I was in Downtown Denver for a conference. After a few days, and several hours of one particular day, of medical conferencing, I had maxed out on ‘knowledge’ intake. Something like that had happened to me around a decade ago, while I was in Boston for a conference with a different theme. I recalled walking out of the Boston Convention Center and making my way to Charles River where I befriended Jonathan Seagull. Although one hell of a serendipitous occurrence, that is a story to be retold another day.
As that blast from the past played itself in my head, I took that as a sign. Hence, I decided to follow through on the urge to step outside of the huge Colorado Convention Center for a stroll. At that time I didn’t have any particular destination in mind. And strolling was a significant understatement, because of the freak snowstorm while I was in Denver. The blizzard had not created an easy walking atmosphere in the Downtown District, but I braved my way eastward – as far away as I could venture from the famous 16th Street Pedestrian Mall. I had been to that Mall the day before, and given how crowded it had been I didn’t wish to return there.
Around three blocks later, I came across a store that beckoned my curiosity.
“Skin Canvas – for the Lovers of Body Ink” it announced in bold gothic font.
Across the facade of the store, there was a huge mural of a dragon standing over what appeared to be a damsel in distress.
An art store perhaps? I mused. I recalled my trip to Sri Lanka two years back when I had come across ‘Ai’s Cream’ another store with a really intriguing name, that just wouldn’t let on as to what exactly the wares were within. That too had been a sign for the itinerant observer to explore what lay beyond the enigmatic store’s door. Doing so had led me to engage with a remarkable fellow traveler. This time too perhaps I was to discover an equally interesting person as the one I had met in that other store in Sri Lanka, I hoped.
I stepped inside the store called Skin Canvas. One of my favorite songs of all time was playing, “’Cos it’s a bittersweet symphony that’s life; try to make ends meet, you’re a slave to money then you die…”
Counter-intuitively, hearing those lyrics put me in a good place; I felt really happy simply being there.
I was amazed by what I saw: all walls were covered by photos of tattooed people.
A tattoo parlor! The store’s name made perfect sense then.
The interior was aesthetically really pleasing given the plethora of predominantly black and white photographs on the bricked walls. It was quite cozy within, with just two seats, albeit both vacant then, set up for the clients’ tattooing needs. The tattooing seats were strategically placed around a brick fireplace that was roaring away – much needed given the blizzard outside.
The bell that rang as I entered the store brought the store owner to the front counter.
“Hi, there! Zima at your service. How can I help?” said the tattooist affably.
Zima was interesting because I couldn’t attribute the person to a particular gender, and the bohemian jumpsuit was unisexual enough that it didn’t make it any easier for me to guess. Had I to wager, then I would’ve placed the odds more so on the female gender, although truth be told, what difference did gender make where the artisan’s expertise was concerned? True to Zima’s profession, her arms, at least what I could see of the exposed skin, were covered with multi-colored floral tattoos extending all the way up towards her neck.
What a horticultural experience she represents! A fellow gardener perhaps? Given my penchant for gardening, not exaggerated speculation on my part.
Although her face lacked tattoos, floral or otherwise, there were quite a few piercings of her eyelids, lips, tongue, and ears.
“Hi, Zima” I greeted back. “I’m just looking”.
“What tattoo can I get you today?” Zima enquired.
“Umm….I don’t think I’m ready for one today” I answered. “Although, if I were to get one then what would you suggest?”
“A tattoo is rather personal. I think it should be about something that one feels passionately about or it should tell a story that reveals one’s truths. What would that be for you?”
“Err…I don’t think I’m quite there as yet. But, more so than an exciting design that might convince me to get my body inked, my actual fear is that a tattoo is just too permanent.” I said.
“I respectfully disagree. You are not permanent, so neither is your tattoo.” Zima countered.
Deep…really deep….I mused.
“A tattoo can be a badge of honor for some; a timestamp or a milestone reached in life, for others.” Zima continued.
That made me recall the tattoos and the stories behind them, for two of my favorite fellow travelers: Ai and Mehmet.
“Think about symbols or designs that may qualify as body ink for your skin canvas”.
That was a great source of sudden inspiration! I recalled my deep dive into Taoist and Sufi philosophies and relevant symbols or text of Chinese or Arabic origin came to mind that would showcase ecstatic love, balance (yin and yang), or being water-like (Wu Wei), through tattoos.
So I had ideas after all, but I didn’t feel articulate enough to reveal them to Zima right then.
Instead, I thanked Zima for helping me think through, as I prepared to leave.
As I turned around to exit the store, my sight fell onto a plaque right above the door.
“Show me a man with a tattoo and I’ll show you a man with an interesting past – Jack London”
Now if that wasn’t going to convince me then nothing else could! Or maybe that sign was simply speaking to my narcissism?
Profound wisdom can be found at the unlikeliest of places or from the least likely of sources (read people, like Zima). I think that is what happened to me during the most random of explorations in a city far from home. I’m glad I learned valuable lessons about seemingly mundane body ink. But gladder that Zima made me realize my impermanence in this cosmos and that of my tattoos, if and when I was to get any.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
This short story has been inspired by various past, present and future fellow travelers; the name Zima was an inspiration from ‘Zima Blue’ episode #14 from the Netflix series ‘Love, Death & Robots’.
Although I am a pediatrician, ER physician, and researcher by profession, at the Aga Khan University, my proclivity to writing is my means of creative exploration and expression. My articles on health, education, children, humor and popular culture have appeared in newspapers in the US and in Pakistan. Other than the Biloongra series of bilingual books for children, I have authored 'an itinerant observer' a book of short stories/essays first published in the US in 2014 that was updated and then reprinted by Bookgroup in Pakistan in June 2020.