A little while back, thanks to the wonders of the Internets, I got back in touch with Cyndy, an old friend from high school. The intervening 28 years since we sat across from each other on the school newspaper staff have been rather good for and to her: she has a great husband, great kids, a good career, and all sorts of joys. I looked at her back then as the little sister I always wanted (even though *cough* I was the youngest member of my class, usually having my birthday fall on the first day of school every year), and I keep up that tradition today. There’s no reason to scare her too much as to what an, erm, well-rounded person I’ve become in the intervening decades…except for the entertainment value. Picture Doris Day and Hunter S. Thompson on a weekend road trip, and that pretty much describes our relationship these days.
Since a lot has happened since those high school days, we’ve been catching up on what the other has done in our adult lives. I’m trying not to bring up too much strangeness, but it’s hard not for some of it to seep out, especially when I’m waving a marlin spike around and yelling about reptiles. She swears that she didn’t write “I should have killed you when I had the chance” in my yearbook, and I just want to make sure.
Anywhoo, due to various considerations, she discovered yesterday that I have a tattoo. I keep forgetting that she isn’t part of my usual circles, where they’ve gotten a bit used to it. The fact is, I joined Carl Zimmer’s Science Tattoo Emporium twenty years ago last January, and that’s something that even messes with my tattooed freak friends.
To explain, I have to go into some of the background. Twenty years ago, I was living in Exposition Park, a small collection of lofts and shops directly across the road from the north entrance of Dallas’s Fair Park. By the beginning of 1992, I was already known as the local reference librarian for the Expo Park area thanks to my science library. Neighbors on my floor would ask for confirmation of one fact or another, but the folks in the old Skin & Bones tattoo parlor immediately downstairs from me were the ones who needed, in those pre-Internet days, a particular photo or drawing to take care of customers. I was awakened from a dead sleep several times because one of the artists downstairs had a customer who HAD to have a tat of some obscure beast, they didn’t have any ready art, and they knew I’d find the right reference. I still wonder about the absolutely stunning redhead who kissed me for finding a life-sized photo of a charging blue-ringed octopus that was going between her shoulder blades.
This was just during the beginning of the big tattoo rush of the early Nineties, and while I could appreciate the work, I couldn’t afford it. Besides, I swore, as many do, that I’d only get ink if I could find something that truly spoke to me. I’d already seen too many impulse trips to the competing tattoo parlor down the way that turned into impulse trips to the ER for antibiotics, so I also knew that I’d have to take care of it, and care for it well, while it healed.
Finally, it struck. I was writing for a now-long-forgotten magazine called Science Fiction Eye, and just saw the latest issue come out with a big article I’d written on the fossils of the Burgess Shale. Meanwhile, Chuck Jones, one of the artists at Skin & Bones, was desperately trying to wheedle a book I owned on how to cast stop-action models. I joked “Well, I’ll trade you a tat for the book.” I had NO IDEA he was going to take me seriously.
When faced with that sort of offer, your mind clears and you make your choice right then. I looked at my Burgess Shale article and flipped a coin between two of the most impressive oddballs from the Middle Cambrian: Anomalocaris and Hallucigenia. You can imagine my relief upon going for an Anomalocaris tat and discovering, literally the next week, that all of the existing interpretations of Hallucigenia‘s fossils were wrong and it had been restored upside down. I wasn’t just pushing the edge of tattoo work: I was scientifically accurate, too.
Well, that was then: Chuck did a beautiful job, and I paid honor to his work by babying that tat during its first few months. Even 20 years later, it’s still crisp and recognizable because of that effort. Since then, it’s made the rounds of presentation to quite a few palaeontologists (including one former member of the Dallas Palaeontological Society who literally became ill upon seeing it), musicians, writers, and other fascinating folks, and they all agree. Having skin art of a two-meter-long top predator with compound eyes on stalks, cuttlefish-like propulsion, feeding appendages originally mistaken for the tail of a crustacean (the name “Anomalocaris” roughly translates to “strange shrimp”), and a mouth that irised open and shut like a steel vegetable steamer just suits me.
Since then, I’ve had plenty of opportunities for more skin art, but have passed up the opportunity, even though the guys at Hold Fast Tattoo in Dallas are THE people who’d be trusted to do so. (Seriously: they’re customers as well as friends, so if you’re in the Dallas area and thinking of any augumentation, head over there and ask to see their Cape sundew.) That may happen one day, and it may not. If it does, then it’s a clump of Darlingtonia on the left shoulder.
That said, I truly look forward to the day Cyndy can meet the Czarina after Cyndy reads this. I imagine they’ll compare notes, look at me, and decide that my days need to be ended by being beaten with rolled-up magazines by two women yelling “What the HELL is WRONG with you, huh?” I’ve had worse deaths.