I got my nipple pierced in the final year of my twenties, stood-up in a makeshift tent with a smiley long-haired man who declared that I had nothing to fear with regard to the impending pain as he was ‘very fast’. On the word ‘fast’ he hastily passed a needle through my nip; a creaking-popping noise, a lightning bolt of searing agony then a wobbly rush of endorphins. Done. Gary next.
Gary and I spent the day walking about the Milton Keynes bowl with our right hands suspended over our smarting teats for fear of physical contact with a fellow reveller, there were dozens of other people striking a similar pose on account of their recent surgery, eye-contact would solicit a nod, a cheer, even a beer from one especially lubricated out-patient.
We’d made the trip from London with a few mates to see Black Sabbath, I’d never seen them live despite being a fan from a very early age, nine to be exact, after my friend Gavin* gave me a tape that he’d borrowed from his sister. I remember he was very amused by one song called ‘embryo’ so I’m guessing it was Master of Reality.
It was a big deal they were performing, I don’t think any of us thought we’d ever catch them live, so we’d brought along plenty of provisions to ensure we’d be suitably annihilated when they came on stage. Apart from flashes of us all laughing our heads off and one of us throwing up on the train journey home (it may have been me) I can barely recall the day, save noticing that I wasn’t the only one having a little cry when they opened with War Pigs, and my being pierced, of course. I still have the piercing, unlike Gary who, after jumping in a swimming pool in Turkey, learnt that the valve from some inflatable animal had arrived in between his jewellery and chest as he descended into the water. The ring was ripped clean out of his flesh and the pool had to be evacuated.
Until relatively recently I’ve never really analysed this desire to look a certain way, especially when it’s physically painful, and I suppose by looking a ‘certain way’ I (somewhat ironically) conform to a stereotype of what people expect a ‘headbanger’ or ‘biker’ to look like. On the one hand, it’s probably a sign of something insecure (of course, you don’t need to look like a rocker or a punk to be one) but it could just as easily be the reverse. Back in the 80’s, before Nirvana and Guns and Roses taught the prols to rock, people that looked like me weren’t just targets for the media, we had a more tangible threat: groups of young white men that liked to drink pissy lager and listen to jazz-funk. I was beaten unconscious on a night out with my girlfriend in a pub close to my parents by three bastards who starting smashing me in the face before I’d had a chance to pint my pint down, they pulled out chunks of my hair after I’d passed out for good measure.
I didn’t go out for a year after that, because it’d been an unprovoked assault my brain couldn’t process the right way to deal with why what had happened and I became really paranoid. But despite the huge toll it’d taken on me psychologically it had an uncanny effect of reinforcing my identity, it was almost as if I felt I’d earned the right to my long hair and black leather because someone had beaten me up, not for something I’d said but for the way I looked. If anyone was going to inflict pain on me, it was me.
A tattoo was somewhat inevitable. I waited until I was thirty before committing the design I’d been working on for five years to flesh. I guess that’s the difference between now and two decades ago. Tattoos are passé these days, people get ink for the sake of itself, some (but certainly not all, so don’t write in) want to be associated with the having of tattoos to the extent that the aesthetics are secondary; take the faux-tribal craze that took place relatively recently where you could have miles of ink slapped on in a couple of hours, right out the book. Once upon a time tattoos used to be the preserve of sailors, criminals and outlaw bikers, ink, by association, was with loaded with unsavoury connotations -not millionaire football player or that nice Ed Sheeran. Tattoos found their way onto rockers and punks and, as far as I’m concerned, legitimised them for the likes of me. The fact that I’m a devotee of all things ‘motorcycle’ it’d almost be rude if I didn’t have tattoos, mum.
I can no longer contain the ingredients of the stuff that makes up the self so the excess pours out leaving traces of ink and hair in its wake. And it’s not just ink, it’s the rest of the garb, the leather, chains, skull-rings, studs… And a pram with a beautiful little boy sitting there, watching the world go by with his proud dad pushing him along.
*Gavin died of a brain tumour when we were in our early twenties, around the time I got that kicking. A week after he passed, his mum came around to my parents’ house and wordlessly dropped off two dozen heavy metal tee-shirts for me, many from shows we’d seen together. It blew me to pieces.