Not many years ago — and here we speak only of Western societies — having a tattoo assimilated you to a noirish rabble of able-bodied seamen, Foreign Legionnaires, ex-cons, circus performers, bikers, and boozers with a propensity for finding themselves in the vicinity of waterfront tattoo parlors.
Read on for a look at early-1950s attitudes towards tattoos, and the roles tatts played in Paul Theroux’s Saint Jack, a novel set in 1950s Singapore and first published in 1973.
In a very noir 1950s Singapore, where Jack Flowers had jumped ship 14 years earlier, Jack works as a dogsbody clerk for a Chinese ship’s chandler, while moonlighting as a good-hearted pimp. In the course of events, he decides he’ll establish a bordello, thereby running afoul of the local Chinese triads. Jack gets beaten up and then, very much against his will, is tattooed with a variety of offensive designs together with a warning on each wrist: Remove This and Die. This proves an effective deterrant to any local specialists who read Chinese. In any case, all the removal options sound painful, so Jack instead follows a Malay tattooist’s advice, allowing this individual to merely obfuscate the offending designs. Read on for some of the flavor of the book.
To start with, Jack’s companions are remarking on the fresh Chinese characters inscribed up and down his arms.
First edition cover designed by Paul Bacon
“Curse of Dogshit,” said Mr. Tan, translating in the Bandung the next day. He read my left arm. “Beware Devil, Whore’s Boy, Mouth Full of Lies, Remove This and Die. Very nasty,” said Mr. Tan. “Let me see your other arm.” The right said, Red Goatface, Forbidden Ape, Ten Devils in One, I Am Poison and Death, Remove This and Die.
After that, Mr. Tan was included in the conversations Yardley had with the others when my tattoos were mentioned. For years, Mr. Tan had sat every afternoon alone with his bottle of soybean milk. Now he was welcome. Yardley couldn’t remember all the curses and he called upon Mr. Tan to repeat them.
“Incredible,” Yardley said. “There, what about that one?”
“Forbidden Ape,” said Mr. Tan promptly.
“Can you imagine,” said Yardley. “And that one—‘Monkey’s Arse’ or something like that?”
“Dogshit,” said Mr. Tan.
“All right,” I said. “That’s enough.”
“Remember old Baldwin, the chap that worked for Jardine?” asked Smale. “He had tattoos all over the place. Birds and that.”
“You going to keep them, Jack?” asked Coony. “Souvenir of Singapore. Show ’em to your mum.”
“You think it’s a joke.” I said. “These things hurt. And the doctor says I have to wait till they heal before I can get them off.”
“You’ll never get them buggers off,” said Yardley. “The doctor says—”
“They can graft them,” said Smale.
“Acid,” said Yates. “They burn them off with acid. I read about this somewhere. It leaves scars—that’s the only snag. But scars are infinitely preferable to what you’ve got there, if you ask me.”
“Maybe they used some kind of Chinese ink,” said Coony. “You know, the kind that never comes off.”
“Balls!” said Smale. “If it was Chinese ink he’d be able to wash the flaming things off with soap and water. No, that there’s your regular tattooing ink. You can tell.”
“Monkey’s Arse,” said Yardley, laughing. “Christ, be glad it’s not in English! What if it was and Jack was in London, on a bus or something? ‘Fares please,’ the conductor says and looks over and sees Monkey’s Arse, Pig Shit, and all that on Jack’s arm.”
“He’d probably ride free,” said Frogget.
“No, I’ve got a better one,” said Smale. “Let’s say Jack’s in church and the vicar’s just given a little sermon on foul language. The lady next to Jack looks down and—”
“Lay off,” I said, rolling down my sleeves to cover the scabrous notations. “How would you like it if they did it to you?”
“No bloody fear,” said Coony. “If one of them little bastards—”
“Shut up,” said Yardley. “They’d tattoo the same thing on your knackers before you could say boo.” Yardley turned to me and said, “Don’t get upset, Jacko. They got ways of getting that stuff off. But I’ll tell you one thing—you’d be a fool to try it again.”
“What are you talking about?”
“That whorehouse of yours,” said Yardley. “You were asking for it. Any of us could have told you that. Right, Smelly?”
“Right,” said Smale.
“So you’re saying I deserved it.”
“What do you think?”
I said, “I was making a few bucks.”
“Where is it now?” Yardley nudged Frogget.
“None of your business,” I said.
“Jack thinks he’s different,” Yardley said. “But the trouble is, he’s just the same as us, living in this piss hole, sweating in a towkay’s shop. Face facts, Jack, you’re the bleeding same.”
“Really?” I said, wondering myself if it was true, and deciding it was not.
“Except for that writing on his arms,” said Coony.
Macpherson, an occasional drinker at the Bandung, came through the door. He said, “Good evening.”
“Hey, Mac, look at this,” Yardley said. He grabbed my arm and spoke confidentially. “This is nothing compared to what they do to some blokes. You learned your lesson. From now on, stick with us—we’ll stand by you, Jack. And just to show you I mean what I say, the first thing we’ll do is get that put right.”
“What’s it supposed to say?” asked Macpherson.
Mr. Tan cleared his throat.
Weeks later, Yardley found a Chinese tattooist who said he knew how to remove them. We met at the Bandung one evening and he looked as if he meant business. He was carrying a doctor’s black valise. But he never opened it; he took one look at the tattoos, read a few columns, and was out the door.
“Look at him go,” said Smale. “Like a shot off a shovel.”
“A Chink won’t touch that,” said Coony.
“So we’ll find a Malay,” said Yardley.
The Malay’s name was Pinky, and his tattoo parlor was in a kampong out near the airport. He was not hopeful about removing them, though he said he knew the acid treatment. But no matter how much acid he rubbed in, he said, I would still be left with a faint but legible impression. And grafting took years.
“Why don’t you just cut your arms off and make the best of a bad job?” said Smale.
“Isn’t there anything you can do?” I asked Pinky.
“Can make into something else,” said Pinky. “Fella come in. He tattoo say ‘I Love Mary’ but he no like. So I put a little this and that, sails, what. Make a ship, for a sample.”
“I get it,” I said. He could obliterate the curse but not remove it.
“He puts a different tattoo over it, apparently,” said Yates.
“Only the one on the bottom stays the same,” said Frogget.
“It’s better than leaving them like they are,” said Yardley.
The walls of Pinky’s parlor were covered with sample tattoos. Many were the same design in various sizes. Death Before Dishonor, Indian chiefs, skulls, eagles and horses, Sweet-Sour, Cut Here, tigers and crucifixes, Mother, bluebirds, American flags, and Union Jacks. Behind Pinky, on a shelf, were many bottles of antiseptic, Dettol, gauze, aspirin, and rows and rows of needles.
“You’ll have a hard job making those into ships,” said Yates, tapping my blue curses.
“Do you fancy a dagger?” asked Smale. “Or what about the old Stars and Stripes?”
“That’s right,” said Coony. “Jack’s a Yank. He should have an American flag on his arm.”
“Fifty American flags is more like it,” said Smale. “Hey, Yatesie,” said Coony, pointing to the design reading Mother, “here’s one for you.”
My arms were on Pinky’s table. “Chinese cracker,” he said. “I make into flowers.”
So I agreed. But on each wrist the wide single column—Remove This and Die—was too closely printed to make into separate flowers. Pinky suggested stalks for the blossoms on my forearms. I had a better idea. I selected from the convenient symbology on the wall: a dripping dagger on my left wrist, a crucifix on my right.
That was back in the early 1950s. But the times, they just keep on changin’. For quite some time already you find interesting things inscribed even on the ample bottoms of Middle American librarians with a taste for chamomile tea. Nearly anyone younger than me, which describes quite a few people, has at least one tattoo. The way things are going, many of them, having used up all their own available skin space, may well take to shearing their pets and using them as graphic annexes. (Imagine anything you like, and you can find it online–see below.)
“Don’t be a moron,” she tells me, reading this over my shoulder and probably referring to the proposed blog post and not the actual occasion of showing her this tattoo, whereupon she had simply said, “You moron.” Expressing pretty well no surprise at all.
My next post will look at a range of early 1990s attitudes to tattoos as described by David Foster Wallace in his novel Infinite Jest.