Saturday, 8 October 2011

You know your last night in Bangkok is going to be good when it begins with vicious local rum and a free tattoo.
I met my friend Jojo outside of her tattoo parlour workplace, based on one of the backpacker streets close to Khao San Road, at midnight.
The tattoo artists were sat outside the shop drinking beer, rum and red bull; attempting to badger passing farang into becoming human canvasses for their art.
A sign in the window, written in a blood-stained typeface, asked "Can you Dare the Pain?".
Jojo and her heavily pierced colleagues welcomed me with a plastic glass of Sansom - rum blended with pure ethanol - and ice.
As they chatted in Thai, I gazed into the shopfront at a perspex trophy which read "2nd Best Realistic Tattoo - Milan Tattoo Convention 2007."
Jojo followed my gaze. "You know that is fake, right?"
"If it's fake, why did they put 2nd best?"
She laughed, her face becoming the Thai staple - all teeth and smile lines.
Jojo works primarily as a receptionist at the shop - translating between English and Thai, looking after customers, cleaning and the likes. She works 12 hours every day, with 2 days off per month. On a previous night out, she had told me that she wanted to become a tattoo artist herself, but was scared to tell her colleagues, in case they laughed at her. She even bought her own tattoo gun, but had only used it at home to
practice on Pomelos (Thai grapefruits), apparently the closest thing to human skin.

I watched her chatting and joking with her friends. As the conversation stopped for a moment she stared down into her drink, still smiling with her mouth but sad in her eyes.
She was Tango music personified; sad and melancholy, stylish and elegant.
She began to sing a line from 'Dirty Old Town' by the Pogues in a Thai accent that was trying to be a little bit Irish.
"I kiss my girrrrrrrrl.... by da facotry wallllllllll...."
I had a strong urge to stuff her into my backpack and set off for the airport.
 "Jojo, I want you to give me a tattoo."
She looked at me but didn't answer.
"Something small, on my wrist. Something that you think is cool. I don't want to see what it is until it's done."
Her colleagues were listening - she translated for them. The artist with the lobe rings laughed and seemed to crack a joke.
"He says you should get my name in Thai, so your English girlfriend doesn't know, but I told him that you have a Thai wife, so then he said you should get my name in Cambodian."
Her other workmate began doodling on a piece of paper.
He then handed me the paper and nodded earnestly - the name Jojo, written inside a bleeding heart.
I thought about it for one stupid moment, but then decided that Jojo would think that was lame, too.
"I want something that you're happy to do."
"I'm good at roses, but, to be honest, men with roses, I think it's a little..."
"So think of something else... how much will it cost?"
"Usually it cost round 1000 Baht."
Earlobes interjected.
"You don't pay nothing, just buy big bottle of Sansom we can drink tomorrow."
That seemed like a fair deal.
"Let's do it. Take your time to think of something good... you don't think the wrist is too much of a girly place for tattoos?"
"Maybe... but it's a small tattoo in a small place, right? Sam, do you really want this? Maybe I don't do it right. I'm scared for you."

Earlobes pointed inside the shop, still lit-up and open but past closing time.
"Go inside now. Jojo make tattoo."
Jojo reluctantly went inside and began fiddling with the voltometer/ power supply machine, and asking her colleague questions in Thai.
Then she stood doodling on a piece of a paper, leaning on a glass tank full of multicoloured jars of ink and gun grips.
I averted my gaze across the room.
Each shelf was lined with folders filled with examples of pre-made tattoos and listed by category - Tribal, Chinese, Flowers, Zodiac, Female pin-ups, Fantasy and an entire folder dedicated to pictures of 'Scorpions and butterflies'.
Above the shelf was a cluster of paper notes, selotaped to the wall - examples of in-house, customised tattoos that had been designed by the artists.
In the centre of them all was a photograph of the Thai King.
Jojo looked up from her sheet of scrap paper.
"Sam, I give you 10 seconds to decide if you really want tattoo from me, ok?"
"I don't need 10 seconds, and I don't really care what you put there. It's more important to me that you did it, and that it's your first tattoo."
She frowned. "Ok."

I sat in the chair, looking up at the ceiling. We were in a glass-partitioned 'hygiene zone', and Jojo had put on a surgical mask and gloves.
Her friend shaved my wrist with a razor.
He was only 22 years old, yet had given Jojo a huge, intricate 'back-piece' that was still being worked on. Jojo had told me that he was like her younger brother, because they came from the same place in North Eastern Thailand. He had worked in another tattoo shop before hers, but the woman who owned the shop had banned them from speaking in their Northern dialect. Racism is rife in Thailand - the assumption being that if you have slightly darker skin you are a dishonest peasant, and if you have white skin you're a rich idiotic tourist.  The North is seen as inferior probably because it is a much more rural area, where smaller villages still don't have running water, kids are sent to fetch water from the town well and education is not well-funded.
Jojo sends a portion of her modest income home to her parents every month.
My toes curled slightly when Jojo put some weight on my hand and clicked on the gun.
Her friend picked up a surgical mask and hooked it over my ears, covering my eyes.
"You don't want to see, right?"

I felt her carve a few sweeping outlines, and quietly enjoyed the invigorating feeling of the buzzing needle. It wasn't anywhere near as painful as it had been on my inner buttcheek.
House music from the bar next door boomed through the wall, almost drowning out the sound of the gun.
After a few minutes of 'filling', she took her foot from the release pedal and began spraying and wiping the scar.
Her friend was laughing. I opened my eyes under the surgical mask, and hoped it wasn't going to be a picture of the King's face.
They discussed something, and she clicked the gun on again to add a few finishing touches - perhaps they'd forgotten the King's glasses.
"Ok Sam. Whatever you say, I did my best, ok?"
I took off the mask.
It was a black silhouette - from my perspective, it looked like the shadow of Squiddly Diddly, but I turned my wrist around and realised what it was.
"A bird?"
"Yes. I chose it because it means freedom."
"It's perfect. Thankyou."
I probably would have been happy regardless; she could have tattooed the silhouette of an open-legged woman and a flying ping pong ball, and I would have been happy. I liked the way that it was small, subtle and minimalistic. But more than that, I liked the way that she kept taking photos if it, and breaking into a smile.