The first time I walked into Southside Tattoo was summer 2006.
I’d just gotten married and thought it would be a brilliant idea to have my new husband’s name writ large on my arm in permanent ink. You might think, given my track record with men (I already had one prior divorce and about 90,000 prior breakups in my past) I would have waited a little while before committing such an act.
But no. I’m decisive—some might say impulsive. I wanted what I wanted when I wanted it. And when the artist suggested something bigger and more elaborate than I’d imagined, I said to her, “Sure, what the hell, go for it.” She created a large washboard (the “instrument” my husband played in a band) with his name in place of the brand label.
The second time I walked into Southside Tattoo was summer of 2007. The marriage was already over but the ink just would not go away—laser treatments had been both excruciating and laughable. Bart, co-owner of the shop, had been recommended to me by a friend who’d had an amazing cover up done by him. He looked at the heavy black lines and asked for some time to think.
A few weeks later I was back, settled into Bart’s chair, as he began the first of several long sessions he needed to morph that mark of impulsivity into a work of art—leaves and flowers and a bird the species of his own invention. I’m sure it was no accident he waited until the very last session to cover my ex’s name, allowing me as much time as possible to mull the error of both the marriage and the commemorative ink.
But talk about lemons to lemonade. The dozen or so hours I spent in the shop over the course of several weeks I really got to know Bart, an amazing artist and human, a gentle soul, and before long a good friend. I went back to him again and again—to get a large piece on my right bicep, then one on my right forearm (both of these artwork my son had done as a child), and when Bubbles my Soul Dog died, a memorial portrait of her resting upon a lotus.
The eight millionth time I walked into Southside Tattoo was October 2013. I went to get a tiny string of numbers on my wrist to commemorate a particular day of a trip I took to London with my son. More precisely, I wanted an ink souvenir to mark a stirring I felt as I bid Henry farewell at an underground station as he prepared to head off to Paris and Serbia to play a gig. That day at the shop, another artist, Noska, who I knew casually, looked at me long and hard. “You need to come here more often,” he said, like a prophet channeling the words of some far off higher power.
The words stuck with me as I left.
I emailed Bart and told him what Noska said. I confessed that as had been the story of my life to date, I was still f*cking up with men. I wondered if maybe hanging out in a tattoo shop full of these puzzling creatures might help me decipher some Secret Man Code and help me stop choosing The Very Worst Men for Me.
Bart said sure, bring it.
I’m crap with secrets so my promise to myself that I’d not reveal my mission fast gave way to a confession that very first day. “I was thinking we could call my visits Man College,” I told the guys and Leila, Bart’s daughter who grew up in the shop and was now an artist herself. “I can learn all about men.”
Noska snorted loud and unapologetically. “Well that’s going to take less than an hour,” he said. Everyone laughed. He continued. “You know how women are always saying, Oh, I wonder what he’s thinking! I wonder what he’s feeeeeeeling! Well he’s only ever thinking one of two things, I’m hungry. I’m tired.”
Now before you jump my sh*t and tell me that’s sexist and wrong and just as bad as any pervasive stereotypes of women, hold on. Because I’ve been going to Man College religiously now, nearly every week for more than a year, and I’m here to remind you of something: Cliché’s really are rooted in kernels of truth. Spending tons of time around a bunch of dudes who can turn on so-called typical behavior in an instant taught me more than a bazillion failed relationships ever did.
And just what have I learned? That, you know, yeah—sometimes dudes really aren’t thinking of anything beyond Sandwich. Nap. Sandwich. Nap.
I also learned to stop being jumpy around guys, stop deferring, and, in the very best sense of the idea, I learned how to stop giving a sh*t about guys.
More specifically, thanks to external and internal influences—role modeling by my subservient mom who catered to my father always; media messages that continue to insist you must make your man happy; and all the rest of the women-serve-men bullsh*t in the world—I never could fully shake a “need” to change myself every time I got into a relationship.
This despite being an ardent feminist, a lover of therapy, and someone who really tries to pay attention and avoid “wrong action.”
Only in immersing myself in full on dude culture on a regular basis did I learn how to desensitize myself. I don’t mean I’m insensitive now. I just mean that by finding myself a band of chosen brothers I could trust, confide in, and ask for advice, I learned how to stop involving myself with men I should not.
Last spring when I walked into Southside Tattoo on a non-class day, I sat in a chair in Noska’s office, topless and nervous. Together we’d created a design for a full back piece, a Chinese Foo Dog featuring the face of my Boston Terrier Rebound, one paw upon a lavender sphere, representing what I’d worked hard to learn: I am whole. It’s been nine months now since that first session, and Leila and Bart have contributed to the work, which should be done in a few more sittings. To me it symbolizes so many things, the greatest one being this: these artists are my friends, my teachers, my healers. And they truly have my back in every way.
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Author: Spike Gillespie
Editor: Renee Picard
Image: author’s own