol.blogspot.com said...

Ouch! When my now DIL was 16 and working for me, she decided to have a bracelet of flowers tattooed on her ankle. I told her she was sure to regret it someday. Sure nuff, on her wedding day she looked at me and said, "You were right". You don't hear those words too often from the young 'uns today!!

Loved this story, Jim!

Anonymous said...

Hmm... I have a great Uncle who lived in Portsmouth and was in the Navy. I'll have to ask Mum about his palm.

Great story! I came close to having a tattoo in LA this year (I'm over fifty), but didn't. My Other Half was disappointed. He came to watch my girl friends getting inked and kept nudging me and saying 'Go on .. ' Is it supposed to work that way? LOL!

He would like me to get a tramp stamp. Uh ... I don't think so.

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