Have you seen the movie The Fountain?
If you have—great, you should maybe skip ahead then. If not, I’m going to try my best to explain it without blowing my entire word count on the introduction to this piece.
Released in 20061, The Fountain is a hyper-surreal, cerebral science fiction film written and directed by Darren Aronofsky. Starring Aronofsky’s then partner Rachel Weisz alongside Hugh Jackman, it follows three parallel and overlapping stories—a Spanish conquistador and his queen, a neuroscientist and his wife (who is dying from a brain tumor), and a space traveler, floating through deep space in a self-contained biosphere bubble, haunted by visions from the past.
As the film unfolds, the three stories eventually converge, and believe it or not, for the most part, it makes sense in the end.
If you can get past all of the surrealist and heavily stylized trappings, at its core, The Fountain is a meditation on life and living, love, death, mortality, and how one processes grief.
There’s a moment early on in the film when Jackman, as Tom the neurosurgeon, while washing his hands prior to a medical procedure, loses his wedding band. He’s rightfully upset about it, and it is brought up later on during a conversation with Weisz, as Izzi, his wife. Aware of her own fleeting mortality, she notices the wedding band is missing and teases him about already preparing for a life of bachelorhood without her.
After Izzi dies, there is a scene when Tom, overcome with anguish, looks down at his empty ring finger, takes Izzi’s fountain pen, and in between gasps and sobs, proceeds to give himself a crude tattoo of a wedding band.
As the three narratives of The Fountain fold in on themselves and become one exponentially dense story, if you have a willing suspension of disbelief, there are implications that Tom the neurosurgeon is the same person as the pensive, bald space traveler (who is also played by Jackman.) He too has a crude, faded black band tattooed on his ring finger—but in this narrative, it is the first of many. Both of his hands and arms are tattooed in black bands of varying width and design.
Reflecting on the loss, and the memories, addressing the past with Izzi that still haunts him, he runs his fingers up his arm and says, “You pulled me through time.”
* * *
Some people get a tattoo, and there’s no deeper meaning behind it—there’s no verbose or emotionally charged tale. Former XO Jane writer Emily McCombs, now of The Huffington Post, wrote a piece a few years ago about her myriad tattoos, and how there doesn’t have to be a story behind each one—she has a tattoo of a typewriter simply because she is a writer.
Maybe there’s not even a short explanation like that at all—maybe it’s a tattoo for the sake of getting a tattoo.
Last fall, my wife and I were on vacation in the Pacific Northwest; while in Portland, we went to Scapegoat Tattoo, and during our time in the shop, a young man came in, and he just wanted a tattoo. He had no appointment, and did not bring any ideas or designs with him. He asked the gal who was working the front desk if he could look through examples of flash2 that the shop had on hand, and eventually he settled on something, though I’m not sure what he chose—he was still getting prepped for his work while we were finishing up.
Maybe it’s just me, but I’d like there to be at least some meaning or story behind the thing that I am more than likely paying quite a bit of money for, that is being permanently etched into my skin.
I suppose this is how people end up with tribal designs or barbed wire on their biceps, or portraits of a naked woman riding a flaming boner.3
* * *
I got my first tattoo shortly after I turned 25.
A decade has passed, but if I recall correctly, I made turning 25 out to be something bigger than it actually was. Maybe I didn’t think I’d make it that far; maybe at the time, I thought that was ‘old,’ which is kind of laughable now. Though, I consider 35 to be ‘old,’ too—a fact that some people may also find laughable.
I’m not entirely certain how much time I had spent thinking about the design I wanted (probably a lot, though), or how long I had been thinking about even getting a tattoo in the first place (also, probably a lot.) The design I selected was a Stanley Donwood drawing of a crying Minotaur, from the Kid A and Amnesiac-era of Radiohead artwork.
I had been listening to Radiohead since I was 12 (this is not hyperbole), and they had, without a doubt, been my favorite band since I was a teenager. When you get a tattoo—I mean, at least, when I get a tattoo—I want it to be something that I’m not going to regret, and something involving Radiohead was, more than likely, the first thing that came to mind.
At this point, in the dark ages of 2008, there wasn’t a tattoo shop in our town, and since this was my first experience, I wasn’t sure what to expect pain-wise—I didn’t want to travel far, and then have to drive back with a part of my body in possibly searing agony. After some internet research (probably not as much as I should have done), the closest tattoo shop I found was in Burnsville—The Aloha Monkey.4
The Aloha Monkey did not take appointments, which was mildly disconcerting since we were coming from a half hour away. I don’t really remember why, but I was dragging my wife5 along with me for this endeavor as well. Maybe I didn’t want to go alone, or maybe she was worried that something may happen to me during the process and she wanted to be there as my emergency contact.
We arrived at the shop toward mid-afternoon, and after telling the woman at the front desk what I wanted done, and where I wanted it, she took one look at the image I had printed out, and told me to come back in an hour, not really giving a shit that we had traveled to get there.
Slightly dejected, we drove across town and ate a somewhat somber, incredibly early dinner at Noodles and Company.
Returning to The Aloha Monkey an hour later, and I was told to have a seat, where we proceeded to wait for roughly 90 minutes. We waited while a group of young women, clad in swimsuits, all filed in to get their navels pierced, or to inquire about getting something tattooed on the small of the back.
Waiting to actually get behind the counter and have the work done took much, much longer than the work itself did—just an outline, not a lot of small details. It was over before I knew it, and it didn’t hurt nearly as much as I was anticipating. An album by The Black Keys6 played very loudly as my artist worked.
The tattoo is on my calf—I never wear shorts, so nobody ever sees it. I think at this time in my life, I was uncertain about what I’d be doing in the immediate future as a career, so I wanted to get it someplace that I could easily cover up to be ‘professional,’ or whatever, if need be.
* * *
What people say about tattoos being addictive is accurate; at least for me, it is, anyway. I got my next tattoo roughly six months after the first.
It was two days after Christmas, 2008, and we had driven to Illinois on the morning of December 25th to visit my family, also announcing our engagement upon arriving. I look back at this point, or at least this specific span of time, as when I felt uncharacteristically optimistic about things.
I was working two different jobs—one was kind of stressful and not going as well as my supervisor had want it to7, and the other was my first experience working in a bookstore, something that I was hoping I could ride out for as long as I was able to. Since I was feeling so optimistic, I thought, ‘Heck, now seems like a good time to get another tattoo.’
The shop, Dermal Addiction, was near where my mother lived at the time—she had her first tattoo done there shortly before this, too—but the shop has since closed at some point over the last decade.
The piece, located on the inside of my right forearm, was the first part of a much more elaborate design—another design by Stanley Donwood, this time, taken from the woodcut artwork for Thom Yorke’s 2006 solo album, The Eraser. The album itself doesn’t really mean all that much to me—I mean, it’s good and all, but not, like, life affirming or anything; however, the artwork is incredible, and my plan was to get the figure dressed in a black coat and hat on my right arm, and a large portion of the jagged waves he’s stopping on my left.
I think it’s raining on the day I go to get the tattoo. Again, my wife comes with me, and disinterestedly flips through magazines in the waiting area while my work is done. Loud mainstream rock music plays on the stereo. When the artist is finished, he wraps my forearm in a piece of paper towel, tacked down with masking tape.
Less than a week later, I get a call that the bookstore I work at will be closing within the next five months. The economy is a mess, and the store is owned by one of the colleges in town—it’s apparently never turned a profit, and they can’t afford to lose money on it anymore.
I am suddenly less optimistic.
* * *
The third tattoo I get occurs four years later, and is done so, more or less, out of grief. Also remembrance.
But mostly grief.
On April 3rd, 2012, our first companion rabbit, Dennis Hopper The Rabbit—my best friend—passes away. For a few months prior, I had been thinking about getting a portrait of him tattooed on my right bicep, and his passing set things in motion to finalize a design and find a shop to go to.
In the four years that passed, I learned, thanks to at PETA ad featuring Mike Ness of Social Distortion8, that tattoo ink isn’t necessarily vegan9, and my internet search of ‘vegan tattoo ink’ + ‘twin cities’ leads me Fluid Ink in St. Paul.
The appointment is made for a Sunday evening, but shortly before we are going to leave the house and head up, I get a call saying that my time slot with Chad, the owner of the shop, was double booked, and I’m being bumped. I reschedule for the following Saturday afternoon.
My wife and I make a short weekend trip out of it—it helps to get out of the house and try to outrun, even if for a short while, the sadness that is destroying us. I get a last minute room at a somewhat nice hotel downtown, though the ceiling is entirely too low.
Chad is apologetic for the double booking confusion and charges me less than he should have for the work. My wife sits in waiting area of Fluid Ink, absent-mindedly flipping through tattoo magazines—but we also have smartphones now, so she is able to dink around on the internet during my appointment.
We go out to dinner after to a restaurant we had been to a number of times before, but it’s this time that we realize the food isn’t even really that good.
A local high school’s prom is taking place in the large ballroom on the main level of the hotel. We order room service, drink champagne, and disinterestedly watch an episode of “Saturday Night Live.”
We drive back to our empty, silent home the next morning.
* * *
The next two tattoos I get are done back-to-back, seven months later.
The first is a completion of what I had started four years prior, getting the rest of the Stanley Donwood Eraser artwork on my left forearm. By this point, there is a tattoo shop in our town, and a young woman on the staff, Jessica, uses vegan ink.
Sitting for the wave design takes over four hours—the entirety of a Friday afternoon I take off from work to have it done. It’s just so much detail, and she does a great job, but by the end, I lose patience with the pain, and I just want it to be over.
She covers it with a piece of cling film, masking taped onto my skin, and sends me on my way.
I was supposed to have a second tattoo done in the same appointment, but we ran out of time; I return a few days later for the second piece—it’s a large block of text on the side of my right forearm.
It takes awhile for me to come up with a font size and layout that appeases Jessica—she’s hesitant to do such a large block of text in small letters, so I continue to increase them until I find something that will work.
Of all the tattoos I have, this one winds up being the most contentious. It’s a lot of text, in gigantic letters, so it’s hard to miss when people catch a glimpse of it.
The words are taken from a song by Tom Krell, who performs under the name How to Dress Well10. A month after my best friend died, Krell released the first single from his then forthcoming album, Total Loss, an album inspired, in part, by the unexpected death of his own best friend.
The song is called “Ocean Floor For Everything,” and even now, so many years later, it’s a song that still devastates me to hear.
My tattoo says There’s an ocean floor for everything: for me, the sun, and he—gone.
Over the last six years, I’ve tried to remain patient as the person who asked what it says now reads it, whispering the words as their eyes move left to right.
“What is it from?” they will ask, still innocently enough.
Explaining How to Dress Well is difficult—sometimes I say, “Have you heard of How to Dress Well?” (the answer is almost always ‘no.’) Sometimes I say, “Do you like weird, lo-fi R&B?” (this is met with a confused look.) I’ve learned to just say, “It’s from a song,” and hope they’ll lose interest in the conversation.
My sister-in-law, bless her heart, after she’s had too much to drink, will often chide me for how irritated I get when people ask about this tattoo. “Why’d you get it in a place where everyone can see it?” she’ll ask me.
Tattoos are an investment—of both the time it takes for the work to be done, as well as in your threshold for pain; they also are also very costly. Why would I want to spend a few hundred dollars on something that will be perpetually covered up? The placement of my tattoos is less about showing them off to other people, and more about me being able to see them and enjoy them.
I liken it to a child that begs for an expensive toy, gets it, and then never plays with it.
* * *
Jessica is responsible for my next two tattoos—one in the summer of 2013 when she is still based out of a local shop, and the next in early 2014, after she’s moved on to a shop in a dodgy end of St. Paul.
A more traditional artist, Jessica’s style is similar to the ‘Sailor Jerry’ designs, and she brings a little of that into the piece from 2013—a large portrait on my left bicep of the two rabbits we adopted following the passing of Dennis Hopper—Annabell and Sophie.
I provide her with a photo of the two of them together, and she comes up with a sketch that also includes the ribbon banner underneath that features their names.
The second piece is a bird design pulled from the cover art to Jason Molina’s Pyramid Electric Company LP—it’s small, found with in the ‘P,’ and I use Photoshop to enlarge and smooth out the shape. I fill it in with part of the red and blue lines from the mural Elliott Smith is standing in front of on the cover of Figure 8.
It is, in a sense, an homage to my two favorite deceased singer-songwriters—artists that have helped me immensely.
About a year ago, I was browsing in a vintage shop in town and one of the proprietors, without really saying ‘Hello’ or asking me if I needed help finding anything, blurted “That a bird?” at me as I wandered by him.
It was a bit surprising, and at first I thought he was asking about the graphic on my t-shirt, which was definitely not a bird.
“No,” I say pointing down and looking at it. “It’s a rabbit.”
“Oh, yes,” I say, remembering that I do, in fact, have a bird tattooed on the lower part of my left arm. “It’s from the cover of an album by Jason Molina.”
“Oh,” he responds—and if you’re ever in a position to ask somebody about their tattoo, which I truthfully discourage you from doing, but if you do ask somebody about their tattoo, please be ready with an appropriate response for when you are disappointed by the explanation, or do not understand the reference.
A dejected “Oh” is not an appropriate response. A disinterested “Ok…” is also not an appropriate response. The appropriate response is saying something complimentary like,” I really like the detail,” or “That’s an interesting design—did you come up with it?”; that will help cover up your possible disinterest and disappointment.
* * *
The eighth tattoo I get occurs in March of 2015, and is done so, more or less, out of grief.
On February 22nd, after a long stretch of health issues, our rabbit Sophie passes away. And while I already have a portrait of both her and her sister Annabell on my arm, the form my grief takes is of a small drawing of Sophie on the inside of my right wrist.
Prior to this, all of my tattoos were very easy to cover up. None of them were placed far enough down on my arms that a long sleeve shirt couldn’t hide them if needed. The drawing of Sophie, an outline of one of my favorite photographs of her, is the first that extends out beyond what a sleeve will completely cover.
An acquaintance named Charley does the work out of his newly opened shop—it’s just him, and the space is about the size of a broom closet. It’s across the hall from a barbershop named ‘Hair Force,’ specializing in military style haircuts for men, and run by a woman who apparently hates tattoos.
While Charley works, his young daughter sits at a table near the window and futzes with an iPad.
* * *
My wife Wendy and I are in Portland, Oregon for less than 24 hours.
It’s October of 2017, and we’ve traveled 38 hours, by train, from St. Paul to Seattle, Washington, and spent a few days there prior to taking an additional (and much shorter) train ride to Portland, specifically so we can visit the ‘vegan strip mall’—a portion of a city block that houses a vegan grocery store, a vegan propaganda clothing store, a vegan café and bakery, and Scapegoat Tattoo—a vegan tattoo shop.
I look at my arms, and I think to myself that I am ‘running out of real estate’ when it comes to places for additional tattoos, but because we’re going to Portland to visit this ‘vegan strip mall,’ I start to think about something I could get at Scapegoat.
I look for inspiration from The Book of Disquiet, by Fernando Pessoa.11 Since long chunks of text are difficult because the letters have to be a certain size, I can’t make some of my favorite passages work—but I find one that does: How much I’ve lived without having lived!, and contact the shop about setting up an appointment for the day we are in town.
Wendy also, much to my surprise, agrees to get a tattoo—she, too, thinks about it ahead of time, and comes up with a small drawing of an elephant and a rabbit. She gets it on her right side, and during the hour that her session takes, she’s a good sport about the pain, though it does, I guess, really really hurt, mostly because it is on a very sensitive part of the body.
We travel back home with large pieces of Saniderm12 stuck to parts of our bodies, crinkling slightly underneath our shirts.
* * *
I got my tenth tattoo a little over a month ago, and I did it, more or less, out of grief.
On my days off from work, I am active with the local humane society, and I became attached to a difficult to handle and possibly unstable cat named Jasmine—Jazzy, I called her. Her instability made her unadoptable, and she was becoming problematic for a number of the other staff members at the shelter.
She was put to sleep because of that, and it hit me a lot harder than it maybe should have.
After hearing the news, and trying to process it, one of my initial instincts13 is to get a tattoo in her memory. I scan my arms again, wondering where the best place would be, and decide on the inside of my right bicep.
Charley now works out of a different shop—abandoning his own since he hated the ‘managing a business’ aspect of it. I sent him my design idea, and he’s on board, but questions the placement, trying to talk me into getting on the back of my calf.
I tell him no, it has to be on my arm.
My session is a week later, and it takes roughly four hours, including breaks so he can rest his hand. While he’s working, other employees as well as clients, wander over to his station and gawk, nodding their head in approval of what he’s doing.
A young woman14 who also works in the shop asks if that’s a picture of my cat, and I tell her it isn’t.
“So is it your favorite kind of cat?” she asks.
“No,” I simply respond.
Charley stops his tattoo gun for a moment and is like, “Wait, what the hell man?,” and I try my best to describe it—“It’s a cat at the shelter where I work who I became attached to, and she is no longer with us.”
Maybe it’s the location I’ve chosen for Jazzy’s portrait; maybe it’s the fact that it’s been a very, very long time since I’ve had anything more elaborate than an outline or text done; maybe it’s all the color ink he’s using; maybe I just don’t have any patience, but by the end of my session, my arm hurts. A lot.
When it’s done, I take a photo of it with my phone and post it to my Instagram page without any context.
A number of days later, my boss asks to see it, though it’s reached the stage in healing when the skin is incredibly crispy and gross. She asks about who it is, and I have to find a way to explain it all over again.
“She was my favorite,” I manage to say, after I tell her that Jazzy was put to sleep. “I couldn’t save her.”
My skin peels. My arm is still tender. I am on the verge of tears.
We let a brief moment of somber, knowing silence pass between us before getting back to work.
* * *
A lot of the people I work with have tattoos—one of my bosses has a large, intricate feather on her forearm; one of the cooks in the deli has the Daft Punk helmets taking up a large portion of his arm; two different people (in different places) have a Yin Yang.
Nobody really talks about their tattoos. I don’t think anybody has really asked me about mine, and I can’t recall inquiring too much about anybody else’s. They’re just kind of there—an outward expression of a part of the person they are inked onto.
Not every tattoo has to have an elaborate, verbose, and emotional story behind it. They don’t all need to have a deeper meaning. I mean, my wife used to work with a guy who got the word ‘butt,’ in Wingdings, tattooed on his shoulder. But every tattoo does have a story. The story of who you were when you got it—where you got it, the artist, the time of year, other things happening to you during this time in your life, if someone in the shop was loudly playing The Black Keys during your session.
They become a part of a bigger story, and eventually, whether you know it or not, they pull you through time.
1– So the thing about The Fountain is that it originally was going to be an expensive epic starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. Filming began in 2004, but Pitt quit the movie, and everything temporarily fell apart. After reimagining it as a graphic novel, Aronofsky eventually scaled things down in order to make the film on a meager budget, recasting the lead roles.
2– Flash tattooing are, like, incredibly traditional and stereotypical tattoos like a heart that says ‘mom’ or something like that. They’re pretty simple in design and are meant to be done very rapidly for walk-in customers.
3– This is a bit of an inside joke that I have with my editor, the benevolent force behind The Next Ten Words. A number of years ago, when writing about tattoos for a piece in the Southern Minnesota Scene, I used this expression, and a sensitive reader reached out to say how offended they were. We both thought it was super funny, and I’ve continued to work it in where applicable.
4– Based on my experience, I’d say please don’t go to The Aloha Monkey, unless they’ve drastically changed hands and artists over the last decade and are a little more personable when it comes to customer service.
5– It seems worth noting that we were not married or even engaged at this point. Just domestic partners.
6– I absolutely despise The Black Keys. I think their music is among the most boring and insipid I’ve heard in a very, very long time, but I will always equate them with what you listen to when you get a tattoo.
7-From August 2008 until August 2009, I was an ‘Americorps Promisefellow’ at a youth center in town. This year of my life was incredibly strange and, truthfully, deserves its own 5,000 word column in the near future.
8– The ad itself wasn’t about vegan tattoo ink, but Ness was getting dragged in the comment section about how a lot of his tattoos were, more than likely, not done with vegan ink.
9– Bone char is sometimes used as a binder in the ink, for those of you who were wondering what makes a tattoo ink vegan.
10– An aside that’s almost worth including in the main column: I went to see How To Dress Well perform at the 7th Street Entry a few weeks after getting the tattoo. After the show, Tom Krell was outside the venue, having a cigarette, speaking with some friends. My friend Chris, bless his heart, urged me to go introduce myself and show him my arm. I approach awkwardly, say hello, pull my arm out my coat, and Krell reads the words on my skin. His eyes light up, he exclaims, “THAT IS SO DOPE,” and gives me a huge hug, telling me I get in for free to any show of his, ever.
11– As I’m sure you’ve figured out, The Book of Disquiet’s title served as an inspiration for the name of this column. I would suggest that everybody read this book at one point in their life—it’s possibly the most important thing I’ve ever read in my entire life.
12– Saniderm is a kind of cling film meets bandage hybrid that you leave on for a number of days to let your tattoo heal while it’s protected.
14– This same young woman was in charge of the music for the entirety of the time I was at the shop. She was controlling it off of her iPhone, and continued to skip songs once they started—even while she had started working on a client. I found her musical A.D.D to be incredibly distracting and mildly irritating.
Kevin Krein has been operating the award winning music blog, Anhedonic Headphones, since 2013, and he contributed the back page column to the Southern Minn Scene magazine for roughly three years. His writing has appeared on Bearded Gentlemen Music, Spectrum Culture, and in River Valley Woman. He’s taking suggestions of what his next tattoo should be via Twitter: @KevEFly.
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