The needles burned worse than last time. But today he was sober. Bill watched the artist’s eyes. The eyes alone seemed to will the tattoo gun’s movement as it trenched the skin of Bill’s forearm, burying its seed of ink. Maybe it was better not to try to make conversation. Just get this over with. But he needed to talk, needed to hear Niall talk, to establish something human between them.
“I never knew tattooing went so far back.” Bill raised his voice over the metallic buzz of the tattoo gun, wanting to distract the artist, but afraid to distract him.
“At one point in history,” Niall said, his gaze still focused on Bill’s tender skin, “tattooing was taken very seriously, as well it should be. It’s strong magic and not simply about marketing oneself at the club.”
Bill looked away from the pain, closed his eyes, and focused on slowing his breath. Though he hadn’t known at the time, the first tattoo had been for Maddie, a drunkard’s selfish gambit. He had hoped to conjure new life into their marriage by shocking her into acknowledging him, his body, if only to laugh.
“There are very few artists left,” Niall went on, “few human beings, who practice magic,” “as long as you don’t count crap like Wicca, which isn’t magic. It’s just mass-produced garbage designed to elevate somebody to the top of a social circle.”
Bill forced a laugh. “Wicca sounds a lot like corporate America.” His cushy corporate job had gone the way of his wife and the gated community, leaving Bill here half dressed, huffing air thick with solvent, at the mercy of this con artist and his interminable recitations, which Bill was starting to crave as much as he craved this cutting of his skin.
“Thousands of years ago in early mystical cultures,” Niall continued to drone, “they all believed the same things: there are certain marks you don’t make unless you are ready to move mountains. The skin is a protective barrier in every way. When you start opening the skin, you can do ten times the magic work.”
Bill looked again at the spreading blood. “So, what if the tattooist is just some grease ball named Pork Chop—”
“—who specializes in rebel flags and Harley Davidson emblems?” Niall smirked.
“It still has an effect?”
“Of course it does. Even if the artist isn’t actively engaging in a ritual at the time, a tattoo can still act on a metaphysical plane and alter someone’s reality for good or bad.”
“But with less predictability?”
“Usually the result is utter chaos.” Niall switched off the power supply and lay the gun on the counter. Bill noticed again the delicate hands. Their precision reminded him of Maddie’s hands, how he still craved their touch.
“I’m very careful in my work,” the artist said, “and even I have accidentally ruined lives. And sometimes not accidentally.”
LEARN WITH GEORGE HOVIS: George leads a new Charlotte Lit class, Making it Strange, Making it Real: Writing Literary Fantasy, Thursday, October 1, 6-7:30 p.m. More info
ABOUT GEORGE: George Hovis grew up in rural Gaston County, North Carolina. His debut novel, The Skin Artist — nominated for the 2019 Sir Walter Raleigh Award and a Finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award — tells the story of Charlotte’s emergence in the 90s as a “world-class city,” one with deep and often tortured connections to the surrounding hinterlands. George’s stories and essays have appeared widely in anthologies and journals, including The Carolina Quarterly, Southern Cultures, New Madrid, and The North Carolina Literary Review. He is a professor of English at SUNY Oneonta, where he was awarded the 2017 SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. georgehovis.net