Homage to Tattoo by Tanizaki, Junichiro written in 1910. A haunted tattoo needle…
It was a time when physical beauty was the chief pursuit in life. Inevitably, those in possession of it more easily acquired fame, riches, and power. Those having inferior qualities would enrich surgeons improving them, or lacking money or courage used cosmetics. Others turned to another way to enhance their beauty and that was with tattoos.
One of the best tattoo artists was a short, slender, twenty-eight year old man. He named himself Leonardo.
Perhaps, it all started when he was twelve years old. At a theater to see a horror movie there was a trailer of a snuff film. Wondering if it were real, he began to look for and read books. He learned about the Inquisition and their medieval torture devices, the slave trade and their ships with humans packed like sardine, Nazi death camps and Mengele’s experiments on twins, but the most fascinating was Ilse Koch an overseer at Nazi concentration camps run by her husband, Commandant Karl-Otto Koch. Infamous for her sadistic, brutal treatment of prisoners, she allegedly had prisoners with tattoos killed so she could make lampshades with their skin.
Witnesses stated she was dissatisfied with the first lampshade and had another one made. What they didn’t know and what he learned in a conversation with a former guard at her camp was that she had a special needle made. A teenage boy was brought into her room and strapped to a sturdy table. With that needle, she created a tattoo of her own design on this inmate, slit his throat, and cut out the tattoo. With the skin bearing that tattoo she had a second lampshade made.
Though, he wanted those claims to be true, he had his doubts. Leonardo spent ten years looking for that needle.
Six inches of gold, taken from the teeth of those murdered in her death camps, the needle was tipped in half an inch of stainless steel. Holding it, he ever felt a desire to stick it through his own skin. Yet, always he repelled that desire.
Things changed after he attained that needle.
Strange and vivid dreams disturbed his sleep. Almost always, the dreams absorbed him into one or more of the actors. Old or young, male or female, he felt their emotions and heard their thoughts. And, although, the dreams were filled with familiar odors, striking colors, and heart thumping action, they were eerily silent as if they didn’t want him to wake.
When he did wake, he sometimes had to look in the mirror to see if he was really himself.
His dark nature became stronger and dominated his work. No longer was he satisfied with creating ordinary tattoos. His tattoos became colorful and no longer empty of meaning.
He became renowned for both the originality and the reality in detail of his compositions. It seemed something in the needle probed into his mind and found disturbing desires; for lurking in Leonardo, from his early years of reading, was the knowledge of and interest in torture and state approved murder. Perhaps, these features of his ego, lured from the dark crevices of his mind, absorbed and altered his passion for art and the pleasure he derived from creating his tattoos. Thus, the motif of his art swirled around this center.
His assessment of a person’s character became more acute, especially in the darker aspects, even those the owners strove to keep in a state of slumber. It was these aspects that he felt attracted his customers to his door, as the foul odor of dung attract flies.
Indeed, Leonardo became an artist who wouldn’t work on a person unless their skin and physique appealed to him. His price was high and non-negotiable. Though, he would listen to what the customer wanted, they were never allowed to choose the design he intended to ink upon their skin. Neither could they watch while he was creating, for always his creations were mainly on their backs and down their buttocks and thighs, and he allowed no cameras.
Blood, sweat, and tears were the spices and the moans of pain the meat upon which his lust fed. This lust especially savored pushing the needle into the fleshy thighs and watching the skin clinging to the needle as it was pulled out with the beads of blood forming.
After hundreds of prickings, he would put scalding towels on them to bring out the vivid colors to end the day’s session.
Painkillers were forbidden. If during his work he felt they were feigning pain, he would abruptly stop and tell them to return another day without the drugs in their system.
Of this suffering all his customers knew, yet they would endure, for they would enjoy flaunting the Leonardos on their backs as prove of their daring.
Being a true artist, Leonardo had an image for a tattoo that would be his masterpiece. Into it, he would put all his soul. For this tattoo, he needed a beautiful woman with flawless skin, perfect proportions, and, of course, devoid of tattoos. Yet, those alone could not satisfy him; needed was a woman with an aura to fit the image of his desires.
Former customers were asked to be on the lookout with their reward for success a substantial amount of cash. In vain, he waited, but this kind of fate tends to arrive like rain on a sunny day.
So, it happened one Sunday while enjoying a bottle of red wine. He was nodding off and dreaming.
Naomi was hot and tired. She had been walking under the sun for hours selling her cookies. Every year it was getting harder to sell them; even here, in this high class neighborhood. The economy, she thought, but she suspected it was also because she was older. She knew the younger ones sold more.
Her nerves were frayed, for she never found it easy to ask people for help. She exhaled a deep breath thinking, this was the last year of this, then she was going to college.
The next house was on the corner with a lush green lawn, shade trees, and flowering bushes. Hoping one day she would have a house just like that one, she pushed her hand through her long hair, pinched her cheeks, walked to the door, and pushed the bell.
Leonardo gazed upon the woman on the screen. The one he’d been desiring; innocence in a white Girl Scout blouse, a green vest with badges, and a green beret upon her head, yet under the innocence a dark craving.
Leonardo opened the door. “Hello. What can I do for you?”
She made a big smile. “Would you like to buy some Girl Scout cookies?
Reciprocating the smile, he replied, “This is my lucky day. Of course, I’d love to buy your yummy cookies.”
Her smile got bigger. “Thanks. Which would you like? I’ve got chocolate chip, oatmeal, and ginger snaps.”
“I’ll take two boxes of each.”
“Wow! You’re my best customer.” As she took out the boxes from her bag, she had a thought. “Sir, I’ve got four more boxes to sell. If you buy them, I’ll give you five dollars off.”
Leonardo laughed gaily. “Sure, why not? What’s your name?”
“Such a pretty name for a charming lady. How much do I owe you, Naomi?”
“Let’s see. That’s ten boxes at ten dollars each and that special five dollar discount. Comes up to ninety-five dollars.”
“I need to go upstairs for the money. Would you like to wait inside away from this awful heat?”
That suggestion raised an alarm, for she knew she had to be careful when strangers were nice. “It’s okay. I’ll wait here.”
Leonardo nodded. “I understand.” Shortly, he returned. “Here’s a soda, and here’s a hundred. Keep the change.”
Naomi gushed. “Thank you so much, sir!”
“Here’s my business card. I’m a tattooist. Google me and see my compositions. I’d love to ink one on you.”
Naomi took the card and read the name. “Leonardo….Yeah, I’d love to get one, but I’m just eighteen. I’d need, you know, my Mom’s permission since she’d paid for it, but she’s such a square. She doesn’t have any tattoos, not even a small one. But, soon I’ll start working. I’ll keep your card. Thanks, sir.”
“Yes, thank you, Leonardo. Good bye.” She waved.
Watching from the door as Naomi walked away, he whispered, unheard, “Till, we meet again.”
They waved to each other twice more before Leonardo closed the door.
As soon as Naomi got in front of a computer, she googled Leonardo and discovered the incredible talent visible in his tattoos. Determined to learn more, she emailed a request to visit his studio. A prompt reply and permission to visit him anytime, thrilled her. They set up a meeting for the next day at 9 a.m.
By that time, Leonardo knew a lot about Naomi. A family of three living in a rented home. Family abandoned by her father, mother twice divorced, and rumors of sexual abuse from the stepfather. Naomi also had a younger brother from the stepfather. They had some financial support from her mother’s brother, a Girl Scout fan, but not enough. She would have to be lucky to attend college.
Ten minutes to nine, Naomi arrived at the skyscraper containing Leonardo’s studio. A doorman confirmed her appointment and opened the door. She took the elevator to the 55th floor. At five minutes to nine, Naomi arrived at the door of Leonardo’s studio. She pushed the bell. The door opened wide to reveal a long dimly lit hallway. There was the scent of rubbing alcohol and a faint odor of sweat. Through a speaker, Leonardo spoke, “Welcome, Naomi. I’m working. Come and see.”
With small silent steps, Naomi arrived at the end of the hall. She stopped, took the final step, and turned.
A young muscular man was facedown on a table high above the floor, but what took her attention was the tattoo on his back, buttocks, and thighs.
A magnificently maned lion, its tongue hanging out of its mouth, was lying dead. A vulture, its wings and feet fully extended in preparation for landing, seemed to be swooping out of the tattoo. It wasn’t finished, yet she felt the power of it.
She whispered, “It’s wonderfully scary.”
The naked man turned his head. “You didn’t say we’d have company.”
Leonardo placed a hand on the man’s head and turned it away. “She’s not just company. I hope she becomes my apprentice.”
Naomi took a deep audible breath. Leonardo laughed. “Come here. Take this gold needle.”
As Naomi picked up the needle, she felt energy jolt up her arm. “Ouch!”
Leonardo laughed. “That’s just static electricity, dear. Hold it between your thumb and two middle fingers.”
“The angle of the needle has to be a little…” Leonardo placed his fingers over hers. “Like this.”
“I’m going to show you how to pierce the skin. Carefully watch the angle of the insertion and how deep the needle goes.”
Leonardo slowly guided Naomi’s hand as the needle pierced the skin where he had placed the ink with a brush. “The same angle and movement to extract…like so. Max hardly felt it. Right?”
“Max, I don’t want to hear any complaints. My apprentice will, with my guidance, ink a small part of the background. However, you may express any pain with moans.”
There was a hesitant grunt of acknowledgment, later, a lot of moans.
Leonardo started his lesson. “We use pigments which we call ink. Each color uses different pigments. People can be allergic to some, so we need to test for that before we proceed. Disinfecting the skin with alcohol allows the pigment to be absorbed more quickly.”
That’s how the first week of Naomi’s schooling began. For two hours everyday he taught her the basics of tattooing. Hopefully, she would become interested in having a tattoo of her own.
One of his scouts found her mother, a woman who also fit his demanding physical requirements. He had the scout arrange a meeting.
Leonardo arrived at the meeting place ten minutes early. He was nursing his drink when a woman entered the bar. She stood there for her eyes to adjust to the dimly lit interior. The few patrons who looked at the new arrival thought they were looking at a goddess with an hourglass figure and long black hair flowing down her exposed back.
Oblivious, Leonardo was scrolling through text at a booth. He nearly dropped his smartphone when the woman spoke, “Are you the tattoo artist, Leonardo?”
Leonardo stared, his eyes going from her face, down her body, and back up. She seemed too young to be Naomi’s mother. He swallowed. “Yes.”
“Nice to meet you, Leonardo. I’m Wanda.”
He stood and extended his hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Wanda. Thank you so much for coming here, today. What would you like to drink?”
She lightly grasped his hand and released.
Leonardo gestured. “Please, sit down.”
She slid onto the seat. “Lemonade, please.”
Leonardo placed the order through the touch pad of the menu.
Wanda waved her hand in front of her neck. “What a hot muggy day! This place is such a relief. I took a look at your website, Leonardo. To tell the truth, I was blown away. Your tattoos seem ready to pop out from the skin.”
As soon as he saw her, he had changed his plans. “Thank you. I’m delighted that you like them. I’d be willing to offer a substantial amount for the privilege of putting my masterpiece on your daughter’s back.”
Wanda paused. “My daughter...? No, I don’t…”
“That’s a big disappointment. However, I understand. Well, then, how about yourself? I offer the same deal to you.”
“I would put a tattoo of my own design on your back and, perhaps, down your buttocks to your thighs. I would take a video and some pics of it to go into my portfolio. If you wish, your identity would not be revealed.”
“What would the tattoo be?”
“I haven’t decided. Something awesome to fit your character.”
“Like what exactly?”
“I never reveal that to my customers.”
“So, I might not like it.”
“Oh, you’ll definitely like it.”
“How much are you offering?”
“Five thousand dollars.”
“Make it ten and I’m yours.”
Leonardo shook his head. “That’s too much. I can offer seven.”
“Hold out your hand.”
They shook hands, then agreed to start one week later at Leonardo’s studio. After Leonardo showed her some of his most recent creations, Wanda finished her lemonade and left.
Leonardo slowly let out a deep breath, watched her go out the door, and raised a hand.
The waitress came. “Will there be anything else, sir?”
“Yes, could you be so kind as to bring a glass of water, no ice, and two aspirins?”
“Right away, sir.”
He couldn’t believe his luck. Wanda was perfect and willing. Well, nearly perfect, she needed that tattoo and one more added ingredient in the concoction to bring out the true nature of that tattoo.
Besides being a tattoo artist, Leonardo was highly skilled with paint and brush. He would be busy this week painting a scene to use before he began the tattoo.
Early on the morning of the day for the tattoo to be inked on Wanda, Leonardo opened the door to let Naomi in.
“Good morning, Naomi. Excited and eager?”
“Good. Come on in. Finally, after a week of practicing, you’re about to begin on the real thing. But, before we do, I’d like you to pose for a painting I’ve nearly completed. I only need to put you in it.”
“That’s awesome and an honor.”
He led her to a large room that smelt of paint. Beams of sunlight from windows that reached nearly to the high ceiling lit the room. A canvas, its back facing the door, was on an easel next to a chair and table.
Leonardo pointed. “Take the gold needle in your right hand and bend over that table. Strike a pose. You’re putting a tattoo on a subject with the needle. You’re concentrating. You’re enjoying it.”
“Perfect. Hold it until I say relax.”
Striding to the canvas, he painted and painted. “You can relax.”
“Can I see?”
On the canvas was a field of green grass, flowering trees, and hopping birds. On the right was a heap of scrawny naked bodies. In the center was a high table with a naked body face down on it. On its back was a partially inked tattoo. Beside the table was a woman holding a gold needle with a look of concentration and joy.
Naomi stared. “That’s me isn’t it?”
“How could you? It’s horrible.” She raised the needle and lunged at the painting.
Leonardo grabbed her wrist. “Look at yourself! It’s what you truly are.”
Her eyes glistened with tears and her lips trembled. “Yes, I hate myself. For it’s true, it excites me when I make them moan in pain.”
Leonardo released his grip. Sobbing, Naomi dropped to the floor. “I’m evil. And, I can’t stop feeling good when I’m being bad.”
Leonardo pet her head like he would to a dog. “It’s good to know and admit your true nature.”
Naomi lay prostrate on the floor and whimpered repeatedly, “Leave me alone.”
He kneaded her neck. “How can I leave you alone when I have come so far in making you a truly desirable woman?”
Unmoving, with her arms hiding her face, she cried, “I’m afraid of you… your power over me.”
His hand caressed her shoulders. “After today, you won’t need me. You’ll be the one with power over all. Now, be brave, sweet lady. We have work to do.”
Sniffing, Naomi got up. “What do you want me to do?”
“A new customer is coming soon. Get everything ready.”
Leonardo didn’t tell her that the new customer would be her mother. Neither had he told Wanda her daughter would be the one inserting the needle. He would have Wanda wear a mask and take it off when the tattoo was done. Thus, the tattoo would have to be finished in one session. It would take all day and night, the first time he had ever attempted such exhausting work.
The appointed time came. Cameras picked up Wanda’s arrival.
The voice of a young man spoke from above the door. “Good afternoon, Wanda. The door is unlocked. Come in.”
As she stepped in front of the door, it swung open with a chime. There was a refreshing cool breeze from the air conditioner. The pleasant voice of a young woman spoke, “Welcome, dear guest. Follow the hallway to the creation room of the renown tattoo artist, Leonardo. If you would like a refreshment, please push the blue button on the wall to your right.”
Wanda saw a pulsating cerulean button and pushed it. A panel slid away to reveal a fridge. Opening it, she saw tall slim glasses and an array of nonalcoholic drinks. She took a glass and choose a soda she had never seen, a pineapple apricot. There was a hiss as she unscrewed the cap and poured the pale orange drink.
Sipping it, she entered the creation room.
A large steel table that could be elevated or lowered dominated the room. Draping it was a thick black towel.
Beyond the table was a large sliding glass door to a balcony. Outlined against the sky was the back of Leonardo standing in pigment stained khaki pants and a black T-shirt.
Leonardo slid open the door and beckoned.
Placing the half drunk soda on the smaller table, Wanda stepped with hips swaying to the door and stepped onto the balcony. The day being sultry, her perfume decorated and lightened the air.
“Welcome, Wanda. I hope you’re looking forward to getting a tattoo.”
“I looked in my bank account this morning. Only four thousand dollars were deposited. When will I get the rest?”
“When we finish. You know, I love standing here. It’s easy to forget your worries when you look out into the world and see how small we are. The pedestrians and vehicles below are so small. They look like bugs scurrying for food.”
Wanda took a peek. “Or bugs looking for shelter.”
Leonardo smiled at that comment. “You will find a basket in the bathroom containing a terrycloth robe and a Venetian mask. Take off your clothes and put on the robe and mask. I’ll be waiting. Oh, before that, finish your soda. You’ll soon be thirsty if you don’t.”
Inside the bathroom, Wanda did as she had been told, looked into the mirror and liked what she saw. The mask was silvery with blurry blue over the eyebrows and cheeks. The lips were a sapphire blue. Her long black hair accentuated the effect of hidden emotions.
She stepped back into the creation room.
“Ah, you look ravishing. Come, and lie face down on the table.”
Leonardo lowered the height of the table.
Wanda lay down and yawned. “I’m feeling really sleepy. Is it okay if I doze off?”
“Sure.” But, she didn’t hear a word.
Leonardo left the room. Shortly, Naomi entered pushing a small wheeled table. On it were heavy porcelain saucers filled with pigments used in tattooing. She then raised the table with Wanda lying on it.
Leonardo returned, opened the drawer of the smaller table, and pulled out a long knife. Stepping over to the other table, he grabbed the collar of Wanda’s robe and slit it all the way down.
The rays of the sun flashed through the window. Its reflected rays shone upon Wanda. For the first time, he saw how beautiful her skin was. It seemed almost a shame to cover it with a tattoo, yet the urge to accomplish his goal soon overwhelmed this thought.
Leonardo picked up a thin brush. “Naomi, as I outline the tattoo follow with the needle.”
He held the brush firmly between the thumb and the ring and little finger. As he applied the ink, Naomi pricked nimbly along the lines. They worked unconscious of time. Noon came and went. The afternoon hours sped past and hunger was left behind.
Just before four o’clock, Wanda stirred. Leonardo placed his brush down and opened the drawer of the table. Taking out a hypodermic needle, he injected another dose of the narcotic that had been in the soda.
“Let’s take a short break, Naomi.”
“Okay, how about iced tea and wafers?”
Stretching out his stiff muscles, Leonardo went into the small kitchen to enjoy the refreshments.
Naomi put the iced tea and dish of wafers in front of Leonardo.
“How am I doing, Leo?”
“You’re doing fine.”
“Leo, what’s so special about her?”
“She resembles you. An evil vine is within her. She feels it, but hasn’t yet admitted it to herself.”
“I mean, why are you paying her? It should be the other way around.”
“Ahh, you overheard our little conversation. Perhaps, in every artist’s life there comes a time when an irresistible urge pulls. I felt the first tugs after finding that gold needle you’re using. This urge is telling me she’s the perfect canvas.”
“I envy her.”
“Your time will come, dear Naomi. I think you should go home now. Come back in the morning as early as you can. I should be finishing about then.”
“I want to stay.”
“Your brother will be waiting for you. I’ll wait for your return before I finish the tattoo and leave something for you to ink.”
Leonardo smiled and crossed his heart. “I promise.”
Ten minutes later, he was alone with Wanda.
Again, he was astonished at the beauty of her skin. He took off her mask and gazed at her face. One could fall in love with just a glance at it. But, not I, he thought. Mere beauty as a creation is not worthy of a true artist.
The outline of the rose was done. Now, would come the difficult part of adding the pair of animals. He got to work, with one hand applying the ink the other hand following with the needle.
It was around nine o’clock when Wanda stirred again. Leonardo had just finished outlining his composition. All that was left to do was filling in with color.
He let her wake, for he didn’t want to risk another injection.
Wanda opened her eyes, then blinked hard. “Where am I?”
“You’re in my studio.”
“Oh, yeah.” She sat up uncaring of her nakedness. “What time is it?”
“It’s almost nine o’clock.”
“You drugged me with that soda, didn’t you?”
“Yes, it contained a pain killer and a sleeping agent.”
“You bastard.” She shook her head and smirked. “My motto from now is never trust a stranger bearing gifts. Are we done?”
“Only with the outline. I need to add color.”
“Well, I’m tired, hungry, and thirsty, and I need to use the can.”
“I’ve got stew, French bread, and red wine. I’ll be sharing the same meal, so you needn’t worry about being drugged. You know where the bathroom is.”
Wanda hopped off and staggered to the bathroom. After flushing the toilet, she stood with her back in front of the mirror. She stared not breathing, for the tattoo was stunning. It gave her a disturbing insight into Leonardo’s mind.
She opened the door and stood leaning in the doorway. “Your…our tattoo is kind of out there, isn’t it?”
“You love it, don’t you?”
“I’m wondering how people will react to it.”
You will eventually, he thought. “Come. Serve dinner, if only to reassure yourself it’s not drugged. Let’s talk and eat.”
They sat down at the table. Wanda watched him take the first spoonful then ate.
“Do you like the stew, Wanda?”
“Yes, it’s delicious.”
“How do you feel about eating meat?”
“I don’t feel guilty at all.”
“Well, how about the way we raise those animals?”
“They sure have a miserable life, don’t they?”
Leonardo smiled. “Many people are beginning to say it’s evil.”
“That’s how it is, but things can change.”
“Most people believe an omnipotent god created the world.”
Wanda laughed. “I see where you’re going. You’re saying God is evil.”
“Well, it definitely explains the existence of evil, doesn’t it?
“What about the belief in, you know, Satan …. the battle between good and evil?”
“If Satan exists alongside God, then neither can be omnipotent. Then, the question arises who created the universe with all its laws.”
“Okay, let’s say the one supreme being is evil. What, then, is the purpose of our existence?”
“I think you know the answer, Wanda.”
She paused thinking, then laughed. “You’ll never be a prophet, Leonardo. No one has the stomach for such a belief.”
“You’re right. Well, we need to finish the tattoo.”
Wanda got back onto the table as Leonardo prepared the inks.
It was around half past four when Naomi returned. Leonardo had paced himself to leave the last bit of coloring for her.
Placing his hand on Wanda’s head, Leonardo said, “Welcome back.”
“I couldn’t sleep. Can I finish the tattoo?”
“You sure can.”
Leonardo pushed down as Wanda tried to turn her head. “Who are you talking to?”
“To my talented apprentice.”
Leonardo handed Naomi the needle. She pricked as he put the orange ink on the last rose petal.
Naomi asked, “Why is the rose orange? Wouldn’t red be more dramatic?”
“Good question. Red roses mean I love you. Orange means I’m proud of you.”
“Got it. I sure am proud of being a part of this.”
“So, am I. Now, let’s take the towels out of the warmer.”
As Leonardo placed the hot towels on Wanda’s back, she moaned deeply.
Minutes later, the still steaming towels were taken off.
Leonardo stared in rapture. “It’s magnificent! I’ve made you the most desirable woman in the world. Your power over men will have no rival.”
Leonardo parted the curtains on one wall to reveal a mirror. “Take a look.”
Wanda walked silently on the thick carpet to the mirror and turned. The rays of the morning sun lit the tattoo. The rose was an orange flare burning her back. Among the leaves, a plump female praying mantis was dining on a slim headless male. The two black dots, one in each of of her eyes, were mesmerizing.
She smiled. Turning again to face Leonardo, she was about to comment on the tattoo, but instead asked, “Where’s your talented apprentice?”
“Naomi, stop hiding behind my back.” He stepped aside. “Wanda, are you shocked to see your daughter?”
Understanding now that Leonardo had planned everything for this moment, Wanda realized he was evil and insane. Her tattoo’s praying mantis raised its claws. She staggered forward, swayed, then recovered.
Wanda spoke in a clear strong voice. “Till today, I have been the victim of men. From today, men will be my victims. You shall be the first.”
Leonardo’s face shone with delightful achievement. “It’s what I saw in you the first time we met. My tattoo has been the net that raised your true self from the dark, cold depths of your soul.”
Wanda grinned. “It’s true. It feels as if a ton has been pushed off my chest to give me fearless freedom to release my desires. And… I also see your twisted lust.”
She spread her arms. “Turn around, Leonardo. Look and see your dear Naomi. She will sate your lust.”
Turning, Leonardo saw the gold needle clutched in Naomi’s hands pointing at him. A drop of blood fell from its tip. Step by step, she approached with eyes staring through him.
Leonardo stood fast and ripped open his shirt. “Take your desire.”
Naomi lunged. The needle plunged into Leonardo’s heart. He reeled back then fell onto the floor.
Naomi turned and looked at her mother. Wanda’s breast was swelling with each breath.
A big smile exposed Naomi’s teeth shining with saliva.