Yellow Ink

Yellow Ink

A Story by Ian Reeve

A Tattoo artist tells the story of the strangest tattoo he's ever done.

The strangest tattoo I’ve ever done? I say, looking up at the ceiling as I think about it. I have to pause in my work, the needle hovering a couple of Inches above the skin of his arm. It’s the name of his girlfriend, the most common tattoo I do, and I could probably do the cursive script with my eyes shut, but there’s no going back if you make a mistake so I play safe and stop for a moment. I get paid by the hour, after all, and if he’d rather chat than let me get on with my work, well, it’s his money.

 Well there was this guy, a couple of years back, I say at last. Strange looking chap. Huge, bushy beard, fierce eyebrows. Muscles all over the place, but he didn’t look well. The first time I saw him, I remember thinking how ill he looked. His eyes were yellow. That means liver disease, right? His whole skin was yellow, in fact. His fingernails were malformed, with ridges all along their length and split at the ends, his limbs were shaking and he had a cough. A real bad one. I remember thinking friend, you don’t need a tattoo parlour. You need a hospital.

 He had an appointment, though, and his money was good, so who was I to argue? He sits down in the chair and I ask him what he wants and he says something yellow. I look at his yellow skin. Yellow won’t show up, I tell him. Once the swelling’s gone down you’ll barely be able to see it. Tell you what, blue would show up beautifully. No, he says. It’s got to be yellow. Okay, I say doubtfully. With a blue outline... Just yellow! He says, and now he’s starting to get angry. Yellow! It’s got to be yellow! So I get the catalogue out so he can browse through it, but he just pushes it away. Do yellow, here, he says, showing me his arm. Just a yellow stripe along here. That’s all I want.

 So I wash and shave his arm, I prepare the ink and the tattoo machine and I get to work. I would normally do an outline first, let him see what it looks like before filling it in, but this time I just do a line across his arm, about an inch long, and then set about widening it. He’s watching me doing it and he seems happy enough, and then I see the strangest thing. The more ink I put on his skin, the healthier he looks. His limbs stopped trembling, he stops coughing, and his skin and eyes look less yellow. Probably just because he’s indoors, in the warm, I think. It’s cold outside, there’s quite a gale blowing, the kind of wind that sucks the heat out of your body. I keep it quite warm in my studio, and that’s probably what’s making him feel better, I think at the time.

 After I’d made the strip about an eighth of an inch wide he tells me to stop and thanks me. He’s completely transformed! The very picture of health and virile middle age. So I wipe him down, apply the cream and wrap it up for his trip home. He pays me, one hundred bucks for a yellow stripe you can barely see, and then he’s off, back out into the freezing wind.

 Well, I had a story to tell, and I entertained all my friends with it for the next couple of weeks. Now I’ve seen everything, I think, except I hadn’t because a couple of weeks later he was back. He looked sick again, worse than he had before. The moment I saw him I almost called an ambulance there and then. He looked twenty years older than the man who’d left my shop a couple of weeks before. His cheeks were sunken, his skin was even yellower than before and he was shaking so badly he could hardly get in through the door. The last man I saw in that kind of state was a junkie who died a couple of days later. He wants another yellow tattoo, just like before. Same place, same size. I suggest he might want to see a doctor, but he just holds his arm out and repeats his demand. So I do it, and to my surprise he begins to look better before I’m half finished, just like before. It’s almost as if the ink itself is curing him, which is ridiculous of course. It doesn’t go into the bloodstream. Well, hardly any. The ink has to be non toxic because some of it does get in, a tiny, tiny amount, but the idea that it might be treating his condition is just ridiculous. All the ingredients are totally inert. They don’t do anything to the body, good or bad.

 I put the second tattoo just beside the first, making two parallel stripes, and I make it the same length and thickness as the first. He hadn’t told me to do this, but he doesn’t object either. When I’m finished he pays me and leaves, happy and healthy, but this time I know he’s going to be back again. Sure enough, it turns into a regular thing. Every couple of weeks he comes in looking like death warmed up, and leaves a couple of hours later in the rudest of rude health with another stripe on his arm. It was my idea to make the fifth stripe go across the first four, like tally marks. That way at least it looks like something, not just stripes going ever further up his arm. He says okay. So long as it’s yellow he doesn’t care. I could probably have written the lyrics to The Good Ship Venus across his forehead and he wouldn’t have cared.

 He was my most regular customer for a year after that, but I never found out anything about him. I would ask him about his family, about where he was going on his holidays, but he would never tell me anything. All he wanted was his tattoo, and he would sit there in silence while I did it, his health flowing back into him along with the yellow ink. Every couple of weeks, until December 2015. That day started out just the same as every other, with him coming through my door looking like he had one foot in the grave and demanding another stripe. He had tally marks all the way from his wrist to the elbow by then, but this time it was different.

 Usually, his health would start to improve when I was about half way through, but this time there was no visible improvement. His skin stayed yellow, his limbs continued to shake, and after a few minutes he noticed it as well. Why isn’t it working? He demanded. I had no answer, so I just carried on working, and when I eventually finished he looked just as sick as before. Why isn’t it working? He said again. Do another stripe! I couldn’t do that, though. I had another customer due to come in, someone who’d booked an appointment a couple of weeks before, but when I told him this he became angry and told me again to give him another stripe. “Why isn’t it working?” he kept repeating. “It’s the same colour! Right? The same colour?”

 It was the same colour, although they had changed the formula slightly. The ink got its colour from a chemical called ferrocyanide. I don’t normally tell people that, the cyanide part gets people a little nervous, but it’s completely harmless. It does tend to fade after a few years, though, so they’d started making it with ferricyanide instead. It makes the same colour, but it lasts longer. The company says the yellow will still be as bright and vivid twenty years after application. Everyone uses it now. I’d just used up the last of the old formula, this was the first time I’d given him the new stuff, and it looked exactly the same on his arm. He was convinced the ink was responsible, though, and he kept demanding I give him another stripe. Eventually, when I’d told him no for the third or fourth time, he grabbed the plastic ink bottle, bit off the top with his rotten, yellowing teeth and swallowed the contents like a shot of whiskey.

 Still nothing, and so I told him about the change in the formula, just to get rid of him. He stared at me in horror. So give me the old stuff, he demanded. When I told him I didn’t have any he demanded to know where it came from, who made it, what was in it. I gave him my copy of the product catalogue, it’s got the addresses and phone numbers of all the companies involved at the back, and he took it in a hand that shook so much that it took him three attempts. Then he staggered out of my studio like a drunkard.

 I watched him weaving down the street, pausing every now and then to lean against a lamppost while he regained his balance. That was the last I ever saw of him. I later heard that he visited two other tattoo studios that night, demanding to know if they had any of the old yellow ink left. Neither of them did, and a few days later I saw his face in the newspapers, above an article saying how he’d died in his sleep from suspected liver failure. I’d known his name, of course, but that was all I’d known about him. Imagine my surprise when I read that he was a millionaire, the heir to a fortune. Apparently he’d had a falling out with his father, who’d left everything to his brother, but then the brother died and my guy got it all. The brother had also died from a form of liver failure, apparently, but the doctors were never able to diagnose exactly what had caused it. Apparently, whatever it was could be treated by the chemicals in yellow tattoo ink, though.

 So here’s the curious thing. He was a millionaire. He could have phoned the company that makes the ink and bought the stuff by the truckload, so why come to me? You know what I think? I think he killed his brother to get the money. Poisoned him or something. He was probably quizzed by the police, but they couldn’t prove anything, but he made a mistake. I think he accidentally poisoned himself as well. He couldn’t go to the hospital because the police would put two and two together and figure out the truth, but he somehow found out about the yellow ink. He couldn’t go to Killer Ink, that’s the company that supplies it, because that would be a giveaway as well. Getting regular tattoos was the only way he could survive without the police catching on, until they went and changed the formula.

 That’s my theory, anyway. We’ll probably never know the truth, but that’s it. The strangest tattoo I’ve ever done. The guy looks at me sceptically, a grin on his face. He clearly thinks I just made up the whole story. Well, that’s his prerogative. I don’t care what he thinks. I just put the needle back to his arm and carry on with his girlfriend’s name.

© 2017 Ian Reeve

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Added on June 6, 2017
Last Updated on June 6, 2017


Ian Reeve
Ian Reeve

Leigh - on - Sea, United Kingdom

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