When I was in my late teens I wanted a tattoo. The Navy seemed like the right place to make this happen. Tattooing, I learnt had been linked with the seafaring life of the Navy for centuries. I remember one of our parade trainers hollering, “A sailor without a tattoo is like a ship without grog. Not seaworthy.”
In 1993 on a sea-familiarisation exercise, I and ten others were posted for a week to the Garden Island Navy base in Sydney. It is located next to arguably Australia’s seediest tourist spot – Kings Cross. We were assigned to a frigate alongside, whose name escapes me. Anyway, all we really had eyes for was Kings Cross at night.
Sprawled across a pub booth seat in a state of drunken ruin, my mate Mal and I somehow met two girls. They were Maoris who had been living in the Cross for six months or so. They appeared to be nice girls. I could see three of each in my blurred vision, which only multiplied their beauty. Welcome to Kings Cross, I thought.
The next night I decided to get a tattoo. I had a few beers to try to settle the nerves but that didn’t work. I stumbled with my Navy mates into a run-down tattoo parlour on the main street of the Cross. Even as I entered the grungy shop I had no idea what I would get. I browsed the tattoo displays, nervously shifting from one board display to another in the hope that an illustration might grab my attention. The guys got bored waiting so they congregated outside. I soon came across a drawing of a treble clef surrounded by flames. I bent my head sideways and down towards the picture. I nodded. “Treble clef … flames”, trying to ascertain its symbolic importance. I noted to myself how the treble clef represented my infinite love of music. The flame was my passion. The fire in my soul as it were. It was the best I could conjure up in response to the inevitable question: “Why did you get that?” My mates quickly stepped back in. They were as excited and curious as I was. They hadn’t seen anyone get a tattoo.
I peered over at the guy at the counter; his stomach hung over the bench. The customer service oozed from him as he snorted and swallowed his phlegm. I peered back at my mates, who all wore cheesy grins as I stood there at the counter. Eventually he looked up, mildly annoyed that I had interrupted his reading.
“Okay. So what ya havin’?”
I pointed to the treble clef and then smeared my mouth with the same hand.
“That,” I said.
He snatched the picture off the wall and I noticed him squinting as he viewed it closer.
“C’mon,” he grunted.
When I saw the chair I nearly regurgitated the beer from my stomach. I would have preferred the dentist’s chair at that moment. I removed my shirt. He moved close to me. Too close. His breath stank. Then he coughed and mumbled in between juggling his phlegm. Reassuringly he remarked, “This hurts.”
Did it hurt? Some superheroes in their own lunchtime have described the procedure as a “hot scratch” or just simply “annoying”. For me it felt like someone jabbing a needle into your back and scraping a figure out of it. I think that’s all I have to say about that. I was allowed to take the bandage patch off after twelve hours. On first inspection my friend raised his hand high and slapped his thigh in short repetitive bursts. He was laughing. Laughing so loud. He was hard pressed to put two words together:
“You …” he spluttered like a blabbering idiot
“What is it?” I shouted.
“You … you … your treble clef is traced on backwards – inside-out!”
My jaw dropped. I stared at his face fastened to each of those words dangling from his lips. Treble clef … backwards … inside-out
Everyone wanted to look at my defective tattoo.
My tattoo is small and located on the right shoulder blade where I cannot see it. Its placement is its greatest asset. Suffice to say I am reluctant to show it off. It’s neither sexy or wicked, simply faulty. When people view it they don’t gasp excitedly; they just look at it slightly indifferent and say “Oh” until the penny has dropped of course. It’s never encouraging.
‘You do realise your trebel clef is backwards’?
‘Yes of course’ I reply.
‘Music and what it means to me is internalized deep within’.
‘So that’s how it appears to you on the outside’.