My friend Jack passed away yesterday. I wrote this story about him in 2012. It was the first non-fiction story I ever wrote. It was for a university assessment.
Badly Drawn Boy
The first tattoo I ever saw was on my brother’s ankle. It was a badly drawn skull and dagger. I was fascinated by it, and as he got older and sported more tattoos, I became hooked on the indelible ink that tells a story of a life.
Jack and I sit on my verandah. Florence and the Machine play on the radio in the background and I feel watched like I always do when I’m out here so close to the road. Jack smokes and leans back over the railing to ash his cigarette in a way that looks completely natural, as if he has lived in this house his whole life. I don’t tell him, but he is the only person I allow to smoke on this verandah. Everyone else must go down onto the yard, and they are never allowed to drop their butts on the grass. I make exceptions for Jack. I don’t tell him where to put his butt. I find one later in my favourite pot plant, but I don’t hold it against him.
I met Jack at the local pub. We were at a charity auction and my husband introduced us, whispering to me, “he’s the one who blows stuff up and sets the dump on fire,” before wandering off to talk to someone else. Jack stayed with me, pouring out the details of his escapades. He showed me the videos on his mobile phone of washing machines and microwaves being hurled skywards, while he and his friends ran laughing to safer ground. I feel sorry for Jack now that our small country town dump has been fenced off, his own fires and explosions partially to blame.
On the verandah Jack and I eat peanut cookies that are too hard. As he stretches and yawns I notice the tattoo on his arm. It’s his newest one, but for the moment I am more interested in the one hidden by the leg of his shorts. It started out as a swastika.
It was around 2.30am New Year’s night and Jack and his mate were as Jack puts it, “pretty fucking blind.” His mate had a tattoo gun and suggested that they give it a go. He wanted a skull, so Jack got the gear ready and started drawing a skull on his mate’s leg. The drunken drawing ended up rough as guts with no straight lines at all. Ever the smart arse, Jack decided that the tattoo would only be improved if he added his initials, JDG. His mate was less than impressed when he realised what Jack was writing on his leg, so to avoid a flogging, Jack allowed his mate to apply his own artistic skills to one of his legs. His mate drew a small swastika above the right knee. The guys thought they were pretty cool and off they went to bed. The next morning was a different story and Jack felt like a bit of fuckwit when he woke up with a Nazi symbol on his leg.
Jack works for the Gold mine in our little country town. He drives huge dump trucks, shifting tonnes of ore at a time. Bored one night shift, he climbed out of the cab, stripped down to his undies and photographed himself hanging off the side of the truck, one hand rubbing a nipple. He wore sunglasses for disguise, but I’m fairly certain that if the photo ever fell into the wrong hands, the sunglasses wouldn’t be worth much. The mine boss knows Jack is the only larrikin who would pull that stunt, but I think people in town have a soft spot for Jack, the mine boss included.
Jack yawns and stretches, then takes another cookie. I don’t think he likes them, I sure as hell don’t, but he’s being polite. He’s got nice manners and I like having him around. He’s the only person in town who regularly calls in for a cuppa. We are always careful to sit outside, because small towns have a way of creating plots where they don’t exist.
Not long after an Indigenous nurse almost spotted the swastika on his leg during a routine medical for the mine, Jack decided it was time to cover it up. He headed off to a mate’s place in Gaeta, which is the North Burnett’s answer to Nimbin. He didn’t want any more backyard tattoos, but I wonder if the small studio set up at his mate’s house was much different. I think about the overpowering smell of antiseptics that pervades good tattoo parlours and hope that is what Jack experienced as he walked through the door. Jack wasn’t picky about what he wanted and told his mate to go for his life and draw whatever he liked, just as long as he covered up the swastika. He felt irritated by the constant sharpness of the tattoo needle as it pricked his skin, but it wasn’t really painful. He thought easily of a dozen things that hurt much worse. His mate drew and stopped every now and then to re-ink the needle. He wiped away excess ink from Jack’s leg and then started drawing again. The tattoo gun emitted a high pitched buzzing, which added to the irritation of the needle piercing the skin, kind of like a giant mosquito, but the tattooist chatted away and distracted Jack from the irritating sound and sensation. The tattoo that started out as a swastika finished as a very well-drawn Frankenstein. It looked great and Jack was really happy with it.
I got to see the Frankenstein one night at the pub. Jack was there with a handful of local lads having a beer. He had his work pants on, so he unzipped, pulled them down to his feet and proudly stood in his undies so I could see his new ink. I thought it looked really good, but was careful not to appear too enthusiastic in front of the other pub patrons. Who knows what they made of a married woman staring at a half-naked young man’s upper thigh. Jack certainly didn’t care.
I watch Jack drag on his cigarette and wonder what he’s thinking. He hasn’t stopped stretching and yawning since we sat down. It’s really bright on the verandah and his sunglasses prevent me from seeing the expression in his eyes but his body language reveals that he’s comfortable just hanging out with me in the winter sun talking about tattoos, Nazis and blowing up shit. He rests his hands on his head and leans back in his chair.
Jack and I know that tattoos can be both beautiful and ugly. What appears ugly to some may be beautiful to others, which is something Jack experienced as a young artist when he discarded a stencilled desert scene in primary school. He thought it was ugly. The vulture, snake, cactus, and sun brought to life by a ten year old boy with a toothbrush and paint was destined not for the rubbish bin, but an art gallery to be sold for $80 thanks to being rescued by the school principal.
Jack went on to excel at art in high school but It’s been 3 or 4 years since he left school and when I ask him why he doesn’t draw anymore, he cannot answer. The art on his body is the only evidence that he has an affinity for passions captured in images of ink, paint and charcoal.
Jack decided it was time to get some new ink. He adopted a horror theme after Frankenstein and drove his Holden ute to see a tattooist in a nearby town. The tattooist was a professional and accomplished artist with an accredited studio, but like most tattooists, was a little on the strange side. Jack allowed him to guide his decisions about placement of the faces and figures in the semi-sleeve on his forearm. One face was the character of Michael Myers from the old-school horror movie Halloween; the other was Jesus-Frankenstein from a Rob Zombie album cover. Jack has always loved the old school movies because they were classy, unlike the stuff churned out by Hollywood nowadays. He was stoked with his new ink and drove back home thinking of adding some colour to the greywash and how far he might extend the ink up his arm.
Jack showed up at my house one day keen to see my books on wildlife identification. His mate had seen a strange paw print and they thought one of my wildlife books might help them work out what it was. None did, but we sat for a good while talking about wildlife while Jack thumbed through one of my field guides. He wanted to see a platypus and thought there might be one in the creek up the back of his house. He told me about the bilby that had been on his front verandah one morning when he woke up, how it had hung around for a while, and then took off, never to be seen again.
I think Jack has a soft spot for animals. He told me once that he’d seen a dog that had fallen from a ute tray get run over by a truck. The dog wasn’t dead and he watched the owner heartlessly pick the animal up and hurl it into the bush on the side of the road. He said he wanted to stop and punch the prick in the head, but he kept on driving, probably feeling sick and angry at what had just happened.
When I first heard about Jack, then saw him in person, I thought he was a bit wayward. My husband told me that he was a good guy, but that he might appear to be someone who could easily go bad. To look at my friend, you would probably think the same. His blonde hair is unruly, he has a pretty foul mouth with a typical Aussie drawl. He often looks like he’s recovering from a big night and of course, there’s the big tattoo on his arm, not to mention the fact that he’s seen as the local larrikin. I guess I thought him a typical young person with not much direction, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Jack still wants to blow shit up, but instead of doing it with homemade explosives at the local dump, he forked out the three thousand dollar fee and got a qualification to become a shot firer. After logging five single shots with an assessor he will be fully qualified to store explosives and conduct domestic blasts and mine blasts.
He’s also keen to make sure that his tattoos have meaning and that they relate somehow to his life. He’s not interested in following trends or copying what some footballer has. His indelible ink will show a little of his inside on the outside and let him be true to who he is, even in this very small town of ours.