While sketching on the subway – a sure way to draw unwanted attention to yourself, particularly when you're sketching a series of giant, dripping penises of all shapes and sizes, as practice studies for defacing cosmetics advertisements – I was asked if I "tattoo." The gentleman asking the question had just finished annoying the person to his left, and now, as I was seated to his right, it was my turn.
"Do you tattoo," he repeated, gesturing to my sketch – a large, black, uncircumcised number rendered in flawless 2-point perspective. He was exactly the kind of New Yorker people imagine, when their only sense of New York City is informed by cartoons and cinematic romantic comedies. Squat, wide and pudgy, like he'd been mashed on the top of his head by God. A big, rubbery round face, with eyes sloping off the sides, and a great, wet mouth decorated by a small group of well-spaced teeth. His head was shaved, which I would have guessed even if he hadn't removed the knit wool cap that was screwed down all the way to his eyebrow line. This was the kind of man you'd see cast as a blue collar extra in a superhero film, hanging off a steel girder on a construction site, and shouting, "T'anks a bunch, Spider-Man!"
I explained to Squishy (I never did get his name) that, no, I do not tattoo. He seemed taken aback, and leaned back on his bench seat and folded his arms, which were so truncated they barely met across his great middle. I put my head down to continue sketching, trying to get the ejaculate just so, and Squishy put his face close to mine.
"You should tattoo, you know? You could do them flash cards. You know, like the ones they got hanging up there?" He held his hands in a position that suggested a cinematographer framing some action. I knew what he meant, and told him so.
"Could be good money in it for you," he continued. "Maybe five hundred, thousand bucks a week. Stuff like that." I assured him that sounded excellent and went back to struggling over the shading on an uncircumcised Spanish member. I was not in the mood to talk, which is sort of unusual for me, particularly when the person I'm talking to is a little bit narcoticized or deranged.
A few seconds passed, then: "here. Look." Squishy removed his heavy winter coat and pulled up a shirt sleeve. His right arm was decorated with the worst tattoos I'd ever seen. A friend once told me her father, a reformed alcoholic, often gave himself tattoos during alcohol blackouts and, among his many horrible inking mistakes, he had a scraggly, wobbly handwriting tattoo beneath each nipple – one that spelled out "MILK" and the other, "BEER." Those were the worst tattoos I'd never seen, but Pudgy's were by far the worst I'd ever seen.
It wasn't just the execution; it was the volume of designs. It was as if, in numerous fits of loneliness, Squishy just wandered from Manhattan tattoo parlor to tattoo parlor, requesting flash art from the walls in a completely arbitrary fashion, with no attention to subject matter or visual cohesiveness. He just wanted to kill time and fill his arm up until there was no more free skin left. A samurai stood poised over a kick-line of Smurfs. An anime princess bled into a green-ink drawing of The Philadelphia Philly. The words, "THESE COLORS DON'T RUN," sat in the crook of a rainbow. It reminded me of when Cracker Jacks used to contain legitimate prizes inside – instead of the less exciting tabs of Prilosec, Jr. contain within boxes these days – and, if you were the luckiest person in the world, you could get temporary tattoos. (If you were terribly unlucky, you would get one of those kaleidoscope viewers, or tetanus.) Unable to control myself, as I was only a child, I would often place all of the tattoos on me at once. That impulse is supposed to disappear in middle age, isn't it?
After Squishy gave me the full arm tour, he moved on to his leg, wishing to show me a remarkable example of a technique he called "puttin' two colors next to each other and makin' it smoov'." On his leg, practically overlapping with a winding path leading from a poorly shaded black ink Brothers Grimm castle, was the head of a unicorn. The unicorn was pink and yellow, with some white ink, and it was perfectly precious. Beneath the unicorn, in a parchment banner, were these words: "I WILL SURVIVE." I saw them from my subway seat, but asked Squishy to read them to me, hoping that in reciting the words aloud he would realize – without being told – that he had accidentally gotten a tattoo for girls.