Untitled 3, by John Bartlett
The Artist is born in a summer storm, under thick colossal clouds gathering above the Pacific Ocean. The Artist has no mother, no father, no siblings to guide them, only the thin line of ink. The Artist follows the wind to Newcastle, north of Sydney. Tentacles tangled in hair. Swimming. Seaweed festering in the sunlight. Underwater. Singing with humpback whales migrating to Antarctica. The Artist wanders for days, sleepy, drunk on ink. The Artist rests only in their studio where they feel safe and accepted. The Artist’s body is made of metal and static. Sparks. Limbs move in impossible ways. Twisting fingers. Beneath the skin is heavy with ink. The Artist could have been a mathematician. A marine biologist. But the Artist carries a pencil and notebook, filling it with drawings of everything. The everyday. Collecting and tucking it all into a notebook, sometimes reproducing them on skin. The Artist tries to write poems. Stories. Jingles. But all are wanting. Sticky and impotent. And when the rain comes, the words go running, turning to pulp. Only the images have permanency.
THEIR LASTING STORY
We snatch the fluttering gift of now,
announce our prizes smugly,
and wistfully leave
our golden poetries in the sands,
their frailty of dandelion puffs.
Flinty empty words debated
will storm and ache around us
in the timeless air.
As stories circle hungrily,
with lies or truths evaporating
on our eager tongues.
Seized images that strike
stout belief or falter,
dissolving with fleeting whim.
they launch their vibrant story
on velvet-sinewed canvas,
all precious gifts exposed.
An eternal treasury revealed.
Head bowed with keen resolve
as images dry patient,
echoing tidal beats of time.
Waiting for the gaze
of Methuselah star on pictographs,
the kindly smile of Helios
on ageless hieroglyphs.
We leave this passing voyage
buoyant tales wearying to
yellowing brittle shreds.
Ashen pages gasp for water as
affairs turn flake to dust,
negatives brush pale
the sepia fading friends.
Our paintings’ vaulted tombs,
with eyes milky-blind
to what they own,
will close their marbled cataracts
on all the treasures we embraced.
A colourless empty chamber
salutes our final sun.
they depart fiercely with their
glorious opus emblazoning,
their bold narrative unflinching:
a painted garland borne
to the further world.
I’d never seen a man weep, let alone a man with tattoos. In those days, real men didn’t cry. Everyone said so. A weeper was weak. Like a … well, like a woman. Who was I to disagree?
Men with tattoos were tough. Everyone said that too. Tattoos spoke of Death Before Dishonour, of piracy with its skulls and crossbones and those who dared, won.
My old man’s forearms sported tattoos, but he was never a pirate. ‘I got them in the army,’ he told me. His left arm had a dagger stabbing a heart while the other had a rose surrounded by a ribbon with Mother written on it.
When I said they looked cool, he told me they were ‘mistakes.’
Until the moment I stumbled across the tattooed man, I’d never seen him before. My old man wore white business shirts, but this bloke had a blue singlet. My mother said only common men wore blue singlets. White was for decent people. All my old man’s singlets were white to match his business shirts. In turn, they covered those tattoos on his arms.
The blue-singletted man’s tattoos were scary as they wandered over his shoulders and down his back. They were nothing like my old man’s. What my mother would have said of them–and him–would not have been flattering.
The bloke’s tattoos declared his toughness to the world in a don’t-fuck-with-me way even before I knew what don’t-fuck-with-me meant.
I’d never seen that many tattoos on one man in all my life. But it wasn’t those marks that scared me. It was his sobbing. He rested his head on his arms while his body wracked in agony. He cried like my little brother did when he tried to weep and breathe at the same time.
Till then I thought tough blokes took pain and suffering on the chin or in their stride. My old man was tough because he never cried, even at funerals. His job was to comfort my mother. Maybe that’s why I had an urge to reach out and touch the tattooed man. ‘What’s the matter?’ I wanted to ask.
Maybe I could help. But, if I touched his shoulder, what would I be touching? The toughness of old leather or human flesh? How did those tattoos feel?
However, if I didn’t try to help, would I disappoint my parents by turning my back on a creature in pain? Common or not, tattooed or not. When I fell off my bike and skinned my knees, they never failed to embrace me and tell me, ‘Everything will be all right.’
I reached out my hand and instead of old leather and toughness I felt the warmth of his soft skin.
He flinched as though I’d ripped his heart from his chest and looked up, as if searching for one gone missing. ‘Mama!’ was all he said.
This wasn’t his first gig, he knew the routine
He’d organised beforehand exactly what he needed.
An early night and a healthy breakfast.
Shirt off, he straddled the chair, lowered his head, sighed
While his nostrils flared at the familiar smells.
Bleach, disinfectant, soothing creams, sanitised benches.
Silently he scolded himself; the headphones he’d forgotten
To minimise the buzzing of the handheld tatt machine.
Lots of swearing, shop talk too, explicit music lyrics.
Tattoo artist preps his skin, confirms the tattoo’s placement
Equipment on, she starts the tracing of the stencil transfer.
The pigment is inserted and she gently wipes the blood.
He talks twitchily above the din, to distract himself
As the pain kicks in he utters a cry, one that is ignored.
Bile, it rises in his throat and burns as he swallows hard.
He braces himself for the body art’s shading, colouring
The process intense but nearing the finish.
Equipment switched off, she offers him a mirror.
Cream applied liberally, dressing and plastic wrap in place
She walks him through the aftercare instruction sheet.
He knows the drill, a minimum of two or three weeks to heal.
He stands upright, tentatively at first
The new tatt area sensitive, raw and stiff.
Shrugs on his shirt and buttons it up.
He thanks the artist, acknowledges his respect for her talent
Pays the cashier, says farewell, a stiff drink his next step.
Commits to coming back, at a later date, for more.
UNDER THE SKIN
The fine tipped needle pierces the skin as the sound of the tattoo gun resonates in the background. The studio was clinical and sterile; everything kept to the highest health and safety standards. This was not my first rodeo; I’d done this many times before. The ink that formed the canvas on my body conveyed the many stories of my life. I was a living tapestry, each image tied inextricably to the last. At every significant juncture in my life, I’d return to add another chapter; a constant reminder of a life well lived. Like a novel, some chapters are uplifting and hopeful, recalling happy times and wonderful milestones. Others however were harrowing, and it is one of these chapters that I add today.
I lay there, head cradled in my arms and exposed on the cold black chair; the smell of the sterilising solution wafted up my nose as I felt the repetitive scraping and scratching on my back. It was quite the process for those that are unfamiliar with it; back and forth the artist motioned with the tattoo gun. The outline was the worst; lines needing to be retraced to ensure depth and clarity of the design. I tried hard not to fidget as the artist went to work; we’d spent weeks on the design, and it had to be perfect. I would accept nothing less; the moment requiring the utmost precision and care. The death of a loved one had brought me here; the needle repeatedly entering my skin a stark reminder of the pain that I felt at the immeasurable and overwhelming loss.
The process of tattooing, permanently etching an image into the layers of skin for me was cathartic; a form of expression that I undertook for nobody else but me. The artist continues working, as I was lost in my thoughts and ruminations. I was still processing the grief; it was raw and unfettered. How do you quantify the loss of a person who helped shape you in every way imaginable? The pain would never abate; grief causes wounds that may visibly heal, but on the inside the scars still remained. He had been a constant presence in my life, instilling in me a number of the values and ideas that went to the core of my being. I wasn’t great at verbalising my emotions, and as always there is much that is left unsaid. But I would never forget him, and this was my way of immortalising him, not only in my thoughts, but on my canvas.
The artist changes needles: the shading of the monochrome image begins. They fill in the spaces, adding tone and substance. Much like the intricate details I recall about him and his personality, it’s the innocuous things that leave indelible marks: all the shades of light and dark. Quirks and idiosyncrasies that I came to love, now but distant memories to which I will eternally cling to.
He remains with me, always and forever.
As she watched dreadlock after dreadlock tumble to the floor, Fern knew she was being reactionary. He can’t be gone. ‘No, no, no!’ she wept as she snipped off each length of matted and sun-bleached hair. It was less than a week ago that that she’d seen him in the nursing home.
Fern had become used to Pa forgetting her name. He began to call her by her mother’s name, or that of one of her aunts. When he began to look at her blankly, Fern realised just how advanced her grandfather’s dementia was. It hurt. He had always been there for her.
More often than not it had been Pa who picked her up from primary school. Fern could barely remember her grandmother, but it was her passing that ushered in Fern’s sighting of Pa at her classroom door most afternoons. On the drive home, her grandfather learnt that Fern hated sport almost as much as she loathed the kids who ruled the playground. He learnt that his granddaughter loved all art activities, and his fridge door and kitchen became Fern’s gallery. Fern learnt about her grandfather’s penchant for butterscotch lollies and storytelling. Pa had an unlimited reservoir of tales from his childhood, of rabbit shooting, motorbikes, and fishing. Fern’s mother would usually be busy in the salon, cutting hair, when they arrived home. Pa would fix them a snack: milky tea for her and black for him to wash down their bread and jam.
It was Pa who saw her first tattoo before anyone else did. ‘Holy moley, girl,’ he’d said after she heard that whizzing sound he made through pursed lips whenever something took his breath away. And though he didn’t really approve of her body art, he still went in to bat for her. ‘Well, the girl’s an adult now,’ she overheard him say to her mother while Fern was in the bathroom tending to her freshly inked skin. Fern smiled – she and Pa were both applying ointment in their own way.
When the decision was made to move Pa into care, Fern watched from the sidelines as her mother and other relatives packed up his home. She observed impassively until Fern saw an aunt’s hands on the squat and lumpy pottery mug that she had made for Pa in Year 9. She leapt to her feet and snatched the mug from her aunt before it could be tossed onto the op shop pile. On her first visit to the nursing home, Fern placed the mug on Pa’s bedside locker. He smiled and ran his fingers over the surface of the mug, over the words scratched in with a toothpick: ‘Pa,’ encircled in a love heart, underlined with ‘Fern, 2011’.
In the empty salon, Fern ran the clippers over her head. She was ready. Later that day, when the other mourners threw flowers into Pa’s grave as his coffin was lowered, Fern tossed in her bouquet of dreadlocks, bound up in a bright orange bow.
He had spent ten years addicted to drugs. He soon learnt that there are no real friends in the drug world and that no one in that world cares about you. He finally realised that they were only interested in themselves and were only too willing to ‘rat’ each other out if it improved their position.
He reflects how fortunate he is to have emerged from his long years of drug addiction still alive. He had been close to death several times. He remembers the night he was cooking methamphetamine with some so-called ‘friends’ where he nearly paid the ultimate price for his habit. Some in the methamphetamine group became convinced he was an undercover cop or an informant and in their paranoia bashed him and threatened to have him cut into small pieces.
On another occasion where he had unwittingly sold bogus ice to a ‘friend’ he had to find $10,000 to save his hide. It was his girlfriend at the time who paid the money by taking out a personal loan. She was a wonderful person and he loved her. When her parents learnt about the loan they forced her to dissolve the relationship.
He had been devastated at the break-up. He knew that he wasn’t a bad person. He always cared about others, never been a thief and never contemplated hurting anybody.
With the relationship breakdown he knew that he was on the way to losing everything and everyone who ever cared for him. He had to somehow get out of the world he was in away from the bad people surrounding him in the dark world he inhabited.
He had tried before to break the cycle of his addiction by moving towns and managed to stay clean for a short time before succumbing again to his habit. Weary from fear and loathing and thinking a life without drugs was not possible he had tried to end his life.
His parents were always there for him. With their support he went ‘cold turkey’. His mother bought him a dog.
He began taking daily walks with Roscoe his new canine friend, then riding his bicycle combined with attending the local gym. It was tough going but he persevered through the pain. His new best friend helped him focus and maintain a solid sense of purpose, grit and determination to get clean.
As days morphed into weeks and weeks into months he returned to guitar playing and song writing, and began a course in drug and alcohol counselling. As recovery beckoned he began to like himself once more.
He considers his parents’ support, Roscoe’s friendship, effective mediation and his strong desire to get better and help others, as the key ingredients for his success to a drug free life.
Upon reflection; life is good now. I have a loving relationship with a new partner and a daughter and a satisfying job as a counsellor helping others free themselves from addiction.
Yes, I am lucky.
L’APPEL DU VIDE
The more agile fly past me. I want to scream:
Slow down. It’s not a race, it’s a journey.
But I don’t have the oxygen to spare.
One step, another, another ….and another. One foot in front of the other. Walking pole accompanying my every step.
Keep going, going, just keep going.
Up, up, up.
Twenty steps for my husband. Twenty for each of my sons. My mother, father, brothers, sister, cousins, close friends. Even our dogs. All the people and animals in the world who love me. Encouraging me in absentia.
I’m making progress. Slow. Steady. Until I stumble. Tears flow freely down my face. I’m being pushed to my physical and emotional edge.
Back through my list again, over, and over again.
Wind buffets my exhausted body. I brush past the occasional low, stunted tree. Run my hands over rocks smooth to the touch. Tussocks, tufts, hummocks of grass.
Mario, our stocky Peruvian guide, and the other hikers vanish into the swirling clouds high above me. I’ve never felt more alone. Not a person or animal in sight. Just the sound of the wind, the flapping of my plastic poncho in the mist, the trudge of my boots.
I’m inexplicitly drawn to the precipice on my right, like iron filings drawn to a magnet. It takes all my mental strength to resist l’appel du vide, the call of the void. I cling to the cliff face and edge my way along the narrow rocky path, one hand gripping the protruding boulders on my left.
Mario’s warning rings in my ears:
The donkeys will only take you back out on day one.
It is now day two of the hike into Machu Picchu. There’s no turning back. Through my list of love again and again.
I silently call my father’s name. I feel the firm pressure of his hand in the small of my back, willing me on, pushing me further up into the Andean mountains.
I bring my mother to mind. Feel weak and tearful. Unresolved issues of her passing. Not coping with my grief.
Halfway up the side of the mountain. I’m still well behind the others. Mario doubles back down the path.
How are you going?
Just fine, I lie.
When I reach the top of Dead Woman’s Pass, the others clap wildly and hug me. Spent of emotion and strength, I sit quietly and gaze back down the valley.
A realization washes over me. I haven’t been alone on my climb. The power of love has kept me safe from the void and willed me up the mountain.
The remainder of the four-day trek on the plateau high in the Andes is relatively easy.
The promise of Machu Picchu awaits us at daybreak on the last morning. A final climb and then, as if by magic, a veil of cloud lifts. The wonder of the Incan citadel is revealed, sprawling out below us.
I savour the elation of conquering adversity.
INK OF MY SOUL: THE STORYTELLING TATTOOS
In ink, I etch my soul’s desires,
A symbol of my heart’s great fires,
A picture of my innermost dreams,
A mark of all life’s twists and seams.
My tattoos tell a story true,
Of all that I have been through,
The struggles, triumphs, joys, and pain,
Etched forever in my skin’s domain.
With every needle’s careful touch,
I paint a picture of my soul’s clutch,
A reminder of what I hold dear,
A symbol of my courage and my fear.
Each symbol holds a meaning great,
A reflection of my soul’s true state,
From ancient runes to modern art,
My tattoos paint a portrait of my heart.
The ink flows through my veins like fire,
A symbol of my heart’s deep desire,
A testament to my strength and will,
My tattoos show the world my truest thrill.
So let the world judge as they will,
For in my tattoos, I find my fill,
Of life’s most precious and profound,
A symbol of all that I have found.
For in this ink, I find my voice,
A powerful symbol of my choice,
To live life boldly and with grace,
A reminder of the beauty of this place.
So let my tattoos speak their truth,
For in them lies the soul of youth,
A reminder of the power of art,
And the strength that lies within my heart.
The returning jury filed into the courtroom.
‘Have you reached a verdict?’ the judge asked in a deep, bass tone.
‘We have, Your Honour,’ the foreman of the jury replied. ‘We find the defendant guilty.’
Toby bowed his shaved head as the sentence was delivered. He crossed his tattooed forearms and covered his face hiding … Despair? Fear? Guilt?
A reporter from the Geelong Advertiser snapped off a photo.
When my brother Jack first told me of his and Cathy’s decision to become foster parents, I queried their decision.
‘Are you sure? Aren’t you worried about the effect a foster kid might have on your own kids?
‘Most of these children are not beyond help. They come from broken homes and have nowhere else to go. We can offer them stability, a second chance.’
When Cathy and I met for coffee, she told me about the boy they were about to foster.
‘My heart went out to Toby when I heard his story. His mother has two other children, an older boy and girl. Apparently she could love them, but not Toby. She suffered post-natal depression after he was born and never bonded with him. The situation worsened when her husband walked out on her. Shortly after starting school, he was diagnosed with ADHD. The pressure became too much for her and she phoned social services to come and collect him. They arrived to find this poor little boy sitting on the doorstep with a suitcase. The door behind him was locked. He has been in and out of foster homes and youth training centres ever since.’
Toby was a dark-haired boy of seventeen who was into Guns ‘N’ Roses. He flourished during his year with my brother and his family. He was helpful around the house, affectionate towards Cathy and the kids, and bonded with Jack over fishing and their love of the Cats football team.
He always enjoyed visiting our house. My teenage daughters treated him like a brother but he drove them mad by constantly jiggling his legs and nudging them.
‘Cut it out, Toby!’ they would squeal. He would try really hard to sit still, but before long he would start fidgeting again.
As he approached his birthday, Toby became desperate to please in the hope that he would be allowed to stay on, but unfortunately the foster system ends when a child reaches eighteen.
Jack and Cathy found him a labouring job and set him up in a one-bedroom flat in a nearby street. Both families invited him over for dinner once a week. He used any excuse to put off returning to his flat and grew sadder as time passed.
The police knocked on Jack’s front door. Toby had stolen a car. He had struck and killed a pedestrian and fled the scene while speeding. He was found, wet and shivering in Jack’s tool shed.
All he had ever wanted was to be part of a real family.