I have a lot of tattoos–eight, at last count–and most of them are ridiculous. There’s a magical sea creature with analog tastes that takes up my entire calf, and once earned itself a mention on the Colbert Report once (something about the number of Williamsburg hipsters taking the census being only half as many as residents walking around with a mermaid with a television set for a head,) and then the Twin Peaks-inspired coffee and cherry pie on my hips. Also got an Eraserhead quote on my back, ill-conceived and ill-executed by my best friend’s sister’s baby daddy, who was diabetic and performed the service in his basement. Now, instead of saying “In heaven, everything is fine” it says “In heaven, everything is Pine,” which actually sort of works, or “In heaven, everything is Vino,” which…I wish!
I had stopped getting tattoos after I scored one of the elusive appointments with Amanda Wachob before she retired from tattooing, and her watercolor interpretation of Delirium from The Sandman filled me with such thrilling awe over its “difference-ness” (I was like, 23) that I assumed it meant I never had to get another “normal” tattoo.
The only exception, I told myself, was if I could find a matching set with my sister. Something pop cultural…something that expressed US. I knew it had to be pop culture related, even though the biggest critique people seem to come up with is “No one will understand what your tattoo means when you’re older!” My response is “I don’t care if they ‘get it’ now.” For me, that’s not the point…it’s not some lowest common denominator/party trick wherein people rudely poke my arm or pull down the back of my shirt and go “WUZZAT? IN HEAVEN EVERYTHING IS WHAT DOES THAT SAY! TELL ME NOW, SO I CAN STARE AT YOU QUIZZICALLY AND THEN ASK IF YOU LIKE THE PIXIES.”
I get tattoos because they are reminders of important moments of my life, representing the things I’m “thirsty” about: moving away to college, David Lynch, the bar I used to work at in Bushwick, Sandman, David Lynch again…um, some weird Cronenberg reference to the meeting of technology and human organisms? I dunno, didn’t really figure out that mermaid. That one looked cool.
Now in my life, my biggest passion is TV. The only subjects I want to talk about are narrative television and content distribution platforms and my magic superpower where I can guess everything that is going to happen on any given Scandal episode from the first two lines of dialogue in each scene.
But it took a visit to LA and drinks with It’s Always Sunny director and EP Matt Shakman to figure out what would be worth turning back to the ink-filled buzzing needle one last time. He was showing me, jokingly, all the crazy tattoos that fans got for the show (which, for those who haven’t seen in, can be explained as “It’s like Seinfeld if George and Kramer were constantly huffing paint, Jerry was a preening, Hannibal Lecter-style sociopath with great cheekbones, and Elaine was a big, dumb, flightless bird. Also Danny DeVito was there.”) I mean, some of these tattoos were seriously insane. And kind of amazing.
And then Mr. Shakman showed me another tattoo on his iPhone, and something clicked. “That is the one I am getting with my sister!” I exclaimed.
“Ha,” he said, waiting a polite amount of time before signaling for the check.
“No, like, I’m really going to do it!” I pressed. Later his one response would be “Wow, that’s dedication!” Even though it was over text, I knew that he meant it in a way didn’t NOT feel like a sincere compliment/validation for all my life choices.
So before I show you, here’s what you need to know to understand the images I chose to represent my era worshiping the new gods of the golden (iPhone) age of television…
(If you watch the show, feel free to skip down these graphs)
Now in its 10th season, I’m not the only critic to revel in Always Sunny’s nihilistically giddy view of the world. Their work has spawned an IRL Paddie’s Pub (owned by two of the shows leads, who happen to be married), the career of Charlie Day in blockbusters like Horrible Bosses and The Lego Movie, as well as a live theatrical versions of the musical written by Charlie Kelly (Day), entitled “The Nightman Cometh.” (The cast took the show on the road and played to sold-out stages across the country filled with cult followers.)
Here’s the whole episode (which is 100 percent worth it, I promise), in which Charlie–the only member of the group to retain a childlike sense of whimsy and innocence– writes a musical to win the attention of his true love, the Waitress (whose name no one on the show has ever learned, and who currently has a restraining order against Charlie.)
“Nightman” orginated as a song in an early episode, where Charlie puts on his Bob Dylan hat (and voice) to sing about the a boogeyman who visits every night, “sneaky and mean,” and fills Charlie’s heads with “spiders inside my dreams!” He ends up bawling, “You make me wanna cry, you make me wanna die, I love you I love you I love you NIGHTMAN.”
Nightman can only be defeated by Dayman, who is a master of the sun and a champion of karate and friendship, and was conceived while huffing silver spray paint in glam rock silver spandex.
The other part you need to know is that Charlie, the character–not the writer/actor who plays him, is pretty much illiterate–but keeps notes that make sense only to him, which gives him an advantage over the other conniving characters who can’t decode his messages. For instance, here are his “lyrics” to “Nightman.”
This roughly translates to:
Nightman, sneaky and mean
Spiders inside my dreams
You make me want to cry
You make me want to die
I love you, I love you, I love you Nightman.
(Alright, Sunny fans, we are done with the tl;dr portion of this essay!)
Everything about “Nightman” (and Charlie Kelly’s imagination in general, which includes thinking he is an expert in “bird law,” a favorite food called “milksteak” and considering himself King of the Rats) comes together to make literally my favorite running joke on television, of all time. Sorry everything else!
Last weekend, after meeting with Mr. Shakman, who in fairness was showing me a bunch of Always Sunny tats as examples of how nuts people on the Internet can be, immediately gave me an idea. I would get the Nightman lyrics with my little sister! It wasn’t even that original, so we figured we’d knock it out in afternoon. (This is probably the last part that I’ll mention my sister, since she found this ordeal way too stressful.)
There had been talk of going to Hand Of Glory, a Park Slope tattoo establishment because A) they’d done several of my sister’s tats, and B) their Yelp page boasted a giant tattoo of Walter White and, C) they accepted walk-ins.
We emailed them the photo first, to see if they had room in their schedule. My sister and I were going to split the lyrics, one half top, the other half taking bottom, and get them on our right legs.
The email we got back from Hand of Glory was a little bit…off-putting, to say the least. First they asked if we really wanted to have that on our bodies for the rest of their lives, before saying they wouldn’t want someone walking out of their shop with that tattoo representing the work they did.
Look, I’m not offended that someone thought this crazy, misspelled hieroglyph was maybe the kind of thing one should give more thought to before committing. What really got me into rage-stroke territory was the thinly veiled condescension employed by the person on the other end of their official account. Still game, we sent another photo, showing someone else with the same tattoo, in the hopes that they were just worried about the squiggly lines being difficult to draw. Nope, we were told, Hand of Glory just had some high standards artistic standards and we weren’t making them. But they’d be “happy” to rework the design to something they found more representative of their brand. (Which is good, because I planned on getting a “Copyright: Hand of Glory” tattooed right underneath it so everyone would know which studio in Brooklyn employed people who could follow a stencil correctly for a couple hundred dollars.)
Then, this is the best, I promise, was their closing line: “even though most anything can be tattooed, some things are left better on paper and not on somebody’s body for a lifetime.”
!!!? I mean sure, yes, obviously. But maybe you should be in a different line of work, then. Something like “official gatekeeper of paper doodles” or “runner of tattoo FAILBLOG.”
And, just to be clear, Hand of Glory once offered to tattoo anyone for $13 on Friday the 13th as long as they picked from a sheet of pre-selected clip art. (Mandatory $7 tip.)
At the end of the email, we were asked where we had come up with such a concept. We told them, and they…didn’t respond. Damn, I was holding out hope that they were secret FX fans who just didn’t get around to watching the last several seasons.
“We should have gone with something from The Wire,” I thought to myself. “No one ever turns down ink some prestige shit!”
It was weird how much shame you can feel about your personal taste, even when you know that you’ve done absolutely nothing to be sorry about and this shit is all subjective. I tried to figure out how I dealt with being rejected from a customer service representative in the past but it turns out, I had no idea. I’d never once entered an interaction where some guy spends four emails belittling a request to pay money in exchange for goods and/or services. When you go into a hair salon and ask for bangs, they might gently dissuade you from it if it didn’t match your face. They wouldn’t call you up or respond to your email by going “Ew, bangs. We wouldn’t give you bangs even if you wanted them. This is a no bangs establishment because we pride ourselves on only giving updated versions of The Rachel.”
I went to Yelp with a few choice words about the rd. I was that angry…I’m never that confrontational about bad/rude service, but the idea of getting scolded by a tattoo parlor for a tattoo idea was so unbelievable it became almost novel. Was it offensive somehow? It didn’t seem possible: there wasn’t even one genocidal dictator or quote from James Franco’s Palo Alto in the entire four lines of “text.” I riffed off a quick one-star review, ending with the classic:
“….wow. Tattoo shaming from a tattoo studio, unexpected policy towards repeat customers! Good job.”
And then I sat back and waited. Pretty soon, after all, they would realize their mistake. I WAS a TV critic after all. I’m an expert on inside jokes that only make sense to the other people in your Joss Whedon/Dan Harmon crossover erotica beta-reading forum. Plus, I have very many followers on Twitter, only half of whom seemed to side with the tattoo place on the “please do not get this” argument.
It didn’t take long for the shop to reply, and WHOA BOY. You can check out the whole reply here, but these are some choice highlights:
Drew Grant @videodrew, does have one thing correct, some things are best left on paper.
We are quite discerning about what we choose to do here at our shop. We base this on the quality of the design and the longevity of the tattoo itself as well as our reputation for great work. Although, most likely funny to Drew…we believe that 4 lines of child like scribble and badly drawn icons from a television show is not something that we would want to permanently put on any of our clients.
We did not respond rudely or with any shame about the design, Drew, we simply think that some designs are best left as a note on your refrigerator or maybe on a t-shirt. We’re not running an ice cream stand, we are tattooing people permanently and take our profession and craft very seriously and do not want to propagate poor tattoo design choices. There are many studios that will do anything on anybody but we are surely not one of those establishments.
The Hand of Glory Tattoo Family
I think I lost track of time and space and also my sanity while I updated my response. Because now they weren’t just saying THEY wouldn’t do the tattoo because of a conflict of style or some such…they were literally telling us that, unlike BRYAN CRANSTON’S BALD HEAD, a bunch of weird symbols including a heart and an eye and a “U” didn’t have “longevity.” I am pretty sure after the sun explodes and the Earth is scorched to a dry husk, the new sentient microbes making their way out of the roiling sea will be able to figure out what Charlie was doing here.
That line about “child-like scribble…from a television show” also was just mind-blowing, since it implied that they (still unclear if this was unanimous, store-wide decision or just a receptionist having his own fun) knew the image was from Always Sunny in the first place and was part of their decision-making process. When in fact, they didn’t even ask if this was some kind of pop cultural ephemera until they’d already refused.
They just didn’t want to do that particular tattoo. Fine. But after the fact, they created a reason that included the source material, as if that would sway readers onto their side of how trivial and fleeting our interests were because it’s from a TELEVISION SHOW. Instead of…what? Something drunk sailors got one hundred years ago? A four-leaf clover? Jesus stuff?
Maybe Hand of Glory doesn’t realize (or doesn’t care) that 100 percent of tattoos are based on something that already exists, and 99 percent of them are a stupid idea to put on your body forever. But we do them anyway: because they mean something to us, because we think they are funny, or beautiful or maybe just weird on the same wavelength as our weird. Maybe Tony Soprano should have only been on coffee cups instead of someone’s arm. Maybe nobody gets Breaking Bad tattoos, because it’s just a TV show. (Unlike Scarface or Biggie.) Maybe Elmo and Big Bird and Mickey Mouse and Bart Simpson and every lyric the Grateful Dead ever wrote should just go fuck themselves for being so uncreative. And sorry, dolphins, weird devil masks, tribal designs, passages from the bible, Chinese symbols and DEFINITELY koi fucking fish…you guys should just be on a t-shirt or something. Because your form of self-expression is being judged by Artists. And Artists don’t own TVs. (Also, Artists won’t be living with that “creative interpretation” they “worked to adapt” on their bodies for the rest of their lives.)
At the end of the day, my sister and I got our tattoos at FlyRite in Williamsburg, which is where I got my mermaid so many years ago. The tattoo artist, Fernando, laughed at our earlier drama before taking our minds off the mechanical needle with his thoughts about this season of Broad City. My new tattoo looks amazing, to me.
And at least that shop got one thing right…I think it’s really, really funny. Maybe not forever, but the part where it’s just a picture of a spider before “inzide (sic) my dreams” makes for good odds. And best of all, I don’t have to defend my choice for what to put on my body to anyone. That, in my opinion, is the great gift of a tattoo: people might keep demanding explanations, but you’ll know a true kindred spirit when someone approaches you at party and starts humming the opening bars to “Dayman.”