The first thing to read and the last thing to write is the face.
It is the finishing touch, the coupe de’ grace. You start your tattooing career
with the arms, the legs maybe, but never the face. That’s the what-the-fuck
moment, the end of the sequence, the part where you commit purely to being what
you have written under your skin. And the tattooed man wrote what? He wrote the
names of Hong Kong movies on his body.
If you are to indelibly ink over your features then one might imagine a great work of art is necessary. But no, in this case, not even the sublime Mickey Mouse sketch, the anchor, the serpent or the highly original dragon, but an injected scrawl of text lifted off the back of pirate DVDs.
The movies may or may not be great cinema but are they a bold statement on the fragility of life, a philosophical utterance that will transform one’s outlook, a statement that will change the world? If one were to make oneself a monument, then one would expect it to be a monument of some great significance. Maybe within the titles there is a secret code, a message of great significance. Or maybe it was just the use of Chinese characters that enticed the Tattooed Man. They appear to be more mysterious, more meaningful, and can fool everyone. And these characters tell a story, but for those who do not understand, they tell only what they imagine could be there. Assuming they imagine anything at all. And the imagination is powerful.
So with a smile to begin with, we read that Don Law from the House of The Lute, turned informer on the twins. He lived by night and killed green things, so it was goodbye mammie, get outta Chinatown, Big Brother! Hence the tattoos, the sign of the triad, the sign of the outsider, the sign of those who were once inside, locked up, all at sea, all of one tribe, all of an us against a them, or an it, or just seeking to disguise themselves; all written on the face, saying it all, and much more, or less.
Don, AKA, The caged tiger of Osmanthus Alley, took a lighter out one night and burned Snow, scarring her for life, or scaring if the sub-titles are correct, and though she escaped, she ended up in jail. Don thought her free but no, she was there living hard and stoking the fires of her ambition. It was a lucky star that saved her, a Chinese cop out, framed for her own safety because Don was a wild one, the man with the coconuts making the final run, and he would have burned her more. He juggled four loves. He was a big man with many little affairs. But he would have hunted Snow down, made her bleed, and stuck a bullet in her head to kill the romance.
The face was a pirate-DVD cover printed in Shenzhen and translated by a computer. Stay away from me, says this face. Don’t fuck with the Don, says the face. Thirty-seven Hong Kong Dollars, says the face, and you will be lucky if the entire film is on the disk.
You turn away and catch sight of the arm. Lurking in the shadows, other stories leap out. Here we discover how Don the gigolo, embraced the Cyprus Tigers with a fatal determination to terminate his return engagement. Life is a cycle, and death follows life and life follows death. It meant nothing to him. One day he held a doctor’s heart in his hands. It was all part of the plot where he was a bullet for hire, a great pretender, and a lover of whores.
Literally on the other hand, the black cat made a deadly deal with the sea wolves. He turned over the cards and queen was high, and in the good, the bad and the bandit on a mission of condor, he invited Don and Snow to the banquet where Guns N Roses played and they reprieved their gigolo and whore routine. They brought the good, cash on delivery, and once upon a time a hero in China arrived.
Such was the back-story for the face is the last place but the arms among the first, the first disguise, the first area of embroidery undertaken to impress, to join in with, to frighten, to declare one is bad ass, bored, bitter, in love, and dedicated to Jesus, The Devil or the vicissitudes of fortune one way or the other. Here is the beginning of the disappearance, of the immersion in ink, and the display, for the arms are naked and shown, as is the face. But then comes the stranger but more often illustrated regions, the areas rarely shown but in private.
Kicking off at the feet we discover that Dr Lamb, before his heart was ripped out, was the Friday Gigolo. He rode out in the night naked and killed the powerful four with his full contact holy weapon. It was a killer’s love, incorruptible and without a policeman in sight. Pure insanity. You can’t stop his crazy love for anyone. It was love among the Triads. The first shot came from the warriors and their black panther. Trained as the future cops to bring down the prince of Portland Street in the final judgment. The feet are but a trailer for what might or might not come to be, depending on the finance available, and rarely on display.
Here is the iceberg depths, the frantic pedaling to stay afloat, the depths, the fear, and on the souls of the feet the secret sign of whatever sect requires it, whatever secret sign, old will, myth of weakness and strength is hidden. Here the tales of the birth reside but none are true. The feet are liars but the more they lie the further away they take us.
They ran, the Dr and Don, and they killed, but they were raped by an angel called Rose who they loved, truly heroically, awaking a tragic fantasy in the Tiger of Wanchai, as Don once was called. Such was the folly of youth. He was a drunken master three times removed, crossing the crystal fortune run. They opened the devil’s box and their passion twisted the police confidentially, killing the dragon that snaked up the haunch because of the lies. Darker and darker are the secrets, as only those who pay the price will view what is available in these regions. Here one would expect to find hidden truths awaiting discovery on death, or love.
Snow and the Doctor love guns and glass and rob all, even their dearest, with the ghostly bus. The disconnections are disconcerting, for there must be a reason but it is merely the spare space that had to be filled. Here we begin to suspect that that is the motivation, the filling of empty space, the desire to take something from out there and wrap oneself in it, for fear that one is not enough and that only that which has claimed a space in the cultural consciousness is valid. Here the tattooed man joins with the wanted men who were kings of robbery and on Bloody Friday, they all of a sudden became No. 1. Street Angels. They were young, dangerous and remembered to be scared. For in that, there was power. In the scared and scarred moment was truth. Here was simplicity, never elaborated, always hidden and then revealed, to intimates. It is only a matter of time for the penis, the red head, the snake, to get a spider tattooed on it, or a bolt placed through it.
Here the tattooed man lost heart. He wanted to do something but only thought of hardware insertions, which must have been painful. But there were no names, no titles, just ink to blacken. Here there was no story to swallow. It was what it was and no disguise. Action and not words was all that was hoped for. It was the reader’s respite from gang lore and a tale of whores and dollars and brothers in arms, a moment where what lay beneath displayed itself momentarily and perhaps it was the only bit left, the thing that was never intended to be disguised. For sex is part of the tattoo. Sex and virility are supposedly enhanced by taking on the power of the signs, the magic of a blue skin, for even the red fades to a darkish blue.
It is when we read the back that we begin to suspect that there is more to this than the story, but we expect the unexpected and somehow the back is a relief. Here we look for the main feature, here is what everything else is a lead up to, the big work, the big image. This is operation billionaire, where everything is a Casino and a hit man is on the way. That was Don’s mission. With legendary speed, at the Trust Me U Die Night club, Juliet fell in love with the model from Hell. This woman from hell was cold and signed up to deathnet.com, where Don belongs. Here is Snow, the woman from hell, the cold woman, the deathnet.com woman. But Juliet? It is wrong, such a wrong name for this world, a transliteration, but then so many things are wrong for this world, this world of Hong Kong movies. When it borrows it borrows blatant and does not digest and Juliet, a name of nobody, has no dimension but then most of the characters are but names of no dimension. So wrong and without a character, a piece of Romanization among the Chinese characters which one hopes are more than they appear, at least for the target audience. But one’s suspicions are that even to them, even to the billion, even they feel it is all but skin deep.
She, Juliet, or Snow, a generic female much beloved of generic film makers, wanted a man, a fulltime killer, a final romance, and flew at midnight when her left-eye saw ghosts. Then such a let down as the back fills its space randomly with scenes of domestic mass marketing where Don and Juliet are partners obsessed with Lara Croft Tomb Raider, The Cradle of Life. Instantly the era is labeled on the back, forever. Don looks for Mr. Perfect and joins the PTU, where the eternal flame of fatal attraction burns. The news breaks, and the wake of death commences for Mob Sister, another fatal attraction, another cold lady, another void to be filled.
With such a gap in the leadership an election in this outback back was required. And the Dragon Squad finally came into their own, exiling the eye in the sky to the triangle, a simple sign, a three sided figure and sketched out pieces squeezed in, unfinished. A women’s prison has gone ballistic, a fatal move for the sparrow, the thief, where an ocean burst into flames and human nature found no way out.
There is now no more space and yet there is more to squeeze in. In gaps randomly discovered, Ip Man, with partners and comrades in arms under cover of night and fog, seek vengeance on the storm warriors. And the bodyguards and assassins pay the black ransom, leaving much bad blood with the blood bond and echoes of rainbows.
It was obvious, the tattooed man never imagined his hero would have such a career, pile in so many roles in so many films, and even though the skin came to an end, so Yam Man, Hong Kong’s star, forever working, forever producing character after character, went on. But the skin would be confined to the fires with the body, unread mostly, unheeded, and secret, as all things are. Art is not forever and cash pays the bills, but so often cash is sacrificed for the ephemeral that poses as eternal.
How strange to spend a lifetime accumulating the signs, hoping for a skinning, to be turned into a rug, a lampshade, a suit of cured sign and signifiers, but knowing it would not happen. In the end is cremation or decay. And nobody would ever read it. Except for me, and I am nobody. Nobody would do more than glance and remember you were the blue man, the man covered in characters of a certain dimension, a blue kind, a Chinese mash of many dialects and languages, unappreciated by the rest of the world. And not even appreciated by the world that might have understood, or cared, who shared the dream, the dream of Snow and Don and a dance of guns and brawls and gambling debts and Kung Fu warriors. No longer the sick man! A banal inspiration, but inspiration nonetheless, and life nonetheless, a life, the life, written one character at a time to say one was there, one was touched, and one day it will be finished, complete. But instead, time and space merely ran out.