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The Halloween Project Day 6: In Hell There Is No Redemption

Tattoos. They’re loved and hated. Once the province of Maori warriors, sailors, carnies, they now are sported as fashion and coolness. Hell, maybe I even have one.

This is dedicated to the “J” brothers. They know who they are.

The exquisitely detailed drawing, replete with figures, runes, archaic phrases in languages long dead, and figures, both tormented and demented, lay unfurled on Jeremy’s kitchen table. It took him two years to research, study, plan, and draw the intricate masterpiece. He combed libraries for arcane knowledge known to few. Medieval to modern, artists of the macabre and tortured, images bedecked every corner of space on the overwrought tapestry. He crossed centuries for the art he sought. In the lower left, Hans Memling’s “Hell” from 1485. Here, from the brush of Bruegel in 1562 was the “Triumph of Death”. The 1700’s were represented in “The Nightmare” by Fuseli. Among others rested Warhol’s “Big Electric Chair”. There were poems in Farsi, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Chinese and Japanese symbols. Zodiac signs adorned the perimeter. It was a matrix, a puzzle, a charm.

It was the tattoo that would adorn Jeremy’s entire back.

He sported tattoos here and there, the first coming when he was sixteen; a cross on a bicep. Later a snake on his calf, a wrist bracelet and ring, an open eye on his inner arm. They were fun, obvious, simple and he liked them all. Even more he enjoyed the sharp yet subtle pinch of the tattoo artist’s gun. Needles felt good, better than good. It was therapy, a metal-tongued massage. He would drift off as the buzzing pen coursed over his body. But this was his masterpiece, long in the making. When finished it would simply be the badass tattoo of all time. Naked to the waist he would go to conventions, walk the beaches, maybe even the streets, with total abandon. All people would worship at the miracle of his ink. Let any sonofabitch dare offer a single negative comment that Jeremy didn’t like. It was ugly and brutal and strong and magnificent. He sat at the kitchen table and marveled at his own work. It was well past two in the morning when he finally rolled the intricate design and made his way to bed.

“I’m sorry, this is beyond my skill,” one artist announced.

“This cannot be done,” another said

“No, I won’t put this tattoo on you,” rejected Justen, his go-to tattoo artist at a parlor called Bad Ink.

“But why?” Jeremy asked, “You know this is awesome, it’ll take months and you’ll make a shitload of money!”

“It’s totally another reason, man. You don’t know what you’ve got here. It’s…it’s,” he trailed off.

“What!?” Jeremy exclaimed.

“It’s wrong, man, it’s just wrong. I won’t do it. And you shouldn’t.”

“Aww, bro, you’re letting me down,” was all Jeremy could respond.

Jeremy continued his search, unfurling the heavily detailed design over and over again for a tattoo from beyond. Three parlors in New Haven said no. He boarded the train and went to New York, high end parlors on the Upper East side delivered flat rejections, Koreatown parlors refused his entreaties.

An elderly Chinese man with a heavy accent and fingers dyed by years of artistry said to him, “Please sit down and I will try to explain.”

Jeremy placed his plan on a large desk, open and majestic before them, but sat silently and leaned forward.

“What you have here is something that no true artist will place on your body. I imagine that some have said they will do parts or pieces. Is that correct?” The word came out “Ko-reck-et”.

Jeremy nodded and said, “Yes, that’s right. But I want this. Exactly this.”

“I understand, young man, but this is not to be. What you do not realize is that you have combined many factors and grouped them all, in combination, in such a way that this is…there is no other word… this is evil. You would have not known. It is wrong. It will cause you harm. This I can guarantee.”

“It’s a tattoo for Chrissakes. It’s not witchcraft. It’s not a spell!” Jeremy shook his head.

“I am sorry but you are wrong. It is exactly that. It is magic of the worst kind. It is from the darkness without you even knowing. You have stumbled upon it. Go change it, just some pieces here and there and it will be fine. You must.”

“No, dammit! No! This is what I want and I’m going to get it. Somehow. Somewhere!” he stood up to leave and the Chinese gentleman pulled a small pouch from his pocket. From that he extracted a homemade and already fragrant cigarette which his stained and gnarled fingers placed to his lips. He lit it with a match and took a long pull. “I am so sorry for you. So very sorry.”

10 months later Jeremy walked into a tattoo parlor down many alleyways in the worst of all worst sections of Bangkok. His size, massive and strong, kept any and all at a distance. He had been given specific directions. He entered and all eyes turned to him, then quickly turned away.

“I’m here to see Bai,” Jeremy said.

“Bai knows you are here. Please sit. Can I get you tea?”

“Whiskey,” Jeremy requested and a tumbler full appeared in a moment.

He waited for two hours.

“I will do this,” Bai agreed, “but you must stay here for three, maybe four months. At the end you must leave immediately. Take your tattoo. Take yourself. Back to the United States and whatever awaits you there. I have no responsibility for what happens. You have been told that this is dangerous.”

“That’s fine,” Jeremy agreed, “and the cost?”

“Ten thousand dollars,” Bai said flatly as if he were swatting flies on a humid day.

“Ten thousand dollars? Holy shit. For real?” Jeremy questioned.

“Change…little…parts…and I will perform my artistry for two thousand dollars. But this is something…” he hesitated for the word, “exceptional.”

“I want this,” Jeremy said, with dark emphasis.

“Then I will bring all my skill to you. I will attach to your body the tattoo that no man should wear. It will be yours and yours alone and you will have to deal with the consequences. Are you prepared?”

A year later Jeremy walked through L.A. as if on steroid air. He worked as a bouncer, the ultimate bouncer, at a number of high end clubs. No one, ever, disturbed a club where Jeremy held court. During the day he hung out at Venice Beach deadlifting 700 or 800 or 900 pounds, his tattoo writhing and squirming with the expanse of muscles on his back.

One day the tattoo began to itch. Not an itch really, a burn, a steady growing pain that felt like a sick combination of scalded skin and poison ivy. It lingered, then grew, expanding to fill his back. He bought a hand mirror and using the double reflection in his bathroom observed the tattoo, inspecting every piece. Each day it worsened. One morning he noticed, something he could not believe. The tattoo was moving. The tortured bodies and grotesqueries at the top of his left shoulder had moved an inch higher. Creatures, burning in hell, had pulled their way around his hip. On all sides and every edge the tattoo was coursing away, breaking apart, migrating, moving. Each day, a millimeter, a half inch, an inch. Over his shoulder, up his neck around to his midsection, down his thigh.

He took a flight back to New York, panicked and feverish and went to see Justen.

Justen reassured him, “No way, man. No. That is not happening. You’re hallucinating or something. Did you do any weird crap in Bangkok? Plus, I told you not to get it. There was something about it.”

“I’m telling you it’s moving! You knew? You knew that there was something special, or sick? Really, really sick about this tattoo?” Jeremy complained.

“No, hell no,” Justen replied, “There are just certain tattoos and combinations that all artists avoid.

They’re said to have power or curses or something.”

“Take a photo of my back, man. I’m coming back tomorrow.

A day later, Justen saw the truth with his own disbelieving eyes, the screen shot didn’t lie. Memling’s “Hell” was crawling up Jeremy’s face, covering his neck, ear and cheek. “Triumph of Death” was almost to his groin. Spreading monsters, symbols and words were moving, of their own volition, trying to find new homes.

“Get the laser and take them off!” Jeremy pleaded. Two hours of work only caused more pain and raw skin, but not the removal of a single pigment.

“I’m sorry man. I’m so, so sorry, there’s nothing I can do,” Justen, freaking, announced.

Jeremy returned to the room he rented in Soho. Each day for a week he watched his body, studied the mirror, inspected his massive frame. When he opened his mouth in a wide horrific grimace he saw that “Hell” had made its way onto his tongue and the roof of his mouth. He despaired. He lay down in the stifling, cramped room, well after midnight, and shut off the light.