I had the ink done in my early 30s, just the inside of my arms across the elbow joint, to hide the scarring. It felt stranger than I’d expected sitting in the chair and feeling a needle again. In a way I kinda liked it, liked that the first sting wasn’t immediately deadened by that familiar, spreading honey, but was just followed by more sharp stabs. Repeated little reminders that this was the difference between being alive and being dead. It had taken me a long time to figure out that being alive cost a little pain that you were supposed to endure and not numb. I’m not trying to kid anyone that I had some sort of straight edge awakening as I got older – I still drank a little more than I should, still rolled the occasional joint – but on my own terms I’d been sober for four or five years.
On my left arm was this rose design I’d been kicking around on notebooks since as long as I could remember, probably all the way back to school. The centerpiece, which covered most of my old tracks, was the main flower, fully open as if you were looking down on it from above. Trailing off it and running up and down the sides of my arm was this interlinked chain of barbed wire and petals. After all those years in rehab and therapy you’d have thought I’d have shaken off something so clichéd but, like I say, it was a pattern I’d been sketching out for a long time. It felt like it was me: there was something beautiful there but you were going to get cut up pretty bad if you tried to touch it.
The right arm didn’t need quite so much attention; I’d never gotten the hang of shooting with my left hand and I never trusted anyone else to do it. There was just enough romance left in me to work up a design from the lyrics for “Rhiannon”. Something that’d remind me of the kid I was that first saw footage of Stevie Nicks twisting and spinning on stage, gossamer sleeves seeming to suspend her above the stage. She was the fiercest, prettiest thing I’d ever seen. But even then I could see the sadness and I think that was what stuck, that idea of facing it all down like the coolest fucking lady to walk the earth even though your heart’s broken up. “She rules her life like a bird in flight and who will be her lover?” There was enough romance for me to pencil it out but not enough for me to bear it permanently on my skin. I settled on “Never ever been a blue calm sea, I have always been a storm”. Tusk wasn’t my favorite album but I always liked that song and it said what I wanted to say I guess. It felt good to reconnect with the things I’d claimed as my own when I was younger, those early markers of identity that I’d near obliterated in a blizzard of powder through my 20s. Felt good to find common cause with Stevie again that wasn’t cocaine.
The guy that did my tattoos loved Dylan. I sat in that studio for hours listening to Bob wheeze his way through his abstract riddles whilst my mistakes were blotted out in reds and blacks. I didn’t get it. On some level I guess I admired the poetry but it didn’t speak to me, didn’t move me. I found him bloodless. Almost like if we’d swapped places and he’d been sitting in the chair the needle would jab him in the arm and there’d be nothing. Perhaps he’d drawl something sly and sardonic, rational and detached, launch into thirty verses of metaphor when all I really wanted him to do was tell me how he felt. Does it hurt, Bob? You don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows, he says back. Come on, let me in a little: does it hurt?
Me and Zac, the guy that did my arms, didn’t really talk much but towards the end I asked him why he only listened to Dylan. Called him on the whole emotional absence thing. He raised an eyebrow at ‘emotional absence’ and asked me just how much therapy I’d had. Those phrases stay with you, I said, and besides don’t change the subject. His response was to play me ‘Blood On The Tracks’. Said he barely listened to it these days, that it was too raw for him, and, besides, customers generally didn’t like mention of blood in the studio. I think that last part was his idea of a joke but neither of us laughed. We listened to it in silence, he even stopped using his gun, and just let the songs puncture my skin instead. So it does hurt, Bob. It’s ripping you apart, just like the rest of us.
When it was done I asked him to put “You’re a big girl now” on again and I let my thoughts wander back to a time when I knew someone. Really knew someone. Sure, we were just kids but you were the only one I ever let through my barbed wire, the only one brave enough or stupid enough to ride out my storm. That’s the trouble with storms though, isn’t it? They blow in and, just as quickly, they blow out again, leaving all that wreckage behind them. I hope you forgave me.
Bob was singing “with a pain that stops and starts … like a corkscrew to my heart… ever since we been apart” and I found that I was crying, tears falling over my outstretched arm, a blur of ink and blood smudging Stevie’s words. I have always been a storm.