Regretstacy: Pain and Pigments

 

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As I walk in through the front door of the tattoo parlour, my pulse immediately quickens at the sound of the needle. It’s an unmistakable sound, angry and buzzing like a supercharged swarm of wasps. It is the primary tool of the tattoo artist. A wickedly sharp needle connected to an electric motor, it enables the tattooist to create works of surprising intricacy, but is also the main method of dispensing pain. Pain and tattoos are inextricably linked, and it is not possible to have one without the other. It’s simply a part of the process. As I walk further into the studio, I wonder if the pain becomes alluring to some, an agony-induced rush that cannot be replicated by any other means. A ragged groan sounds, rising above the buzzing of the needle. It is not the sound of someone enjoying themselves. Everyone is different, I suppose.

The parlour is clean, tidy, and mostly empty today. The tang of antiseptic fills the air. Appearances mean a lot in this business. No longer are tattoo parlours the hangout of bikie gangs, criminals or other undesirables. Artwork of surprising beauty line the walls; a delicate Japanese print of a samurai, a surreal traditional painting of a flower-laden skull, exploding with vivid colour. Professionalism and legitimacy are important parts of the image of the modern tattooing industry, and this studio has clearly aimed to be in line with such an image. It is not a trendy studio within the inner suburbs, where artists are in high demand and often booked out six months in advance. Located in the outer east along a busy main road, walk-in traffic and word of mouth are vital for a place such as this. The studio must be inviting, friendly, and, most importantly, the work must be good.

James and Michael are the two artists working today. Both are heavily tattooed, which is comforting in a way – they have felt the pain and live with the permanence that is the nature of tattoos. James, in his early-twenties, is excitable and talkative. Having just completed an apprenticeship, he approaches every job with enthusiasm, and has a habit of talking constantly to clients even if they aren’t talking back. Perhaps some find the constant chatter soothing, a way to distract themselves from what is happening to them. James’ father was also a tattooist, ink ingrained in his family not only on skin, but in tradition. He is hunched over the ribcage of a middle-aged man, halfway through a detailed piece that envelops most of his right side. This is where the earlier groan came from, and I can understand why. Bony and extremely sensitive, the ribcage is a notoriously painful place to get a tattoo. Michael, slightly older and more reserved, sits behind the counter. He doesn’t tend to talk to clients, preferring instead to focus upon his work. Not much of a talker myself, I appreciate his approach. He looks up as I near the counter.

‘You’re a bit early, mate. Haven’t finished copying your design yet,’ he says.

Coming in early isn’t always appreciated, I have noticed. It’s almost as if the process of his preparation is ritualistic and private, not intended to be seen by others. This tattoo parlour may be one of the few places on earth where the advice ‘Be five minutes early’ does not hold.

‘Yeah, sorry about that. Just thought I’d come in a little early this time,’ I say.

Michael eyes me suspiciously. Perhaps my arrival during his preparation makes him feel rushed, robbed of being able to complete his routine to schedule. Another explanation could be the inability to fathom just why someone would want to be early to an appointment that mostly involved having pain inflicted upon you. Whatever the reason, I get the distinct feeling that I should leave him alone. I walk over to the tattooing tables, where James continues to work. Essentially massage tables, most work will involve lying down on them at some point. Despite being padded, they are never comfortable. James continues to talk at his client, who lies red-faced and silent, hands clenched into tight balls at his side.

‘G’day Luke,’ James says, looking up from his work. ‘You’re in today, yeah?’

‘Yeah, Michael is doing it,’ I say.

‘Nice, nice,’ he says, nodding. ‘Thought I was doing you for a second. Was going to have to tell you to come back tomorrow – this one will take a while.’

James has a habit of being somewhat flaky with his appointment times, as I have discovered in the past, but he doesn’t mind people arriving early. Everything is open and accessible with him, in contrast to the more guarded nature of Michael. I look down at the silent man on the table. He doesn’t look like the sort of man who would be getting tattoos, but that definition is becoming increasingly vague these days. I know he probably doesn’t want to talk, but I decide to risk a conversation.

‘Looks good,’ I say. ‘How does it feel?’

He looks up at me. Drops of sweat fall from his face and onto the table. His skin, flushed red earlier, has now begun to pale as the ordeal of the process takes its toll. His eyes lock onto mine. I get the feeling that I have asked a profoundly stupid question.

‘How do you think it feels?’ he spits. ’It bloody hurts.’

I nod. There really isn’t much else to say, and he obviously isn’t in a chatting mood. It occurs to me that tattooing, despite usually being derided as a realm beset by regret and poor decisions, does have advice to impart: sometimes, you have no choice but to grit your teeth, endure, and hope that it in the end, it will all be worth it. Both in life, and in ink.

That the man doesn’t seem a likely candidate for a tattoo isn’t altogether surprising. Tattoos have become increasingly accepted amongst mainstream society, and have subsequently seen an explosion in popularity. 19% of all Australians, or one in five, have a tattoo. Whilst traditionally seen as meant solely for the young and rebellious, over a third now get their first tattoo at twenty-six or older, with 20% of people waiting until their mid-thirties to go under the needle. Although some will never be accepting of the practice – my mother being one such person – it seems that the long-held image of the ‘typical’ type of person to have tattoos doesn’t exist. Now, it seems, it is all of us.

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In many ways, this surge in popularity has seen tattooing move away from its roots. Its popularity amongst women has soared, with women now more likely to have a tattoo than men, almost one in four. Linked traditionally to masculinity, modern tattoos have now become a common feature amongst both genders, shifting dramatically away from its male-dominated historical basis of naval tattoos and bikers. However, it has not completely abandoned its past. As with most forms of art, artists often look to the past for inspiration and influence. The current popularity of traditional tattoo design, which stems from the naval tattoos of the early 20th century, is a result of this. The resurgence of this style, with its bold outlines and intense colouring, has replaced the more familiar tattoo designs of inspirational phrases and tribal symbols, with over half of all tattoos now being a picture, or drawing. Tattoos have certainly come a long way, both in artform and acceptance. However, some contradictions remain. Whilst it is true that more people than ever are likely to have more than one tattoo, about 26% of people answer in the positive when asked if they have ever regretted getting a tattoo. This paradox lies at the very heart of tattoo culture – why, after all, would someone continue to get tattoos, when you end up regretting them? Despite the advancements made, it seems some clichés about tattoos may hold true after all, which raises an altogether unsettling proposition: perhaps my mother was right, and I will eventually come to regret my tattoos. I hate it when parents are right.

‘Ok, I’m ready to start,’ Michael says, beckoning me over with a wave.

I walk over and sit down. Little thimbles of ink are lined up on the bench, each held in place with a smear of Vaseline. Fire red, emerald green, golden yellow – these colours will soon be punctured into the skin of my arm, where they will stay to be faded only by time and sunlight. Michael tests the tattoo gun which responds with a piercing buzz. Already I can feel sweat forming on my hands. My pulse speeds up. The anticipation is almost like a drug. People with tattoos do say that it is hard to stop at just one, and perhaps this is the reason why.  It is this thrill that they chase – the pounding pulse, the sweating hands, a way to feel alive. Michael dips the tattoo gun into a thimble of black ink. The outline is always done first, with shading and colouring done later.

‘Good to go?’ he asks, tattoo gun held in air.

‘I’m ready’ I say.

I never really know if I am, but I always lie. It’s usually good enough. The needle touches the skin of my arm. Biting and sharp, it is akin to a few small cuts at first, an annoyance more than anything. It eventually grows over time to feel like shards of molten glass tearing at your skin. I am not anticipating a good session. The inside of the bicep is another notorious location for a tattoo, eliciting grimaces from those I asked about it. So far it isn’t too bad, but I know that time is the enemy. It will only get worse.

As Michael works, I think of my mother. Every tattoo I get would invariably bring forth similar statements. ‘I hope you still like those when you’re seventy’ she would say, shaking her head.  She would then repeatedly point out that they would be there forever, as though that fact had somehow escaped me. As the needle worked its way across my skin, it occurred to me that ‘forever’ is a term without much meaning to those in the present, which is most of us. It is simply too vast and shapeless to have any opinion on. Besides, when I’m seventy years old, will I really care what I look like? As Michael pauses to swab blood and ink off my arm, I realise that tattoos are a peculiar mix of both impermanence and perpetuity. The tattoos we get now represent ourselves at that moment, but people are not static. They change, grow, and evolve over time. Tattoos mark these representations permanently onto us, where they remain unaffected by the ever-changing person who inhabits the interior of the skin. They will all come to serve as constant reminders of a present long-gone, for better or worse. If the only thing I regret in the future is a few tattoos, then I think I will have made it out from life well, all things considered.

As the pain grows, Michael pauses to refill a container of ink. I look at the tattoo that is beginning to take shape on my arm. The black ink stands up prominently, forming ridges across my skin. My arm is already beginning to swell. The skin of my arm has turned an angry shade of red, indignant that I would be allowing this to happen to it. I take a deep breath, and await the return of the needle. I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else.

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Old shirts and introverts

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I found an old shirt in my closet the other day. It was my high school uniform shirt, yellowed with age and crumpled in a box. I spent a lot time in shirts like this as a teenager, and it feels odd to look at it now, a relic from a strange, insular world now long gone. One of the traditions of the final day of school is to sign the shirts of other people, leaving little messages on the fabric. As I recall, some people barely had enough space on their shirt to fit all these messages. I was not one of these people. I was never particularly popular, and no one was clamouring for the real estate. I was just a quiet guy that no one really knew anything about. One of the few messages on my shirt reads ‘Hi Luke, u didn’t say much but ur great’. Well, at least they got my name right, I suppose. One of the things that stand out about the few messages that I did get however, is a recurring reference to a particular band. One message reads ‘Have a Green Day!’, written by some guy who I never spoke to. Another message reads ‘Billie Joe is a hillbilly, get a cooler idol’, left by one of the guys who always seemed to be into much cooler music than I was. Yet another oddly specific message informs me that ‘Green Day have little talent but sound cool’. Seems a little contradictory to me, but whatever. From these messages, it seems that one thing was known about me – that I really liked Green Day. Despite being quiet and shy, that fact had still managed to become known.

Thinking back, I suppose I did have a habit of playing their music frequently in the common room. Oh, and I did dye my hair blue that one time, after I saw that Billie Joe had once done the same, although the end result looked like I’d had an accident with blue toilet cleaner. I also shamelessly aped his fashion sense, usually failing to pull it off. With all that in mind, I suppose it makes sense that I was known for my slight obsession with them. But, what strikes me now is how strongly I identified with them, and how they gave me an image that I felt I could embrace during those unsure teenage years. It comforted me, I suppose. Only now as I look at an old, yellowing shirt do I realise just how much their music helped me through that time. I suppose I could also mention the symbolism of reminiscing over an aged high school shirt when I myself am growing older, but I think I’ll leave that alone.

Let’s start again. This post was meant to be about something else entirely, and I’ve gotten a little side-tracked. I also should really clean out my closet. Anyway, what I originally planned to talk about was Insomniac, Green Day’s 1995 follow-up to Dookie. It’s an album that doesn’t seem to get much attention, even from the band themselves, who only tended to include the songs Geek Stink Breath and Brain Stew/Jaded on their setlists. I’ve written on here before about my love of the album Dookie. Whilst it is true that I still love the album, I feel that I should probably make a confession – it isn’t my favourite Green Day record, nor was it the first album of theirs that I listened to for any length of time. Nope, that album would be Insomniac.

It’s easy to dismiss Insomniac as the edgier, lamer and less-successful version of Dookie. It isn’t as accessible. It’s harsher, darker and more abrasive. It didn’t sell as well. In some ways, it follows the tradition of the ‘after the success’ album, much like Nirvana’s In Utero. But, although Insomniac may not break any new ground, it is a ferocious, visceral album that blasts relentlessly forward, speeding through its songs in just under 33 minutes. I always found this album to be recklessly joyful in its approach, which is slightly odd, considering the darkness of the lyrics. The opening song Armatage Shanks is an example of this, Billie Joe’s painfully detailed and perversely proud self-assessment being something I have always found uncomfortably easy to relate to. Overall, the album retains all the melodies and hooks that Green Day are so adept at, and displays some of Mike Dirnt’s best playing, his bass parts being a highlight of the album, especially in songs like Stuck With Me and Stuart and the Avenue. The album simply doesn’t let up, and I always find myself going back to it.

I was going to go further into detail, but I think I’ll save that for another post. I’ve also been listening to Smash a lot lately, so I might write something about that, too. It’s another one of those albums that I often return to. It’s funny how particular albums can become tied to memory, and provide access to certain points in time. We all have our soundtracks, and they do say that the best memories are set to music. At least I think they say that, anyway.

NOFX: 60% or so is just fine

Another article for previously mentioned project. Also feel like I could have done better with this, but I had to write it pretty quickly. 

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NOFX would tell you that they’re over forty, and doing just fine. Soon they’ll be over fifty. It’s been a long journey for the fiercely independent band, that first formed back in 1983. Formed by Mike Burkett (hereafter known as Fat Mike) and Eric Melvin in Los Angeles, the band began by playing tiny shows and embarking on ramshackle tours, usually playing to crowds of five or less, or quite often no one at all. The band initially possessed an abrasive hardcore sound, eschewing proficiency on their instruments in favour of fast tempos and walls of noise. This period saw the release of numerous demos and EP’s of varying quality, including So What If We’re On Mystic! In 1986, and The P.M.R.C Can Suck On This in 1987. These were limited releases, and are therefore quite rare now. After recording Liberal Animation in 1988 with Brett Gurewitz of Bad Religion, the band’s next few releases would be on Gurewitz’s Epitaph label.

After undergoing a series of lineup changes, the band stabilised in 1991 with the addition of El Hefe on guitar, and various other instruments. The release of White Trash, Two Heebs and a Bean saw the band begin to diversify their sound, incorporating elements of jazz, ska and skate punk. A lot of this can be contributed to the addition of Hefe, who as a Berklee College of Music graduate, could play a variety of instruments and possessed a knowledge of music theory that influenced the band to diversify their sound and improve the quality of their releases. However, the band retained their breakneck tempos and trademark sense of humour. In 1994, punk rock entered the mainstream with the success of Green Day and The Offspring, and NOFX subsequently had a commercial breakthrough with the release of their fifth album Punk in Drublic. A classic punk rock album, it came along at the perfect time for the band, who were now finding themselves the target of interest from major record labels. They responded to this interest in their typical way – wry humour and sarcasm. They made a clip for MTV, but then refused to release it to them. Fat Mike was later quoted as saying “We made the ‘Leave It Alone’ video, and we decided not to send it to MTV. We just didn’t want to be a part of that machine, of that ‘punk wave”. The band declined all offers, making these rejections explicit in the liner notes to the live album I Heard They Suck Live!!, stating “We’ve been doing fine all these years without you so leave us alone!”. The 90’s were rounded out with Heavy Petting Zoo, So Long And Thanks For All The Shoes and Pump Up The Valium. This period also saw the release of The Decline, a single track EP that holds the distinction of being the second longest punk song ever recorded, coming in at just over 18 minutes in length.

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The following years saw the band lean towards socially aware music, releasing The War on Errorism in 2003. The album was filled with commentary on Bush-era society, and singer Fat Mike took this a step further by organising the Rock Against Bush tour, aimed at encouraging young people to vote, and as a collective criticism of the Bush administration. The overt political commentary faded over the ensuing years however.

As one of the most successful independent acts of all time, NOFX has been instrumental in popularising and encouraging the spread of punk rock, all the while steadfastly maintaining an endearingly irreverent attitude towards themselves, their music, and their fans. Their witty, intelligent lyrics and instantly recognizable song writing (none of their songs have choruses!) have made them a hugely influential band of the genre, and have managed to do so whilst fiercely protecting their independence. Whatever they may do in the future, there is no doubt that it will be on their own terms. And most likely not done very seriously.

Ties and Hair Dye: Growing Up with Green Day

An article I wrote for a magazine project. I should rewrite this actually – I feel like I can do much better, and writing about my all-time favourite band is always fun.

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I was thirteen years old, and without taste. In music, that is. My preferences were mostly the leftovers of my parent’s music collection, dusty LP’s sitting beside a record player that hardly ever saw use, except as a convenient spot to place a plant. I knew music existed, but I didn’t quite understand it. When people would ask me what bands I was into, I would be forced into an awkward silence, before reciting some names that I saw amongst the record collection at home. These were not popular choices. It just all seemed strange to me; I would hear kids talking about Nirvana, and would nod along with conversations without fully understanding what they were. As far as I could gather, they enjoyed teen spirit. Were they just really into team sports? One afternoon after school, an excited friend played me Nevermind. I secretly thought it sounded like the noise a bunch of malfunctioning power tools would make – abrasive and depressing. I mean, I was thirteen, so I was confused and depressed enough already. If that’s what music was, I would keep a healthy distance from it, and resign myself to the fact that it would forever be a world that I could never be a part of. But, everything changed when I heard the opening drum rolls of Green Day’s Dookie.

I knew straight away. This was the band for me. Brimming with energy, with tight and punchy songs topped off by a snarky self-effacing sense of humour, the Californian trio’s third album resonated with me in a way that no music had before. I borrowed a copy of the album from a friend, and listened to it non-stop. The lyrics spoke of boredom and apathy. About confusion and disconnection, of anxiety and alienation. This was music that I could understand, that blasted out of my speakers and reminded me with a snotty voice that perhaps I did have a place after all. A few other things also became clear. I was now into punk rock, and I needed a guitar.

Evidently, I was not alone in this reaction. The album was huge. Having formed in 1986 by Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt, and originally known as Sweet Children, the band had been honing their skills through relentless touring and recording. After a name change to Green Day, an oblique reference to the band member’s affection for marijuana, original drummer Al Sobrante left to pursue a college degree, and was replaced by Tre Cool in 1991. They put out a number of EP’s and LP’s on Lookout! Records, the major releases being the compilation 1039 Smoothed Out Slappy Hours and 1992’s Kerplunk, which brought them to the attention of major labels. After singing to Reprise Records, and teaming up with producer Rob Cavallo, Dookie was the result. It was a sensation, eventually selling over 20 million copies and spawning the hits Long View, Basket Case, and When I Come Around. It blew punk rock onto mainstream radio, and along with bands such as The Offspring and Rancid, had a heavy influence on the path of alternative music during the 1990’s. The album was undoubtedly difficult to follow, and whilst the following albums Insomniac (1995) Nimrod (1997) and Warning (2000) were solid musically, commercially they did not match their earlier success, and it was generally accepted that the band was declining, and facing irrelevance. This changed with the release of American Idiot in 2004. It is a rare band that can change the course of modern music – it is an even rarer band that can do it twice.

American Idiot was another huge success. It sold 15 million copies, spawned numerous hit singles, and hurled the unexpectedly matured band back into relevancy. The band once again altered the musical landscape, and American Idiot now features alongside Dookie as the bands best work. However, it was at this point that the connection I felt to the band started to wane, as they were no longer the three bratty young men I had first heard in my youth, and not the band that I had grown up with. Despite this, I still find myself returning to their music. It has formed the soundtrack to my life, and been with me during all the highs and lows that go along with it. For this reason, I will always have affection for those three goofballs from California, and hope that their journey isn’t quite over yet. Hopefully, I can go with them.