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.
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.
I’d been thinking about my grandmother recently, and decided to write about her early life for a non-fiction piece. This could be a lot longer, but I was working to a word limit and a little constrained. I might revisit it one day and write a longer version – I think she deserves it.
Outside of Bundaberg, Queensland, Mary sat and waited for the train. The wind swept across the baked fields, whipping up clouds of dust from the remnants of failed crops. Drought and the depression had taken its toll, and now the country was at war, yet life struggled on in rural Queensland. Mary enjoyed watching the trains. Perhaps she saw them as reminders that there was another world beyond the bare plains, a place where life was not struggling, tenuously clutching on at the edges of parched dirt and economic ruin. She would watch the people in the carriages as they rattled past, their possessions and hopes stacked high as they headed south, and although she was only eight years old and couldn’t yet join these people in their search for a better life, dreams of places far away filled her head.
This day, however, she was waiting for a particular train. Every week, a train hauling its load of sugar cane would depart Bundaberg and head south across the dry plains, to be unloaded for processing and distribution to the southern states. The driver, an older man with a kind face, would stop the train and give her some sugar cane, pleased by the young child’s happiness to see him. Then, he would climb back into the cabin, and set off once again. Mary greatly looked forward to this weekly ritual, the sweet juice of the sugar cane a rare treat in a world where such things were rare. As she waited, her sister Elizabeth approached from the opposite side of the track. Elizabeth was older by four years and hardened to the world, her young face containing a weariness beyond her years. They both possessed their mother’s features, an angular face with pale, quick eyes, but few recognised them as sisters.
‘Mary!’ she called as she clambered over a fence. ‘You know Father wants us back at the house at 4 o’clock.’
‘I know,’ Mary said. ‘I was waiting for the sugar cane man. He’s usually here by now.’
Elizabeth knelt next to her sister.
‘That will just have to wait. You don’t want to make Father angry. Come along now.’ She took Mary’s hand, and pulled her to her feet. ‘And look at you, your clothes are filthy.’
Mary looked down at her dress, and scraped at some dirt with her fingernail.
‘I’m sorry, don’t tell father or grandma.’ Mary said. ‘I’ll clean it myself before dinner.’
Their grandmother, an austere woman, did not look upon the soiling of clothes kindly. She had lived in Ireland for most of her life, and moved to Australia to support her son as he struggled to transition to civilian life after discharging from the army. Her anger was terrible when roused, and both wished to avoid it.
‘Alright,’ Elizabeth said. ‘But use the washboard around the back of the house, the old one. No one can see you there.’
Mary nodded in agreement, trusting in her sister’s judgement. Elizabeth understood the realities of the world much more than her, and had paid a price for it, the carefree nature of a child worn down into an adult pragmatism that seemed odd coming from a girl of her age. She was always looking out for her younger sister, and protected her as best she could.
‘Come on,’ Elizabeth said, as she grasped Mary’s hand. ‘Let’s not keep Father waiting.’
The two then set off down the tracks, towards their home.
John O’Shaughnessy was a cold, taciturn man. He had spent ten years in the army, serving as an enlisted soldier in the Royal Engineers, before discharging and moving with his wife to Australia. The transition to civilian life had not been an easy one. Despite the birth of his children, he had spiralled into alcoholism, before the death of his wife during a botched clandestine abortion snuffed out any embers of warmth that had remained inside him. This loss had driven him to the point of breakdown, and he refused to speak about it. Perhaps it was shame that caused him to never speak of his deceased wife, but whatever the reason, he attempted to remedy whatever pain he felt by sinking further into bottles of scotch, and as such, a bottle was never far from his hand. Mary and Elizabeth only had vague memories of their mother, the only female presence in their life was provided by their grandmother, who lived with them in a vain attempt to prevent her son from completely falling apart. As he sat at the head of the table, he ran his eyes over his daughters.
‘You two,’ he began, his words silencing the table. ‘When I say I want you home at four, I mean it.’
‘Yes Father.’ Elizabeth said, quietly.
‘And I want your chores done properly. If I come home tomorrow to find what I did today, there will be hell to pay.’ He banged his hand upon the table, making the plates jump.
The two girls knew to remain quiet and obedient, as it was the safest response. Their grandmother entered, and put plates of food in front of them without a word. They began to eat in silence.
Suddenly, their father spoke.
‘Mary, take that bracelet off. I don’t want to see you wearing it at this table. Give it to me.’
‘But it belonged to mother …’ Mary began, as she covered the bracelet with her hand.
‘Don’t ever mention her.’ their father growled.
‘But she used to wear it!’ Mary protested, the fear of her father briefly forgotten.
Elizabeth tugged at Mary’s arm in warning.
‘I told you never to mention her!’ he roared.
The table fell into silence. Their father rose, and stomped into the kitchen. Knowing that his anger would only grow, Mary quietly got up from the table, and headed towards her bedroom. The bedroom was a sanctuary, and was where she read every night. Her books were treasured items that transported her away to places that seemed so real she felt she could nearly reach out and touch them. After she had read that night, as she lay in the darkness, she heard her father yelling from the next room in a drunken rage. She could hear the voice of her grandmother, attempting to calm her son down. It was not an unusual occurrence. There was a crash as her father overturned a table, before the front door slammed, and quiet returned to the house. Mary lay silently, clutching a book to her chest, desperately trying not to cry.
Some years later, Mary and Elizabeth sat in the backyard of their home, underneath a large eucalyptus tree. Mary quite often liked to read underneath this tree. They sat silently, staring upwards into the branches. Their father had left some days earlier, and not returned. Whether he ever would, they did not know. He had grown more violent over the years, frequently hitting the girls, particularly Elizabeth, with whatever he could lay his hands on. Their legs were often welted and faces bruised, but no one at the local school seemed to notice. If they did, they considered it firmly none of their business, and remained uninvolved. Their grandmother had passed away, and despite her uncaring nature, her death had stripped away any last vestiges of stability from their lives. Their father now seemed to be gradually detaching from reality, frequently spending hours drunkenly raging at people unseen, or disappearing for days at a time. Mary and Elizabeth looked after each other as best they could, with Elizabeth seeing to the general running of the house. But, it was taking an increasing toll on her. Her personality darkened, and she became withdrawn, hardly speaking.
‘When do you think he will come back?’ Mary asked.
Elizabeth remained silent for a moment.
‘I don’t know.’
‘I hope he never does.’ Mary said. She had never said this aloud, but knew her sister agreed. It was relief to finally say the words.
Elizabeth kept her head back, looking up into the tree. She enjoyed watching birds, observing their flight and attempting to identify them by song. Mary poked at the ground with a stick.
‘Elizabeth,’ Mary continued, ‘do you ever think of leaving?’.
‘Why do you ask that?’
‘Nothing good will come from staying. There is nothing for us here. Mother wouldn’t have wanted this for us.’
‘Mother is dead, Mary.’ Elizabeth said, as she got to her feet. ‘What she wanted doesn’t matter. What matters is where we are.’
‘There must be a place we can go. South, maybe, with Aunt Margret. Anywhere but here.’
Elizabeth laughed sharply.
‘We haven’t spoken to Margret in years. How would we survive?’
‘I don’t know, but I’d rather take my chances than stay here, afraid.’
Elizabeth cast her head down, and looked at the ground.
‘You’ve always had your head in the clouds, Mary. You read too many of those books.’
‘I’ve been putting money aside, from my work at the shop. Father doesn’t know about it. We can buy train tickets. Come with me tomorrow morning to the train station, and we can get away from this place forever.’
The front door crashed, and their father lurched into the house. Elizabeth looked at Mary, before finally nodding.
The next morning, the two sisters stood in the early morning mist at Bundaberg Train Station. Each had packed everything they owned. Mary’s suitcase was held together with twine, her refusal to abandon her books had left it unable to close.
‘I’ve got us tickets to Brisbane, and from there we can get to Bowral. I’ve written to Aunt Margret. She’ll let us stay with her.’
Mary held out the tickets to Elizabeth.
‘I’m not going with you.’ Elizabeth said. ‘I’m going north, to Cairns. I can get work on a farm up there. I want to get away from all this, as far as I can. I don’t need anyone to provide for me.’
Elizabeth gently closed Mary’s hand around the tickets.
‘But where will you stay?’ Mary asked, as she began to cry. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘I’m sorry, Elizabeth said, her voice shaking. ‘It’s just something that I have to do. I need to get away, and be alone for a while. I don’t know who I am, Mary. I need to find out.’
‘But what will I do?’ Mary sobbed, as tears fell to the gravel at her feet.
Elizabeth took her hand. ‘You don’t need me to protect you anymore. Please try to understand.’
The two sisters embraced. Soon after, Mary watched as the train carrying Elizabeth moved away, tears running down her face, until the train disappeared into the distance. Then, she sat down, and waited for her train, finally joining those she watched as a child as they began their journey south.
Years later, Mary stood outside of a new house in Bowral, New South Wales. One of many new homes that were being built in the area, its white weatherboards shone brightly in the sun, and was fronted by an immaculate garden. It was the 1950’s, and the country was changing. People began to settle down and enjoy luxuries that would have been unimaginable only a few decades earlier, clustering together in newly created suburbs as a testament to prosperity. Elizabeth had remained in North Queensland, and the two had not spoken for several years. Eventually, the sisters received word that their father had died due to advanced cirrhosis of the liver, and that his final years had seen him destitute and dependent on the state. Neither attended the funeral. After her move to New South Wales, Mary had worked in a library, saving money for her plans to travel the country. She chronicled her thoughts in a diary, where she wrote of Elizabeth often, and memories of her childhood surfaced frequently. These diaries were never thrown away. Soon after, she met Ian Smith, a handsome Navy man, at a local ball. Both were instantly drawn to each other. Ian was charismatic and well-spoken, a widely-travelled man who had seen many sights during his time in the Navy. It could have been this worldly nature that drew Mary to him, captivating her with his easy smile and fantastic tales of foreign cities. They were soon married, and Mary fell pregnant. As she stood in front of her new home, carrying her first child, one wonders if she saw it as the culmination of a long and tiring search, that the life she had so desperately wanted as a young girl in Queensland was now, at long last, within reach.
Another article for previously mentioned project. Also feel like I could have done better with this, but I had to write it pretty quickly.
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.
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.