Skin Stories: Bracken MacLeod

I like new things. Do you like new things? This is a new thing. Welcome to Skin Stories, where I ask some of the most exciting voices in fiction to tell us the stories behind their tattoos. I worked at a tattoo shop for a while before moving to the US, and I learned that a magnificent back piece could have been done just because it looks cool and a single star behind someone’s ear can mean the world to them. This is a space where we’ll celebrate not only the narratives behind some great authors’ tattoos, but we’ll also tell you a bit about their latest book. Welcome.

The first author to grace this space is Bracken MacLeod. As someone who writes crime and horror, MacLeod is one of those established authors I look up to. He can do it all, and the fact that his newest effort, STRANDED, has been garnering praise since before it came out and was sold to television before any of us had read a word of it should be more than enough reasons to make you go buy it right now. If that’s not enough, here are my two cents: it’s an incredibly creepy and violent narrative about a group of men in distress coming face-to-face with themselves in ways you can’t imagine.

Anyway, here’s MacLeod on his tattoos:

Every once in a while, someone will tell me that they’d love to get a tattoo but can’t make up their mind on a design they think they’d like to have on their body for the rest of their life. I understand. Like most people who’ve been collecting body art for a long time, I’ll admit to having a couple of pieces that I’d have done differently, or not at all if I had the perspective then that I have now. But, my response most of the time when someone’s explaining their hesitation to commit to a design is that you don’t necessarily have be prepared to love your tattoos for the rest of your life, but you have to be ready over the long term to like who you were at the time you made that choice. That’s a taller order, I think. Let me put it in perspective.

You can really be into a band when you’re eighteen and be slightly embarrassed by the fading Mötley Crüe ink on your shoulder at forty-five. But in order to live with that piece, you have to like who the kid you used to be was, even if you don’t like hair metal any more. At the same time, if you’re a reformed white supremacist, it’s much harder to live with that 88 or swastika tattoo, not only because the symbols have a different resonance to you than they used to, but also because they’re a reminder of who you once were—of the things you did. Think about the scene in American History X where Derek Vineyard is stepping out of his apartment shower. See what I mean now?

Having tattoos is a commitment to being confronted by your past self in the present every time you look in the mirror. Most people can cover their designs with clothing pretty easily (which is why even tattoo artists are circumspect about inking people’s necks, faces, and hands), but every time you get out of that shower, you have to see who you used to be. And sometimes past selves are unforgiving reminders of painful things.

Fortunately, none of my tattoos are present reminders of past cruelty or abhorrent beliefs. I fall into the Band Tat category. But I didn’t get Mötley Crüe inked on my shoulder. Instead I got a logo for a Japanese glam metal band called E-Z-O on my bicep. I’m pretty okay with that. I certainly like the kid I used to be whose overlapping interests in Japanese culture, rock music, and tattooing inspired him to get a tribal kabuki face tattooed on his bicep. Of course, later in life, that tattoo wasn’t exactly what I wanted anymore. So I had it covered up. That’s not me hiding who I was as much as a reflection of who I’ve become.

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My tattoo artist at the time had to put a lot work (and grey and white ink) into transforming a bold, black, tribal tattoo into a pinup girl. But I think he did a hell of a good job. The woman on my arm (who I joke is the only woman I get to spend more time with than my wife) is beautiful and is something I definitely can live the rest of my life looking at. But hints of that old piece remain. Notably, in the long black hair fanning out behind her, and in the ghost of the tattoo that appears on her upper thigh. My artist also indulged me by adding a piece of jewelry around her neck that mirrors the shape of the original tattoo, because while I wanted to have a nicer, bigger, pin-up style piece that better reflected who I am now, I also like the kid I was when I decided to show my love for an obscure no-hit wonder import band.

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My other cover-up is more dramatic.

My very first tattoo was of a small bat that I got over my heart when I was eighteen. It was a design that I drew by myself, that I was proud of. I intended it to be a tribute to the child I once was who dreamed of flying like the bats that lived in the barn across the street from my bedroom window in Sunderland, Massachusetts. But the scratcher who did the work didn’t give a shit about it and half-assed the piece, making it look like a cartoon mouse with wings. He also signed it.

I remember sitting in the chair and looking down at the finished outline and asking, “What’s that at the bottom?” He replied, “My initials, TT. If you don’t like it, you can get up and go now.” I grudgingly let him finish the tattoo (because I’d paid up front, another thing I’ll never do again) and have fantasized about burning his shop to the ground ever since. I had the piece covered up twice more after that. The first time, was to try to add some realism to it (as well as a silhouette of a smaller bat obscuring the scratcher fuckface’s initials). But the guy I got to do that work wasn’t up to the task and it still didn’t look right. Now it was just muddy and blurred. So I decided to have it done over entirely. It wasn’t a priority, being on my chest and covered by a shirt most of the time. But, there’s always that moment, stepping out of the shower.

When my son was born, we named him after the Latin word for light. I decided I wanted a tattoo that reflected his name, as well as my love of bats and my childhood wish to be one. Add to that my enduring fascination with the poem Paradise Lost and the idea of Lucifer (also named after the light) as a tragic figure in literature. I went back to the same artist who did my arm and asked him if he could do a Dore-inspired interpretation of the Fuente del Ángel Caído statue in Madrid. My original concept idea was supposed to cover only my pectoral, but the artist I went to specializes in BIG pieces, so when I came back to sit, he proposed what you see below. The entire original bat is gone in upper wing. It’s unfinished at the moment, but eventually the flames at the bottom will be alight and the blank space over my right pectoral will feature of piece of burning parchment that reads, “Non Serviam.”

I love it for all the reasons listed above. It completely obliterates the original piece, but incorporates all the parts of it that represented who I was when I got the first two by two-inch tattoo. And now it means more because it’s also about so many other things that I love: my son, poetry, bats, and revolt.

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Every time I look in the mirror at both pieces I see who I was and who I am, and that I can live with for a very long time.

You can buy STRANDED from Amazon here.

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Bracken MacLeod has worked as a martial arts teacher, a university philosophy instructor, for a children’s non-profit, and as a criminal and civil trial attorney. His short fiction has appeared in several magazines and anthologies including, Shotgun Honey, Shroud Magazine, Reloaded: Both Barrels Vol. 2, Locked and Loaded: Both Barrels Vol. 3, Shock Totem, Beat to a Pulp, Dread: A Head Full of Bad Dreams, Eulogies III, Protectors 2: Heroes, LampLight, ThugLit, and Splatterpunk. He is the author of MOUNTAIN HOME, WHITE KNIGHT, and most recently, STRANDED, available from TOR Books. His collection, 13 VIEWS OF THE SUICIDE WOODS, is coming in 2017 from ChiZine Publications.

He lives in New England with his wife and son, where he is at work on his next novel.