Thursday, May 17, 2012

Ghetto Tattoo

Yesterday on my way home from school I drove past a surprising sight. A rather fair man was standing on the steps in front of his house talking on the phone. He was shirtless and across his glowing-in-the-sun lower abdomen was a large tattoo that read "GHETTO." I stared as long as I could and then drove on to the stop sign at the end of the block.

And then I sat there. Damn it. I wanted a photo of that tattoo. I'd seen some pretty rough looking people on that street. It's not a street I would want to live on, in fact. That guy with the tattoo would probably be considered a rough looking character by most people. He had a fucking tattoo that said GHETTO on his belly, after all. He might not appreciate me gawking at him.

That tattoo was really calling to me though. It was big. It said GHETTO. And when had I ever been scared of rough looking characters?

I threw my van into reverse and backed up the way I'd come on the one-way street. It curves, so of course I hit the curb -- three times. Of course I did. Way to let him know a crazy woman is backing the wrong way down a one-way street. I finally gave up stopped about 100 feet away and walked down in the street to the house.

As I came into view around the bushes that hid most of the porch, a big boxer hit the end of his chain, barking a warning greeting. The guy yelled at him, "Down, Psycho! Stop barking at the lady."

I said, "I'm sorry to bother you...." Psycho was still barking and lunging, so the guy yelled at him again, said "Just a minute" to whomever he was talking to, and walked toward me. "Psycho, I said shut up!" He made a menacing move toward the boxer. The dog stopped barking, but he stayed at the end of his chain, pulling. I'm pretty sure he wanted a pat on the head, but I didn't get close enough to see. He might have wanted to eat my liver.

"I'm sorry to interrupt your phone call," I said. "I don't mean to be rude, but I wondered if I could take a photo of your tattoo." I held my crappy dumb phone up and wished I had my fancy SLR with me. I could see he had a bunch of other tattoos on various parts of his body.

"Hold on," he said into the phone. "There's a lady here trying to talk to me."

"I was ... ummm ... driving by and I saw your tattoo and ... I really don't want to be rude, but could I take a photo of your tattoo? My daughter loves tattoos and I like to send her photos of unusual tattoos I see."

"Sure. Go ahead." He posed. I took the photo.

"Mom, I gotta go. Some lady wants to take pictures of my tattoos." He snapped his phone shut. I smiled inside. He was talking to his mom.

"I got all of these in prison," he said. Oh.

"No way," I said. "They let you have tattoo guns in prison?" I looked closer at the ghetto tattoo. It looked pretty intricate for a prison tattoo. Because I've seen so many prison tattoos.

"Nah. We made the tattoo guns. Every single one of these I got when I was in prison. They were all done with a homemade tattoo gun in prison."

He told me how they made a needle out of the coil in a disposable lighter. They'd break the lighter, pull out the coil, heat it to straighten it into a wire, sand it down, and then sterilize it with alcohol.

"Here look. I got more on my back too. You can show her those too." I walked around him and took a photo of his back.

I asked him if they used ballpoint pen ink. (Elvira tattooed three little stars on her ankle when she was about 15 using ballpoint pen ink and a safety pin. She told me that's how they did it in prison. Suburban teenagers know so much.)

Tattoo guy said the only thing they used from a pen was the barrel. They taped or melted the plastic barrel to hold the lighter-spring needle in the machine. They used a motor from a CD player to power the tattoo gun.

To make the ink, he said they burned Vaseline and made a clumpy product they called "sood." I spelled it back to him to make sure he wasn't saying soot. He was missing a tooth in front, and I wasn't sure I understood him right. I think he said sood. Anyway, the sood was mixed with alcohol to make the ink. It was clumpy, he said, but it was still ink.

"I had no idea that's how prison tattoos were made. My daughter will love to hear how you did these. She wants to be a tattoo artist," I said. "Thanks for letting me take a photo and for talking to me. I didn't mean to interrupt your conversation with your mom."

"Hey, you need to take a photo of this one too." He flexed his pec. "This is Psycho. He's not mean." He pointed his thumb at the dog.

"I'm not scared of him," I said, which was almost true. He didn't look like he wanted to gnaw on me, but I didn't tempt him. "I've known other boxers. They're sweet dogs." Psycho slobbered a little and pushed his stubby nose toward me.

"I've got three more inside, but this here tattoo is that dog, Psycho," he said. "Take a picture of that one to show your daughter."

I took a photo of the tattoo. I wondered if anybody had pointed out the spelling, but I decided not to be the one to mention it. Maybe he didn't know. Maybe there are times when it's best to turn off the external editor.

I thanked him and started to walk back to my van, but he stopped me. "All of these are 12 years old. That's how long it's been since I was in prison. Twelve years. I ain't been in that kind of trouble since," he said.

"That's good," I said. "That's a long time to stay out of prison."

"How old is your daughter?" he asked.


"Oh, 21, huh. Well, I'm 33. That's why I was askin'."

Lightbulb! "Oh, yeah, well she's only 21 .... and you're ... you know .... 33," I said.

"Yeah. Well, if she wants to be a tattoo artist, tell her to get a license and not do it in her own home. She could get in trouble and lose her license if she gets caught doing that." (The irony did not escape me.)

I promised I'd warn her not to give tattoos in her house, and it was time for me to go. But before I left I took a photo of the real Psycho, who posed like this when I told him to smile for the camera. Awwww. He probably didn't want to eat my liver after all.


  1. Physco=classic

    1. It is a classic misspelling. One of those you don't even notice right away. I felt bad for him that it was spelled wrong. He was really proud of the tattoo.

  2. Didn't you ask WHY he wanted Ghetto on his belly? I mean, well, you know, I get some tatoos, but I don't understand why anyone would want Ghetto on their stomach forever more..... or am I just too old to understand?

    1. It's odd, but I didn't ask him. He really wanted to tell me about how they did the tattoos in prison and I just went with what he wanted to tell me. If I see him out there again, I'll stop and ask him. I don't understand it either, but I suspect it is or was a nickname.

  3. I find myself in conversations like yours more times than not. Darn curiosity get's the best of me every time :)

    1. This has been a lifelong activity of mine, from the time I was 2 and my frantic mom found me in a phone booth talking to a strange man. We were at the Des Moines Greyhound bus station. I figure if she couldn't beat it out of me, it's never going to stop.

  4. You're my hero, Reticula, you know that?

    1. Ha! You know I'm hardly a hero. Just an 11 on the extrovert scale. (But thanks, Thor.)

  5. I volunteer at a women's prison. One year during the holidays, the then-warden (who was a really amazing woman) encouraged the inmates to perform The Nutcracker. The staff and their families were invited, and so were all the volunteers and their spouses. It was great, but seeing Clara on pointe with tattoos over a good deal of her arms and calves was ... amusing, to say the least. I love a good prison story. I think it's cool that Ghetto wanted to talk about it, most of them don't.

    1. Debbi, that's something I've always wanted to do. In fact, as part of an internship I studied the feasibility of doing a writing program in a women's prison. Geography and perceived lack of funding made it impossible though.

      But what a great story about Nutcracker! I wish I'd been there.

      Ghetto talked to me because people talk to me. If I'd stayed, he'd have told me his entire life story. People like to tell me stuff, and I like to listen. It's a win/win.