You meet a lot of weird people working in a tattoo shop. Like, a while ago my artist Rosa told me about this guy who walked into her place on a Tuesday afternoon. He didn’t look anything like the usual Williamsburg studio clientele, which are usually either already heavily-tatted artists and musicians or else 20-somethings new to the city wanting some flowy script or a page of text she has to try and convince them to trim down.
This guy, he’s in his early 50s, white and a little tanned, clean-shaven with thick, neatly-combed sandy blonde hair and dark eyes. He steps into the studio out of the sticky July heat and pulls a handkerchief — an honest to god handkerchief — out of the pocket of his khakis and dabs at his forehead with it. He’s wearing a polo shirt and brown leather shoes, plus an expensive watch. So Rosa’s thinking, who the hell is this guy? Some midwestern college girl’s dad who’s pissed off she got an ankle piece done?
But when she goes to greet him, the guy gives her this big smile. He asks if they do walk-ins and she says sure they do. So he pulls out this folded-up piece of paper and opens it, smoothing it out on the counter. She’s never seen the design drawn on it before — it’s these concentric circles with wavy lines that twist into the center. Simple enough piece, really.
A lot of people, they come in for their first tattoos and they want something that’s impossible or just a bad idea, but this guy, he wants this straightforward geometric design. Rosa asks him where he wants it and he says on his forehead. She laughs and says ok but really, where do you want it? And he just repeats that he wants this thing tattooed on his forehead. So she assumes that he’s lost it. Maybe he got fired or his wife left him or something and he’s having a psychotic break.
She tells him she won’t do it, that it’s shop policy not to do face, neck, or hand tattoos on anyone who doesn’t already have a lot of work. He’s crestfallen but understands, says he’s been to half a dozen different places already today and they’ve all told him the same thing. It’s weird, he doesn’t look tweaked out or grief-stricken. If anything, he seems excited, giddy like a kid on Christmas Eve. He reaches for the drawing and Rosa thinks she should just let him go, but her curiosity gets the better of her, plus she could use the work, so she asks, well, what about your chest? He strokes his mid-afternoon stubble, mulling it over, and then agrees.
So he’s filling out the forms on the shop iPad, and meanwhile she’s trying to Google this symbol to see if it’s some kind of secret hate icon she’s not aware of, but she can’t find anything like it online. She gets his name from the form and looks him up while she’s waiting for the printer to spit out the stencils and it turns out he’s the CFO at some tech company. At this point her best guess is that the guy, Ted was his name, went to Burning Man or did ayahuasca for the first time and had some kind of half-baked vision, typical tech dude bullshit. But hey, getting a tattoo is one of the less harmful things someone like that can do in the midst of a mid-life crisis.
They square away the forms and everything and Ted lays down on the table with his shirt off. He smells like musky cologne but something else too, wet earth, like he’s been walking around in caves. Rosa sets up and gets ready to start, the machine humming away. She tries to be conversational, asks him how he decided to get a tattoo and why he picked that piece, and he just smiles and starts talking about how he’s worked in an office his whole adult life, how he’s spent countless hours in condo penthouses and skyscraper meeting rooms and on international flights.
And he says he’s been feeling lost for a long while, that the only time he’s ever really felt at home recently was when his daughter was in town and wanted to have an “authentic” city experience, so they took the A train all the way up from his place in Tribeca to the Met Cloisters up by Dyckman Street instead of taking a car like he normally would. It reminded him of when he was a kid, taking the train around the city with his mom. That’s when he realized that he’d gotten too far away from the Earth — it’s everyone’s mother, you know, he tells Rosa.
She rolls her eyes a little, out of his sight, but he hasn’t answered her question. So she asks again — why this tattoo? And Ted, without missing a beat, says oh, it’s the deep word. Now, Rosa’s never heard of anything like that but she doesn’t like the sound of it. It sounds like some kind of runic shit, something to do with how some Neo-Nazis think there’s a secret society of Nazi aliens at the center of the Earth. She’s a little over halfway done the piece now. The guy was wincing a little at first but he’s been a pretty good sport for a first-timer, and she pauses to adjust the cords and says she’s not familiar, is that some kind of new age thing? Ted smiles and says it’s the language of the Earth. It’s how they’ll recognize him.
That’s cool, Rosa replies, sort of hurrying along now. She asks him where he saw it, and he says that after that time with his daughter, he took to riding the train more and more. At first he started using it to get places, but then he just started doing it for the hell of it. He liked the feeling of being closer to the Earth, found the sounds the wheels made as they rushed along the tracks soothing. So one day he fell asleep on the train and he had this dream of his mother — who’d died years ago — calling him back into the house, only when he got inside there were these stairs that kept going down and down. And he didn’t feel scared descending them, he was comforted by the feeling of being surrounded by dirt and rock, and he reached a door with the symbol on it, and then he woke up.
Rosa completes the piece, wiping Ted down with bactine sprayed onto a paper towel that must sting a little when she presses it against the tattoo, because he makes an exaggerated expression of pain, something a dad would do when play fighting with his kid. He gets up and checks himself out in the mirror, the black ink shiny on his tanned chest, the wavy lines coruscating from the center of the circles. That’s perfect, he says, that’s just perfect. She tapes a bandage over it and he buttons up his shirt, gives her $400 in cash for a piece she was only going to charge him like $250 for, thanks her, and leaves the shop. She’s so stunned that by the time she realizes she’s forgotten to get a photo for her records, he’s already long gone.
A few weeks go by and the whole thing’s slipped her mind, until she’s scrolling Instagram one evening and comes across a piece by this artist she knows down in Austin. And this tattoo, it’s the exact same one she gave to the tech guy. Not similar, identical. She sends a message to the artist asking who the client was and he responds that the dude was an oil exec in his 60s who just walked in one day with the design scrawled on a napkin. Then she decides to look up Ted, the guy she’d done the piece on. There’s a post on his LinkedIn account about how he’s quit his job and given away all his money. So now Rosa’s thinking that this symbol must be some kind of rich person occult thing, like that place in California where they worship Moloch, or Six Sigma or something.
It isn’t until she sees the tattoo pop up again on another artist’s account, this one in San Francisco, that she starts to get seriously freaked out. It’s like they say, two is a coincidence, three is a pattern. Another first tattoo, another unusual client — this time an investment banker. So she wrangles the name of the Texan out of the artist in Austin and finds a small news story about how he’s donated all of his wealth seemingly out of the blue and retired to a quiet life somewhere remote.
These men across the country keep getting this tattoo and then vanishing, and there’s seemingly no connection between them — they live in different places, work in different fields. The only real link Rosa can think of is that they’re all rich. It’s weird, but then, these are rich people — they do a lot of weird shit, and Rosa doesn’t want to play detective to track down some missing hedge fund managers and venture capitalists. Anyway, like I said, you see a lot of weird people working in a tattoo shop.
I’ve got another theory, though. Rosa said the guy she tattooed, Ted, had this dream about being led down into the earth by his mother, and talked about how he felt disconnected spending his time on flights and in high-rises. Him, and that Texan oil exec, and all these other men, they’ve made their living burning up the planet for a quick buck. I think the Earth is calling these men back, pulling them away from the lives they’ve built off its suffering, drawing them down into its dark, damp embrace for the good of everything else living on the planet. Ted said the tattoo was how “they” would recognize him. I think he was talking about the other ones like him, his wayward brothers he was on his way to meet when he burrowed down into the earth like a wasp crawling into a fig to be dissolved and reconstituted into ripe flesh.
Rosa says I’m crazy, that it’s much more likely that these guys have all seen the writing on the wall with the economy, wildfires, climate change, and that they’ve booked it to secret bunkers in New Zealand because they know the shit is really going to hit the fan soon. But when I was coming home from the bar the other night, tipsy on the subway platform, I saw someone moving in the tunnel. At first I thought it was a worker, but then, for just a second, the train lights illuminated the figure, all wild beard and shredded clothes. And I swear that in the instant before he dashed away, I could just make out a single tattoo emblazoned on his bare chest.