The Tattoo by John Miskelly illustration by Steve Thueson

The Tattoo by John Miskelly: a short story

It was believed that Mario’s waiting list went back five years and there was no special treatment. Whether they were rappers, singers, actors, sportspeople, sheiks, or artists, they had to join the queue just like everybody else. The only thing that did change was the price. It was means tested. This kept his reputation as something of an everyman egalitarian intact, even while he was flown privately to various offshore tax havens to tattoo whoever had the finances to indulge that type of expenditure.

I understand my story isn’t original or as tantalizing as the contents of your social media feeds. What’s one more refugee, one more boat person, one more war, one more genocide?

The intricacy of his work was universally revered. The subtleties, shades, and details were pored over and appreciated by fine artists and casual observers alike. His designs became icons beyond the human canvas on which he worked. They transcended medium, appearing on postcards and posters and T-shirts and any other printable surface in shops all over the word. Coffee table tomes could be bought in art gallery gift shops in every major city in the world. He and his designs were referenced in films and TV shows and graffiti and songs. But no copy or print was ever as striking as the original, the one on the skin of that subject. As far as anyone knew, he never drew or painted anything else. His clients never mentioned seeing any preliminary sketches. They told him what they wanted, he envisioned their descriptions, and it appeared on their skin even better than they had imagined it.

And yet as ubiquitous as his work was, no one knew anything of the man himself. He gave few interviews and the rare times he did indulge a select publication, questions of his origins were forbidden. The answers he did give were brief and vague. His accent was unplaceable. Mario was an assumed name. He was known to have several houses and a team of loyal assistants whose own identities were only partially less mysterious than their boss’s.

Coming from anyone else, anyone without Mario’s enigmatic mystique, the idea might have been dismissed as hackneyed, a cynical publicity stunt and a rip off from an obvious source. But it was Mario, and so people listened and speculated—a half page ad in four internationally known newspapers, handwritten with a marker pen. It took two days to authenticate the ad, after which a frenzy of activity ensued. Two social media websites collapsed under the weight of traffic. There would be a raffle of sorts, a lottery: one hundred tattoos of the same design. Limited edition. The chance to join one of the most exclusive clubs in the world and be a walking work of art history. But at a price. Five thousand pounds to be exact. Travel costs to and from Mario’s studio would not be compensated for.

Despite the ripples of disdain and cries of “sellout” at the prohibitive price—very much against Mario’s modus operandi—millions applied from all over the world. And yet when the final names were chosen, they were remarkably Anglo-Saxon with an improbable number of celebrities among them. For unexplained reasons, there was a week between the draw itself and the release of the winning names. The site was reported to have been sacked several times, and several millionaires had made sudden and unannounced journeys to far flung parts of the world they had previously had no business in.

Four months later, the winners and the world’s press descended on Mario’s temporary studio, an abandoned warehouse in an unknown coastal town in an unglamorous country. It was, as several publications noted, a veritable who’s-who of contemporary moneyed hipness—artists, actors, eco-tourism CEOs, almond milk entrepreneurs, art critics, music critics, food critics, revered coffee connoisseurs, artisan brewers, filmmakers, yoga moguls, surfers and surf fitness gurus, influencers, gap year development-fund marketing strategists, two Beckhams, a Smith, and various anonymously wealthy individuals from companies nobody had heard of, but combined controlled ninety percent of all the world’s food stocks and had caused several unreported famines in the proceeding weeks. They mingled together in the giant warehouse exchanging stories and comparing watches and credentials, helping themselves to hors d’oeuvres and glass after glass of artisanal beers and wines. Finally a nondescript scruffily dressed man raised his voice above the hubbub and instructed the guests to please line up at the door he had recently entered through in the order displayed on their invitations. The design would take a mere five minutes to apply.

One by one they entered. The first to pass through the door, a chain-restaurateur from Miami, emerged from the room with his arms raised triumphantly, one forearm wrapped in clingfilm. It was the first sight of the design. The warehouse blazed with camera flashes. It was remarkably simple yet equally as memorable. A child could have re-produced it. Any amateur graffiti artist with even rudimentary skills could have scrawled it on a wall. Everyone cheered and several people in the queue high-fived the restaurateur and he was bombarded with all sorts of questions. The next five people also received a rapturous applause that subsided in enthusiasm with each subsequent person until the tenth person was welcomed with what could only be described as a smattering. The meaning of the design was almost the sole topic of conversation. No one recognized the design. Many pontificated loudly about what it might mean, referencing all kinds of ancient religions and obscure political ideologies.

Finally, with the weak light of the setting sun just barely breaking through the years of caked-on grime on the warehouse windows, the last participant emerged. As before, they mingled, excitedly comparing their tattoos through the clingfilm, searching and failing to find any discrepancies or differences.

There was an atmosphere similar to that of an awards ceremony after-party—boozy, self-satisfied, but comradely—when Mario’s assistant again raised his voice above the din. “Mario will address you now,” he said. Instinctively all eyes turned upwards to the mezzanine floor. There was the sound of boots on metal stairs, some shuffling, and then Mario appeared, weary looking with sunken eyes and a sullen expression, at the wooden mezzanine banister. There was absolute silence, then deafening applause punctuated with whoops and cheers. Several people were crying. The jubilance lasted several minutes despite Mario’s gestures for quiet. Finally, gradually, silence fell again. Mario cleared his throat and spoke.

“I know there’s been much speculation over where exactly in the world I herald from, and while I have no plans to reveal that information today, I am prepared, for the sake of explanation, to disclose some details of my past. I am, for instance, a refugee, and very privileged to have had the chance to survive to achieve that status. In my country, there was a war—very short but especially brutal—that went undocumented outside my home nation. After the fighting, I fled the subsequent purges with several members of my family. It was during this time—hidden away in attics and basements and barns and the like—that I learned to paint on skin. We had no paper or ink, but I had a needle and sticks aplenty. The ink I created with the sap from trees and the dirt of the floors on which we slept. My family members’ skin was my only canvas. I myself bear multiple illustrations done by certain relatives during this time. My sister was particularly adept; her talent far surpassed mine. 

“Alas, we cannot know where her talents may have taken her, as I alone survived. My father had already died in combat and my mother, two brothers, my sister, and two cousins were killed during our attempt at escape. I spent two weeks at sea with my cousin’s corpse before we washed up on the shore of Cava Island, off the coast of Scotland. Some of you may know of it. I am aware of no other survivors from our side of the war, although any research towards confirming this supposition does not exist, as no documentation or accounts or any kind of evidence of what happened in my country exist to research. The winning side’s consolidation of power and the suppression of information therein was absolute, as was the annihilation of prisoners, subversives, dissidents, or surviving members of the losing side. No foreign journalist was present to report on the conflict or the aftermath. I have found no mention of the war in the archives of any newspaper anywhere in the world.

“Like all wars, the origins of the conflict are complex and largely ideological. The only detail I am prepared to reveal is that it had its origins in the price of fish.

“Having arrived in Scotland, I was discovered purely by accident by some fishermen who sheltered me for several days while we waited for the authorities. I have attempted to identify these kindly men who saved my life for decades without success. For the days I was in their care, I spoke not a single word, largely because I didn’t know any English and couldn’t understand their questions, but also I imagine through what would now be diagnosed as acute trauma.

“On arrival the government men took me to Edinburgh, where I was kept in relative comfort and my fits of fear and rage placated with a continuous supply of Irn Bru, which to this day is the only beverage I consume other than water. When I finally mentioned the name of my country, it took the Scottish and central British government several days to find anyone who had heard of my island nation, then another six months for their language experts to decipher my words and work backwards to isolate its possible origins to an area of the world. Still, I refused to divulge any details of my experiences or true origins. This is the most detail I have ever spoken in regarding my childhood.

“I was put into the care of a childless MI6 couple and my sudden appearance explained away as a foreign adoptee, rescued from another war-torn nation chosen according to whichever part of the world my complexion mustered in the imagination of the British citizenry.

“I was cared for expertly by my adopted parents and received the best education possible. I am still in frequent contact with them but have never revealed their identities, and nor shall I ever. As a precaution, and using the fortune I’ve made from my work, I many years ago bought a cache of state secrets from a foreign agency that I will use as leverage should the U.K. government ever feel the need to reveal the files documenting my arrival in this country. I doubt the need will ever arise. I am, after all, just an artist.

“I can see the interest amongst a few of you beginning to wane. I understand my story isn’t original or as tantalizing as the contents of your social media feeds. What’s one more refugee, one more boat person, one more war, one more genocide? In light of that, I’ll get to the part of the story you’re most interested in hearing—the part about you.

“When I arrived in that boat on Cava island accompanied only by the greying corpse of my family member, I was carried to that Highland fishermen’s vessel wrapped in the only other material in that boat besides the pajamas we wore: a flag—the flag of the regime which I had months before fled and had butchered my family and kin. The motif of that flag is the one now freshly inked on your collective flesh.

“I hope you’ve enjoyed your day and feel you have been treated with appropriate hospitality by Ciarán and his team. I wish you all a safe journey back to your respective homes.”

Without another gesture, look, or word Mario turned and disappeared, leaving behind a silence only broken by the sound once again of boots on steel stairs and the opening and closing of a door.

A few in the crowd had their heads in their hands. Some were already crying. One or two scratched manically at their newly wounded flesh which blistered and bled. Others shouted questions up to the empty mezzanine: Where was this war? What were the ideological allegiances? Some asked what did matter? Others shot back that ideology always matters. But a genocide’s a genocide. Ever heard of the French revolution? Ever heard of the Spanish Civil War—know what those anarchists did to the dons and the priests? Someone mentioned Martin Luther King. Someone else, Che Guevara. The Sandinistas. The Allied forces. War after war. Atrocity after atrocity. But the Aztecs were no fucking angels, buddy. And look at the state of Mexico now.

That’s when the first punch was thrown, the violence spreading through the warehouse like a virus. Those who didn’t fight were too distracted mutilating their own bodies. One or two, in tears of pain and trauma, smashed windows, picked up the glass and cut the tattoo from their own flesh. And the screams and shouts and crashes were such that no one heard the whirring of helicopter blades from outside the warehouse, ascending and then receding into the sunset.

John Miskelly lives in Gijón/Xixón, Asturias, Spain. He is 34 years old.