Yesterday I stopped by Revolution Tattoo in Bucktown for an appointment with Omar, the owner. The shop is on Western Avenue in Chicago. I did a lot of research on shops in the city, googling artists and studios, asking friends for suggestions, and contacting the shops for consultations. Revolution was my pic for many reasons: the traditional tattoo designs on the leggy walls, the antler collection above the doorway, the large bat hanging from the ceiling. When I arrived Omar was just putting the finishing touches on a design he and I talked about two weeks prior, so yesterday was the day I got the outline for my chest piece.
The design has quite a lot of detail, so we did the outline in one day, and are doing the shading in a month, after Omar returns from two weeks in Europe, and I’ve forgotten how painful chest tattoos can be. While sitting in the chair yesterday I got to know Omar, listened to some stories about his shop and the time and effort it took him and his wife to build it. K came with me for support* and was great about helping the conversations along. She asked Omar about his wife’s role in Revolution’s genesis and he told us about her curatorial interests and the art space they have next door. She was responsible, largely, for the decor of the studio, which made sense to me. Another part of the reason I chose Revolution for my tattoo wasn’t just because of the impressive bone collection or because Omar is talented, seasoned, and trustworthy, but also because the shop feels homey. It has, as Omar said, “a woman’s touch.” Each artist has his own station, and I’m sure they’re filled with objects specific to that person. But there is a cohesive warmth to the space as a whole, the details make it not only comfortable and evocative, but authentic. Revolution is a classic tattoo shop, it feels small and broken-in and interesting. That’s the kind of local business I want to support, and it’s the kind of place I want my tattoo experience to find its home in.
Something that I didn’t expect is that Omar reminded me of my uncle Tony quite a lot.
It happened like this: I’m reclined in the black tattoo chair, Omar’s telling me a story about his beloved green 1971 Chevy truck** and out of the corner of my eye I catch this little smirk rustle his cheek, the twitch and shift of his full beard gives it away and that movement on that cheek reminds me of Tony. Until that moment I hadn’t noticed how Omar’s beard and hair are the same color as Tony’s before he went grey. Omar’s nose comes to the same rounded point as Tony’s but the similarity is most surprising in the eyes. They both have playful, sharp brown eyes. At first, I found myself avoiding his gaze at times because it felt like Tony was looking at me and that stirred up all kinds of ugly feelings. But as I laid there, because it wasn’t Tony leaning over me, something turned over in my gut. Sometimes clenching my fists in my pockets as Omar worked the gun’s way over my sternum, sometimes leaning into the many needle points because that felt better than to feel the ticklish vibration in my ribs, I thought about Tony and it was actually quite nice, thinking about Tony as a younger person, someone not related to me and without all that ugly baggage and I felt like maybe I was capable of healing Tony’s legacy by forgiving him in those little moments.
So I thought about healing for a little bit, how it can be healing in that moment to let Tony be free of his pain, and so then I could be free of the pain he caused me. I could just listen to Omar’s stories, and let Tony step in and out of that room, and I concentrated on the little belly breaths I took to keep the canvas still and felt calm and pleased and at peace about my relationship with Tony. And when Tony would lean back and out again, I thought about how my chest was healed after surgery, how my body was healed with my soul, how healing it can be to cut out things that don’t fit and aren’t representative of you. I wish Tony would have cut out alcohol, but he couldn’t. It was nice to imagine getting a tattoo from my cool uncle Tony. Maybe we were in his shop, or in his garage, and maybe we were talking about girls. Maybe we were talking about Led Zepplin. As the gun made the arch of a wing on my chest I knew what it was like to have that guy in my life. It was only for a few seconds here and there, and it was after he died, but Tony and I found our way to each other. Wings are funny that way, when you don’t know how to use them they take you to mysterious places you have never been.
I looked down and saw another little feather appear. I thought about wings and flight and how I cut out my breasts and how the scars helped me to get above myself. I thought about how those scars arch like wings. And I thought about that Leonard Cohen line in Anthem, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” I thought about how much light those scars have let in. And sometimes when I would look down while the gun was being dipped in ink I would see this black image drawing my eye away from my scars. Which is part of the point, but also I looked at my scars and thought about how this was their first time being really looked at in public, and by someone who wasn’t K or my doctor. I thought about how those scars lift me. So soon I found myself smiling easily in that chair, K sitting a few feet away and chatting with Chito, another artists in the shop.
Chito and I discovered we’re from the same home town and so for a while we talked about how the town has changed, talked about the roads that used to dead end and now they go over a new bridge and all the way out of town. There’s a pause in the chatter and he seems far away, but then he steps closer to me, away from his table and he squints at the design emerging on my chest. Almost inaudible over The Sword’s Barael’s Blade, Chito says something.
“Skulls,” he breaths wistfully, “You can’t go wrong with Skulls.”
Be nice to yourselves,
Your Pal Eli
*I have many tattoos, so I didn’t need anyone to hold my hand for that. But it was my first time being shirtless in public, essentially, so it was more of a “stick around until I can gauge whether this feels like a safe space for me.” I got a good feeling there right off the bat, but then she stuck around for the conversation and fun and ended up staying all 4 hours. What a champ is she!
**For many years when I was a kid, Tony parked that same model in our driveway in powder blue.