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TAT MASTER - Part 1 of 3

“What’s your real name?” GEISHA GIRL asked, picking up my business card after I was finished with him.

I named all my customers by the tattoos they ordered. I had at least five GEISHA GIRLs this week, ten SAMURAI WARRIORs, five BUTTERFLYs, five BARBED WIREs, one AMERICAN FLAG, and assorted lettering, both standard and custom. This GEISHA GIRL was fat, blonde, and hairy. I had to shave his back at least two times to get to a smooth canvas.

My motto was to talk to the customer as least as possible, so I pointed to the wall near my tattoo chair. There I had taped a drawing of an almond-shaped eye and in cursive English writing, “Eye.”

“Your real name is Eye?”

“You pay at the counter,” I told GEISHA GIRL. “If you write a check, you should make it out to Sawtelle Tattoos.”

I went back to cleaning my tools, disposing of my needles in a covered plastic trash can. My routine didn’t change much since I tattooed in Osaka. Only it seemed that the Japanese, at least two years ago, were more concerned with AIDS than Americans were.

GEISHA GIRL seemed unhappy that I wasn’t answering his question. He obviously prided himself on being an expert on Japan. He had spent our whole session telling me about the best sushi bars in Los Angeles and Tokyo. Thankfully, the buzz of my tattoo gun kept me from understanding much of what he said. “Little tattooist’s got an attitude,” I heard him mutter as he paid his bill.

Roberto was at the counter, laughing as usual. He thought everything was funny. First I thought it was a language issue, maybe I didn’t understand American humor. But the other tattoo artists explained to me that it was more about our young boss’ personality than anything cultural.

“Wait a minute. I get it. Eye. It’s really Ai, right? Love.” GEISHA GIRL wouldn’t quit.

I dumped the used color ink tubes in the trash can and stripped my hands of the latex gloves.

Domo, ne. Bye, Ai-chan.”

I whipped my face back to GEISHA GIRL, but he was gone.

“Whew, girl, that’s one evil eye. I made a pun, right? Evil Eye?” Roberto then laughed again.

No one calls me Ai-chan. Except loved ones like my mother and older sisters. No bakatare American.

Roberto lifted up a crumpled dollar with his long fingernails. “Eye gets all the big spenders.”

* * *

Roberto was right. I got middle-aged mothers who were going through identity crises, the rich teenagers who walked in with five hundred dollar shoes and designer purses, and high school and UCLA college basketball players. With a few exceptions, none of them were good tippers.

They brought kanji that weren’t written correctly or meant the exact opposite of what they intended. But I never argued. My job was just to make the customer happy, not to question his or her desires. Nobuo was the one who had taught me that.

“Oh, lookee, our new neighbors downstairs are moving in.” Roberto gestured below to the first floor.

I walked over to the balcony and looked down. It looked like another manga shop. Manga sold well in our neighborhood, so I figured the last one closed down because of mismanagement. Manga seemed harmless enough, but you never knew. I had to check it out.

“I am taking my break,” I announced to Roberto.

I brought my cigarettes with me and took a few smokes in front the storefront window. The new owner had moved in rows of stark white bookcases that were just starting to fill up. The glass door was open, so I walked in slowly, hoping to avoid being spotted.

I saw the latest issue of the Real manga series and began leafing through Inoue Takehiko’s drawings of Japanese basketball players.

“Hey, you don’t look like a baller to me.”

I turned and almost choked. The man speaking to me was about Nobuo’s size with a flash of black hair. Same delicate lips and stone-black eyes. But then I saw that this man was more solid and meatier. And his voice was that of an American’s.

“Are you okay?”

I coughed.

“Here.” He held out a small bottle of water.

I just looked at him.

“It’s not poison. Look, it’s even sealed.”

I shook my head.

“I own this place; you work upstairs, right?”

I barely nodded and headed towards the door.

“You have a suspicious mind.” The manga shop owner said, smiling, as if it was a good thing.

* * *

I went next door to get a boba tea, my latest addiction. As far as I heard, boba hadn’t caught on in Japan, and I knew why. Drinking boba was a slightly unpleasant experience. First the drink itself was little gritty and then came the rush of a giant tapioca ball traveling up a fat straw onto your tongue. The first time I tried it I thought the gelatinous balls were going to get lodged in my throat. I paid almost four dollars to kill myself, I said.

But I went for a second and third. Now I had one practically every day. I chewed on one of the tapioca balls, the size of a small marble while I stared at the manga owner through his window. He was Sansei or Yonsei, either third or fourth-generation Japanese American. I could tell from his accent, of course, but also his movements and how the meat of his body rested on his arms.

He was right—I was suspicious but if I wasn’t, I would have been dead years ago. Would this man be someone Nobuo would send to find me? I watched as he stacked the manga on his bookshelves. His lower arms were tattooless, which didn’t necessarily mean anything, but I took his bare smooth skin as a good sign, anyhow.

* * *

I was finishing up with a FAIRY, when the manga owner came through the door.

“You have a visitor,” Roberto said in a sing-song voice.

I finished taping up FAIRY’s arm, and sent the high school girl on her way with her mother to her cheerleading practice.

“Someone just gave me two tickets to the Clippers game,” he said. “I just moved into town and I don’t know many people.”

I looked at him blankly.

“Should be a good game. Thought you might want to go. “

I removed the needles from my gun.

“I’ll just leave the ticket here.” He left an envelope on the counter. “You can meet me if you want.”

The manga owner stopped at the door and I felt that everyone in the tattoo shop was staring at me. My face felt hot and I ducked my head down to throw my used needles away.

After I heard the door close, I casually got up and went over to the front counter.

“You’re not going? Are you crazy, girl? I’ll take it if you don’t.” Before Roberto could snatch the ticket envelope away, I grabbed it and slipped it into my back jeans pocket.

* * *

I drove myself to the basketball arena and parked about three blocks away in a lot that charged half the price of the adjacent ones. This wasn’t a date. I didn’t go on dates. I hadn’t been with a man for two years, and I was just starting not to feel numb anymore.

I didn’t know who the manga owner’s friend was, but he or she must have been rich. The seats were in the third row behind the basketball hoop. The Clippers were already doing some warmup shooting. Fans were decked out in red, white, and blue jerseys and T-shirts. I felt underdressed and too somber in my black turtleneck and worn suede jacket.

The manga store owner was already in his seat. He wore a white knit cap and looked a little less like Nobuo. When he saw me, he straightened up and smiled.

“Glad you came,” he said as I sat down next to him.

I clutched my purse on my lap, ready to make my escape at any second. The music was loud and colorful neon lights circled around the arena, pulsating with each beat.

“I got you a program.” He rested the thick program on the seat arm that we shared. It was expensive—probably ten dollars. I was going to reject his gift, but then thought twice about it. It was just a program, just stapled paper. Not worth insulting him.

I casually leafed through some of the glossy pages when the crowd began to both cheer and boo. The opponents jogged onto the floor. The team’s star player, his elbow and arm in a protective nylon sleeve, was dwarfed by his teammates.

“You like him,” the manga owner stated, watching me.

When I didn’t respond, he added, “All Japanese are into him. Because he’s small and scrappy.”

That was true. I could relate to him. He got battered and pummeled, but that didn’t stop him. He just taped himself up and got back into the game.

We watched the players shoot for a while, and then the manga store owner gently lifted my hand. “What’s with your tats?”

I had three dark circles tattooed on the back of each hand.

“Okinawan women had these kinds of tattoos to scare off pirates.”

“So who are you trying to scare?”

I drew my hand back. One of the tattoo artists at the Sawtelle shop had done them for me. The skin there was thin, so the tattooing was painful. The skin even on my lefthand side puffed up a little like a keloid scar. But I thought of them as my new identity. Like I had sloughed my old name, Ai, to become Eye, I was a new person now. Or at least pretended to be.

“You got a boyfriend?” Americans always spoke so straight, it frightened me.

I shook my head.

“What was your last boyfriend like?”

What could I say about Nobuo? That his favorite color was red, he was terribly allergic to bee stings, and loved the American band, the Doors. That he was fifteen years younger than his next oldest sibling, had been terribly ignored and mistreated, which probably left him to get into trouble in high school. That he had risen up the ranks of a gangster’s life and now headed up at least fifteen pachinko parlors. And that he had extensive tattoos on his shoulders, back, and legs—most done by me, the group’s resident tattoo artist. Last of all, he had a temper which more than once resulted in my jaw being broken.

I couldn’t say all of these things. So I settled on just one. “Thin,” I said, “like you.”

The manga store owner laughed and I could see the nub of whiskers shadow his cheek and chin.

How about you? I wanted to ask, but it still felt too forward. No matter how long I was to live in the U.S., I couldn’t adopt Americans’ casual, prying nature.

He pointed out all the celebrities who sat around us. I didn’t know who most of them were, but I pretended that I did. “Want something to eat? You must be hungry,” he said. Noisy vendors yelled out names of drinks and various snacks. I finally nodded to the small pizza in individualized boxes.

The two opposing centers lined up for the starting jump ball and we both watched the game silently as we ate our pizzas.

“Tell me what you think of their tattoos,” the manga store owner said while chewing a pepperoni slice.

“Very poor work.” I then blushed. How egotistical did I sound? Nobuo, actually, had said that I was a tattoo master. It was a ridiculous comment to make, considering my age, but I was flattered nonetheless. There were more female tattoo artists in Japan recently, but still we were the minority. “The shading here in America is not good,” I explained. “Not complete. The training here, too. I started off studying irezumi with a horishi, a tattoo sensei.”

Irezumi?”

“Traditional Japanese tattooing. It’s done by hand, not electric guns. I haven’t done irezumi in years, although I still have my tools here. Tattoo guns, much easier.”

“Technology wins out again, huh?”

I pointed at one player’s upper arm as an example. “Look at that one. It doesn’t even make any sense. Do you read Japanese?”

“Sukosh.” He stretched his thumb and index finger a centimeter apart. “Enough to know which manga to buy.”

“Well, that kanji on Number 45 is wrong. Maybe he wanted the kanji for chikara, you know, strong, or maybe katana, sword. But it’s not any of those things.”

“So what does it mean?”

“Nothing in Japanese. But looks like a man’s nose, ne?”

The manga store owner laughed. That I had the ability to make anyone laugh—besides Roberto, and that was unintentional—was surprising to me.

“You speak English well,” he said.

“I lived in Yokosuka—an American military base for two years. My mother’s second husband. She married an American.”

It was actually her first marriage, but I always counted my father as her first, even though they never got married. My older sisters counted their father as our mother’s first. Marriage and family lineages to us were ephemeral and changeable. No wonder none of us really fit into Japanese society. Last I heard my oldest sister was in Ghana with the JICA, Japan’s version of the Peace Corps. My other sister was somewhere in the American Midwest with her white husband. And my mother was in Honolulu operating a bar in Chinatown. I hadn’t kept in touch with them and I didn’t dare try to reconnect for their sake more than mine.

“That’s why,” the manga store owner said.

“What?”

“You don’t seem like a typical Japanese girl.”

“What do you mean?”

I heard that time after time. Not only in America, but also in Japan.

“You’re not afraid to be lonely. And you’re not into that kawaii thing.”

His words stung. So he felt I was lonely. And obviously not kawaii, cute.

“It’s a compliment,” he said. And when I didn’t look convinced, he put his hand in mine and squeezed. “Really.”

We stayed like that throughout the rest of the game, and it seemed like all my blood had rushed down into that hand. It felt good to be touched. Nobuo and I never held hands—that was only for silly university lovers, not for us.

There were still ten minutes left in the game; the Clippers were losing by sixteen points. Streams of spectators were leaving the stands for home. The manga shop owner and I stayed until the very end.

“I can walk to my car,” I said when we were outside the arena. “No trouble.”

“No, I’ll drive you.” We walked to a neighboring lot where his hybrid Toyota was parked. I couldn’t really make out the color in the darkness. We got into the Toyota and I directed him to my car. He parked in an empty spot next to mine. He then turned to me and leaned his lips into mine. I was expecting a soft kiss but instead he blew air in my cheeks. It startled me and I withdrew slightly. I didn’t know if it was a joke. Did Americans kiss like this?

“You do not know my name,” I said. What I really meant was that I didn’t know his.

“Do I need to?” He then said goodbye, waited until I was in my car, and drove away.

* * *

Part 2 >>

 

* This story was originally published in THE DARKER MASK: Heroes from the Shadows, edited by Gary Phillips and Christopher Chambers.

© 2014 Naomi Hirahara

author fiction naomi hirahara tat master tattoo tattoo artist