ONE MONTH ON THE ROAD WITH PERMANENT MARK
All right kids, as I am new to the world of global traveling and international partying, I can tell you all that if you plan to be a globetrotter in this day and age, it is best to start out with someone familiar with the ins and outs of such an endeavor. So, when my good friend, international playboy and Skin & Ink reporter-at-large, Permanent Mark, asked if I would like to accompany him on his four-month expedition to Ko Samet, Thailand, to help him open his shop and enjoy the sun, I was more than excited.
After a slew of phone calls between P.M., myself and about five different travel agents, we finally got what we believed to be a pretty good flight fair price. The few hours before the flight passed quickly, due to the fact that we were really jazzed to be going and got to suck down some beers with my boss, Guy Martynuik and Tattoo Molly of Amsterdam. The next 23 hours were excruciatingly long-16 on a plane and a three-hour layover in Tai Pei, China, that began at 5 a.m. and ended in a blur. We finally arrived in Bangkok. After an enthusiastic greeting from our driver and new friend Tom, we sped through the downtown traffic to the waiting arms of the Royal Princess Hotel where hot showers, cold sheets and room service were the order of the day. This brings me to an important travel lesson: You can either travel like a pimp or travel like a punk. In other words, you can leave your house with a backpack, a road map and a few hundred dollars in traveler’s checks to embark on a month of sleeping on buses and going without bathing, or you can take the other route (which is, of course, the path taken by myself and P.M.) first-rate hotels, dining in first-class restaurants and generally partying your ass off in true player fashion. After a couple of days of seeing the sites, eating the food and sampling some of the locals (I mean, some of the local color), we headed for two days in Pattaya, which I suffered through, due to a banana-sized prawn and a mild case of food poisoning. Thanks to the miracle of modern medicine, I recovered quickly enough to get my first taste of live Thai boxing. The next morning, we were off again to Ban Pei, a port city north of Bangkok where we traded in our sneakers for plastic sandals and surf shorts, and boarded the barge to paradise, Ko Samet Island.
THOSE WHO WENT BEFORE
For those of you out there who are about to grab the phone and try to get yourself a ticket to ride on the players’ bus, hold that thought. The chain of events we experienced can’t happen by simply jumping on a plane and arriving in this beautiful country. The fact is, none of this adventure would have been possible without the trail first being blazed by a few well-traveled and highly educated tattoo artists; the first being Hanky Panky, who first set foot on Ko Samet over a decade ago.
It must be pointed out that, back then, the world-tour thing was a lot different for heavily tattooed travelers. Thailand in the 1980s had never seen many large, white, heavily inked men like Henk Schiffmacher. Which leads me to the introduction of Roger, a man who knows the island of Ko Samet almost better than the native Thai people who live on the island. It was on the third day, after spending the previous days hangin’ on the beach and drinking all the beer and Thai whisky we could get, that we ran into Mr. Roger on the same stretch of beach that Hanky had walked on during one of the first trips to Ko Samet. As the story goes, the two hit it off quite well, and after a night “on the piss,” Hanky put down a couple of real nice pieces on Roger’s arms (in record time, of course), and before leaving the island, set him up with a new machine. Since then, Roger has been putting down some island-style tattoos on and off for over ten years. But don’t try to set up an appointment with this guy. He only tattoos when he wants and who he wants. And, if you bug him, he will be the first to tell you to promptly get screwed. Getting and giving tattoos for this man is not a matter of business or even pure art. Getting a tattoo from him is like having a drink with the man; if he does not want to have a beer with you, then you might as well keep walking down the beach.
THE AMAZING HOMECOMING
After the next week and a half of snorkeling, riding speed boats and hanging around with a cold beer, I was appointed the job of going back into Bangkok to retrieve an autoclave and a few other supplies. It was there that I greeted our newest addition to the family, Andrea Elston of Eastside ink. Following a 24-hour confusion about her expected arrival time, two or three days sightseeing in Bangkok, getting her adjusted to the time change and trying to track down the medical supply warehouse, we were off on the five-hour trek to the beach. When we got back, the reception could only be described as one of the longest parties I have ever been fortunate enough to attend. For over a week we were treated to the best of everything, from boat trips around the island to watch the sunset, to spending an unforgettable night partying with some of the locals on a small island inhabited only by chickens, rabbits and one old man. We celebrated all week and somehow still found time to get a little tattooing done, though the night we decided to trade tattoos was, to say the least, kind of a blur. Tattooing under harsh conditions kind of comes with the territory when you don’t have the luxury of a shop or even tracing paper (forgotten by all three of us).
Alas, after so much sun, fun and relaxation, it was nearing the end of my 30-day visa, and I also had to get back to San Francisco to make sure Molly hadn’t murdered everyone in my shop. It was time to experience the main reason for my quest to Asia. I was going to get tattooed Thai style!
FULFILLING THE QUEST
The day we left the island was long and sweaty, since the temperature was getting pretty high the last couple of days. Just so you know: The Thai-style tattoos I was after aren’t done in Formica tattoo parlors with neon signs in the window. Theses traditional tattoos have definite religious overtones, and according to protocol, are applied in the confines of local temples. Luckily, the ride to the temple was mercifully short. If you have ever seen Bangkok traffic, you would understand. During each of their several rush hours, the traffic just comes to a halt. Motorcycles run horizontally through traffic, and if you are a pedestrian, you’d better pray to Buddha that your ass can move. Thailand traffic is probably the most chaotic mass of humanity and automobiles I have ever seen, not to mention that it claimed the life of one of our greatest artists, Greg Irons. Remembering that, I was petrified. But, after a few minor jams and a quick stop to pick up some gifts for the monk who was about to give us a little spiritual souvenir on the old epidermis, we made it to our destination unscathed.
Arriving at the temple, I was awestruck by the architecture. Coming from a western country where the churches and synagogues are, to me, set up to make you feel uncomfortable and guilt-stricken, I was taken by the tranquillity of the place. That kind of serenity is pretty rare. Entering the tattoo room was definitely a humbling experience. Although P.M. had already laid down the protocol, I was still not comfortable with the ritual of meeting the monk, even though, I went through the motions of kneeling on the floor, making sure that my head was never above his and receiving the ceremonial welcome to his area. At first, things seemed to be a little on the formal side, but after a few smokes, a little bottled water, and of course, the traditional showing off the tattoos to each other, the room started feeling more relaxed. The very first object I noticed was the rather large tool that was sitting directly behind the raised chair of the monk. This thing, I am not ashamed to say, intimidated the sh*t out of me. It was about three-feet long with a sharp point at the end. I felt a definite desire to run out the door. Fortunately, Andrea was the first to get under the spike. Although it is standard practice to have someone help stretch the skin, this called for some special ingenuity, because monks are not allowed to touch females. In order to get around this little problem, our friend Tom used his hand as a kind of cushion between the hand of the monk and the back of Andrea’s shoulder. I helped to stretch during the first part of her tattoo, and because of this, got to see the process up close. The rhythmic bouncing of the tip of the instrument was hypnotizing to watch. Coupled with the skill and accuracy of the monk’s touch, the tattoo session was truly a lesson in patience. Andrea originally wanted just the back of her neck to be tattooed, but when the monk asked if she would like to finish it off by going across her shoulder, she was up to the task. The end result was incredible.
After a short rest and a few more smokes, it was my turn. Before Andrea had gotten her tattoo, we were both asked what place we wanted done. I almost regretted asking to have the top of my shoulders and also my throat tattooed. But then I thought to myself, Hey, sh*thead, how many times will you have the opportunity to be tattooed by a monk in a temple in Thailand? So I bit my lip, puffed out my chest in true tough guy fashion and kneeled down in front of this holy man. I’m glad I did. The experience had to be one of the most enjoyable and spiritually fulfilling experiences of my life. The tattoo itself was not the part that overwhelmed me; it was the surroundings that made me feel so wonderful. There is definitely something about getting marked by someone who has such devotion, not only to his art form, but also to his religion, of which tattooing is a significant part. With the tattoo out of the way, it was off to the next step of the ritual, which was to get these bad boys blessed by the father monk.
BLESSING THE TATTOOS
We took a leisurely stroll across the grounds to where the father presides. Ours was a simple request; to make sure that our tattoos would work their magic. You see, these indelible marks are deeply rooted in tradition and religious belief. Most of the tattoos are put on specifically for protection purposes. When you receive one of these symbols on your body, it must be treated with the respect and dignity it deserves, and not to be taken lightly. As we waited in line to be blessed, a strange feeling came over me that I had just taken my life as a tattooer and as a collector of tattoos one step further and one plane higher. The blessing itself was short but powerful, and we all left feeling a little bit better about the world.
GIVING SOMETHING BACK
Then it was back to the shrine so that P.M. could return the favor to the monks who, for so many years, had tattooed him (Note: P.M. has more Thai tattoos on him than any other Western tattooist I have ever met). After wrestling with the battery pack and getting set up, P.M. laid a righteous tiger image on the thigh of the monk. During the process, one of the guys who helps with stretching asked if one of us could do a tattoo for him. We agreed and asked what design he was thinking about. Much to the surprise of Mark and myself, he wanted the black widow that P.M. has on his hand and that I sport on my neck. It was agreed, and after a brief explanation of the significance of such a design, I took on the task of bringing into the world another black widow brother. As I etched the emblem into his shoulder under the watchful eye of the main monk, I was overwhelmed when this holiest of holy men asked if he too could receive this mark of the brotherhood. Without delay, we set to work. I did a total of three that night, including one on our driver Tom who had done so much for us during our stay. Now you have to understand that a lot like the Thai tattoo work that I had just received, the “black widow” design is not just a piece of flash that just anybody can get. This particular spider was originally designed by the great Bob Roberts and has been passed on from one person to the next.
TIME TO HEAD HOME
After we had spent a good 12 hours at the temple, kneeling on marble floors, getting and giving tattoos in the most uncomfortable positions imaginable, it was time to head back for dinner and some sleep. After a long good-bye and reassurances that we would all see each other again someday, we were off again. The next morning was all about shopping and getting ready to leave. I was heading back to the States with cold drinks and cable TV on my mind, while Mark and Andrea were off to Malaysia. When I departed Thailand, P.M.’s shop was still in the works, but I guess all you kids will just have to wait and see what’s up with that when Mr. Permanent Mark gets back and gives you the latest lowdown on his adventures.
See ya all on the next trip.