The front door of a tattoo parlor should have an entrance bell like a klaxon or an eighteen-wheeler barreling down the highway. When my brother and I entered the strip mall storefront, we were greeted with an amplified quack.
The walls were adorned with photo examples of years of body ink from the very parlor we were honored to be patronizing, featured with broad lighting and pink neon accents. The sounds of conversations from the back area were layered in the busy buzz of needles in action, with The Ramones atop it all.
After months of internet research and social media plundering, I chose an ornate geometric compass, symbolic of my constant need to maintain a directional focus in life. It was going to adorn my inner right forearm, always telling me to keep moving forward, with North obviously at the top. On the other side of the spectrum, my brother was dead-set on this hideous ruby red cow’s skull based on some trashy southwestern-style decorative crap he saw once at a truck stop. Whatever, dude! It’s your friggin’ arm.
Pea-sized globes on shoulders usually hidden beneath shirt sleeves, and ankle-to-abdomen serpents slithering up and down women’s torsos. We laughed at a gap-toothed smiling idiot with “No Fear No Compromise” on his forehead, but were then silenced with awe as we admired a dude who looked like a younger version of our grandfather with a tremendous bald eagle spread wide across his muscular chest with a banner showing off the stars and stripes unfurled around it.
Our artist walked up and broke our awed silence as we stared at the older man. More stout than tall, from the neck up he could’ve been your steampunk-loving IT guy at work, with a jet-black Van Dyke beard and curve-ended mustache, and Coke bottle spectacles for glasses. Everything else was a museum’s worthy display of vibrant ink on most of the exposed skin that wasn’t covered in a black t-shirt, jeans, and skater shoes. Frankie was an internet darling tattoo artist, and we were lucky to claim an hour of his time. We introduced ourselves, and I reminded him who I was after a half-dozen emails back and forth with our designs. It was comforting to finally meet in person.
“Right, compass dude and skull bro. Cool ideas. It’ll be a snap. C’mon back.”
“Did you do all of these?” my brother asked with child-like amazement.
“I’ve done most of them,” Frankie said.
“Who was this guy?” my brother asked, pointing to the old man with the eagle.
“That guy was a badass, Nazi-hunting, World War II vet! One of the first jobs I did when I went pro. I never forget the ones with good stories.”
“Dude, that could’ve been grandpa,” my brother said to me with amazement in his voice.
“Except grandpa wasn’t fighting,” I said, “he was—”
I paused as I pulled out my phone and scrolled back deep in time through text messages with my mother till I found what I was looking for. The photo was clear as day of an image fading with time, but not from memory: a close-up snapshot of my grandpa’s forearm with five, blotchy blue-green numbers permanently inked to his skin and his soul.
I showed it to Frankie and said, “Let’s add these numbers to the bottom of the compass.”