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The Tattoo Artist
Patrick Roscoe

It was not easy to find the tattoo artist, though his skill was renowned throughout the town and far beyond. Away from boulevards and cafes, away from lights and crowds, he lived among the narrow, twisting alleys behind the quartier portugaise. These were lit only by weak lamps attached infrequently to cold stone walls, and after dark rats roamed freely within the gutters and the waste. Few people passed over the rough cobblestones then; occupants were silent, if not sleeping, behind closed doors to either side; the doors were unnumbered as the alleys were not named. Except for a cat's sudden scream, or the squeak of a bat, there were no sounds except my footsteps and heartbeat echoing against stone. I knew it was possible to find the tattoo artist only on a night without stars, when he did not prick colored constellations upon the black skin of the sky.

Yet a sign did not hang helpfully upon the artist's door; nor did the door stand open in invitation. Within the labyrinth, the tattoo artist's location itself remained as elusively unfixed as a fugitive's, though it was purported that his room was always the same bare, cement space illuminated by a candle, half-burned, whose light transformed the ancient dyes and needles into substances sheened with gold. If you could discover the secret way to the tattoo artist, the path of your life would be forever changed, it was averred in the tone of absolute certainty only ignorance can evoke: nothing and everything was known about this man whom the mute would describe in clear, precise detail if only they could speak. Perhaps he strolled through the souk, unrecognized but not disguised, to hear the stories told about him -- all contradictory, all unproven -- when we wearied of discussing the sixty lessons of the Koran or the reason for changing tides.

In the town we all grew up with a mother's dire warning that if we were not careful the tattoo artist would etch hideous, permanent pictures upon our sleeping skin. Later we learned that possibly his designs could attract the ideal lover who would not waver, who would not stray. Some said he substituted poison for ink when sought out by an evil man and some suggested that in certain worthy cases his handiwork could cure sickness and even extend life. There were those too who claimed that his instruments were the tools of Allah, and his images the Prophet's revelation. It was agreed that one needed to seek the tattoo artist at the correct time of life: overly tender skin would fester, blister and scar beneath his needles, while tough and weathered flesh would break them. The tattoo artist was a Jew from Essaouira, a marabout from Tarfaya, a Berber murderer or thief. Perhaps he was a distant cousin on your mother's side, the beggar disintegrating with leprosy before the Cinema Le Paris, that pilgrim glimpsed yesterday on the road to Azammour. Stories shifted like Sahara sand blowing through the derbs, and changed shape and form from one day to the next, according to the wind. I did not puzzle at never seeing an example of the tattoo artist's work during my yearning youth: by the time I grew into a man and felt compelled one starless night to seek him for myself, I had come to believe his design remained invisible upon a subject until that being stretched his soul into a canvas tight and strong and broad enough to display the beauty that it held.

I had to ask infrequent strangers hurrying through the alleys for directions. Often they would not pause to answer, or only muttered brusquely that they didn't know; many spoke a dialect I hadn't heard before and couldn't understand, as if they came from the other side of the Atlas Mountains, or far beyond the Rif. If I knocked on a door to ask my way, those inside remained silent, or with a shout warned me away. I remembered how it was said that numerous people had vanished in search of the tattoo artist; whenever some restless, dissatisfied soul disappeared from our town, the presumption was that he had passed through the gates of the quartier portugaise and had not emerged again. Some said these narrow alleys, dark even during day, teemed with lost spirits who on starless nights reached out with hungry bones of fingers for anyone foolish enough to seek the tattoo artist they had failed to find. This was home, it was rumored, to countless beings fallen into disappointment and despair, and that they sought consolation in narcotic and carnal pleasures was evidenced in sweet smoke and moans rising into the blue sky above our sensible town. "See what happens," mothers warned discontented children, hoping one day these offspring would grow to feel satisfied with the prospect of an acceptable, harmless tattoo of the kind offered every day and at reasonable price in the market; for example, a green cross of Islam, or a yellow star of hope.

I wandered until north and south became indistinct, and time and distance without proportion, before finding someone who would help. She looked at me with suspicious eyes under the lamp where we met, and appeared undecided whether to speak or not. Slowly a knowing smile twisted her face, which was scarred and disfigured beneath a heavy powder. "The next crossing," she finally said, placing ironic emphasis upon each word. "The third door to the left." Then she turned and walked swiftly away, drawing a scarf more closely around her head, leaving light, mocking laughter behind.

The tattoo artist did not answer my knock; but when I pushed the door, it opened. In a room off the entrance, he sat on a wooden bench between the small table which held his instruments and colors, and the chair in which his clients sat when they did not need to lie on the floor or to stand erect to receive his mark. He looked toward me as I entered but did not rise to greet me. The old man wore a dark robe, with a hood concealing whether his hair was black or white or vanished, and partly obscuring his eyes. The garment made it difficult to know his size or shape. His fingers were long and thin and naked of rings. No tattoos could be seen on skin left uncovered by the robe. Appearing absorbed in thought, scarcely conscious of my presence, the tattoo artist did not speak.

I sat in the chair and explained that I wanted a tattoo unlike any other in the world. Commonplace tattoos -- a lover's name or initials; an eagle, snake or lion -- did not interest me, less the heart, the arrow, the bolt of lightning; nor did I desire even a rare symbol of obscure significance. I wanted a unique tattoo, a singular tattoo: a shape that would reveal my essence to the world, and that would indicate how the design of my being was infinitely, visibly different from that of anyone else. If I didn't know its name or how it looked, that was because the mark I wished for failed to exist except within the tattoo artist's imagination. There was only one thing I knew for certain: it should be imprinted upon my heart.

The tattoo artist listened, then left the room by a door at its rear. He returned to set a tray holding a small silver teapot and three glasses upon the floor. After a moment, he poured pale tea into two of the glasses. Steam began to rise. Suddenly I wanted to tell the tattoo artist many things about myself: where I had come from, what I had seen and done, whom I had loved. I needed him to know how long I had been anticipating this moment, and how difficult it had been to find him, and how any doubt I had felt about receiving his mark was gone. He should hear me and see me, I believed, in order to know exactly what tattoo to place upon my skin; but the artist only watched the rising steam, seemingly uninterested in the material my self provided him, and I could not interrupt his silence. He turned to shift the candle slightly, then studied the shadow it cast upon the wall. He sighed once. Removing a small square of paper from the folds of his robe, he untwisted it above one glass, spilling white powder. He handed me the glass. I drank its hot contents quickly, then loosened my shirt and lay on my back. The cement below me warmed as I fell asleep.

It was cold when I awoke. The candle still burned halfway down. The tray that held the teapot still lay upon the floor. One glass was empty, one glass was full, the third was gone. There was a burning sensation at my heart. I bent my neck and saw my tattoo. At once I knew I had never seen this shape before. It was unique. I did not know what the small shape symbolized; it called nothing definite to my mind, yet seemed at once to suit me and to describe me. Was there a suggestion of a wave, a hint of an eye, an allusion to an outstretched wing? Fastening the buttons of my shirt, I watched the tattoo artist use a wet cloth to wipe his needles of dye. When they were clean, he replaced them exactly in their former position on the table. He stared at his instruments with an expression that contained amazement or horror or pleasure, or a combination of these three emotions. He was unable to hear my thanks or to receive my offered payment, and I left his room.

For several years I was pleased with my unique tattoo, though long after the pricked skin healed it continued to burn in such a way that I could never forget its presence. When exposed it caused astonishment and envy, and those with apparently ordinary tattoos sought my companionship and approval. My mark became famous in the town and occupied a central place in conversation. On the corners old men argued endlessly over its meaning and at the shore small children tried to trace its outline with sticks upon the sand. Seers used the shape to predict the future. Holy men proclaimed it evidence of Allah's touch. In the dark, lovers press lips against the brilliant color; tongues travel its contours, try to lick it off my skin. There was a season when many youths attempted to have my tattoo copied onto themselves by the everyday tattoo artists in the market. Such imitations, however skilled, always proved inexact, and appeared somehow grotesque. During this time I felt that even with it buttoned to my neck passersby could see through a shirt to spy the colors stained upon my heart.

Later, though unchanged itself, my tattoo seemed to evoke a different response -- distrust or pity or fear. My fellow townspeople fell silent when I approached down the street, and mothers placed hands over children's eyes to shield them from the sight. No longer did lovers line up to lie with me upon the sand; perhaps they realized that their kisses would not erase my mark, that it must always fail slake their thirst, that it could never be swallowed to ease aching hunger. Now I was lonely, and separated from those around me by what I had hoped would permit them to see me clearly and to know me intimately. I tried to keep my tattoo hidden, as if it were ugly or obscene, wearing a heavy burmoose as armor even during the hottest season. "I hope you got what you wanted," my mother said, as another wedding procession wound past our door with its bright song of union. Ashamed of my mark, I wished it would fade or wash away, or alter into an unremarkable design. At night, dreams concerning an undistinguished existence, with an unbranded aspect, afforded me brief release; awakening at morning brought more bitter disappointment. When I offered tattoo artists in the market large sums to remove my mark, their refusals were nervous but adamant, and I was driven to prowl the dark alleys behind the quartier portugaise once more. Hoping its creator could alter or eliminate my unwanted design, I searched for him on many starless nights, yet encountered in those narrow passages only yearning youths with blank, unmarked skin. "Go home," I told them.

One day my tattoo suddenly began to burn more searingly, as if freshly pricked upon my skin. Now the pain was so sharp that it would not permit me to sleep or dream or pray. At this time I gradually began to wonder about the tattoo artist himself, seeking to recall every detail of my experience with him, and to find in memory some clue to the meaning of my mark or a way of living with it. I mused upon the possible landscape of his past and the likely contours of his present. What were his intentions when faced with the canvas of my skin? What desires urged him to use dyes and needles on me in one way and not another? This was the period when I hoped to understand the implications of my mark by knowing the being who had placed it there, as we turn our eyes above the clouds to contemplate the force that works on us here below.

In this way, my long journey began. First I roamed the town itself and then the towns nearby in search of someone with the same tattoo as mine. I had faith that at least one other being in the world wore the brilliant shape that hovered over my heart; even accidentally, even a single time, it must have been created before. It had to have a twin. As years went by and my search did not end, I journeyed farther from the town, crossing mountains and valleys, deserts and plains, rivers and oceans and streams. In distant lands I saw many things and met many people, but the single shape I hunted for did not appear before my eyes. I believed, still, that when it finally occurred our meeting would possess the symmetry and grace of a balanced equation: my mark vanishes beneath his gaze as his dissolves under mine, and we no longer each feel the same constant pain. "One glass was empty, one glass was full, the third was gone," I repeated as the road stretched far before me.

Though my end is growing near, I continue to roam from place to place in hope of discovering someone marked like me. The skin still burns above my heart; I have not grown used to the ache. While some colors of the world have faded, and stars have dimmed like faith, my tattoo flames brightly as ever. Now it is many years since I have been to my town, and I do not know if my family and friends still live. I do not know if the tattoo artist still hides within the dark alleys behind the quartier portugaise. I do not know if he still pricks his stained needles into flesh, scarring it differently each time, leaving upon our hearts the unique designs from which we seek release.



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