Back Piece diary
July 2006 to November 2008
PLANNING THE DESIGN
Monday 3 July 2006, Bristol – at home.
My back is blank. My chest isn’t nor my stomach nor my hips. Neither are my upper arms, my arse or even one of my ankles - but my back is virgin, uninked.
Now, that’s all going to change. My tattoos to date have been higgledy piggledy. I’ve tried to order them sensibly but there just isn’t a grand strategy behind them - and it shows. I’ve avoided my back because in my grand scheme of things it was eventually to be the site of my piece de resistance – the full expression of my tattooed self. I’ve considered original art, Polynesian art; Japanese even but they and other styles I’ve rejected as either unrealistic or simply not me.
Art Nouveau and pre-Raphaelite press my button every time. The Japanese designs are peerless – incomparable but I’m not Japanese. Art Nouveau on the other hand owes a lot to the Japanese but it is European. Further I love beautiful nudes. So my backpiece is to be Art Nouveau and pre-Raphaelite but within the Japanese concept.
The other barrier to progress has been whom could I get to design it? Then last year I remarried. My new wife is creative and artistic. The only problem is the poor regard she has for tattoo freaks like me. To quote her: ”I’ve never seen a body improved by a tattoo, I don’t understand why they do it”. This wasn’t a promising starting point.
My darling wife, who wishes to remain anonymous and will heretoafter be known as “Grumpy Tits”, isn’t always one hundred percent consistent. In spite of this withering assessment, she has been willing to spend hours at the local library poring over paintings by great artists like Burne-Jones, Rossetti and Mucha. She blew the dust off book jackets, photo-copied, re-sized and mixed and matched. One sunny day I was ordered to lie naked on the bed while she shuffled bits of paper around it. She researched tomes on Japanese and other Asian art.
Now we come to the moment when her work is to be refined and distilled. We are to hold counsel with my tattooist, Ben Boston, later this week.
Thursday 6th July - We make our first visit to Ben’s.
I’m feeling just a touch anxious this morning. Before, when I looked at Grumpy Tits’s work (why did I choose such a God awful name for her?) my imagination filled in the blanks. But what if Ben looks at it and just sees a jumble of images? Is he going to say it’s all impractical ……
Well I’m back now. Grumpy Tits’s verdict was that most of the tattoos she saw on the walls “were gruesome, gruesome, the product of twisted minds”. My beloved does suffer from delusions of social grandeur, bless her. Ben to my relief seemed quite enthusiastic about our design ideas. Grumpy Tits was eager to point out that I am particularly partial to naked women. I’m convinced that doesn’t mark me out as unusual. Ben thought the nude pre-Raphaelite centrepiece should have back-lighting to make her stand out. That’s sounds good.
Next step is to glue the elements onto the sheet of wallpaper and I’ll take it over tomorrow, then Ben will draw an outline for us to review. I can’t wait to see what it looks like. I hope he embraces the theme of water and fish on my buttocks, merging upwards into flowers and nymphs on land and then on to my shoulders with birds soaring in the sky. And then there’s the choice of colours but lets get the outline sorted first.
Friday 7th July at home
Once we’d glued on the pieces of design we hung it on the fridge door. My spatial imagination is poor so it helped to see the big picture in the perpendicular. I’m getting excited again. Grumpy Tits prepared a supporting information pack for Ben with some A4 sheets with more detailed versions of some of the elements, especially the pre-Raphaelite women, to help Ben with the outline work.
He was busy when I dropped it off and didn’t have a chance to inspect it. It’s going to be time consuming for him – I wonder how long he will take? Please let it not be too long.
Tuesday 1st August
It is taking a long time and I’m not capable of being patient. You’d think I could be, given how long it’s taken me to get to this point but I ache for the work on my backpiece to begin. I want it so badly now and I want that transformation of my body. I know it will take a long time to complete but just to have an outline that begins near my neck and goes down to my buttocks will be a thrill and an irreversible change.
Ben is now on holiday for two weeks and didn’t get started on the design before he went away. When he’s back I shall be working in Manchester and then go away to
Holland for a few days. So there’s no chance of even seeing the design until late this month. Oh misery.
And it has proved to be late this month, very late, but at last Grumpy Tits and I are to see what Ben has made of our design. I must get myself in the right frame of mind. I’m sure Ben will do a great job but will it reflect the spirit of what we want? If there’s something I need changing I must be assertive enough to say so and ask for modifications. Everything up to now has been a bit here and a bit here, well all right sometimes quite big bits. This is different.
I was feeling a little nervous when thinking about it in bed last night. In cold light of day I’m not quite sure why. I’m still wondering just what my back will look like after one session. Will just be thing straggly guidelines are something more clearly defined. One thing’s for sure there will be something scattered all over my back and it’ll be no longer virgin. And then I thought about the long term silly things like how far into the crack in my arse will he have to go in order to make it look fully tattooed? Not a pretty thought for Ben or me.
Later same day …
It looked really good! So far Ben has only drafted in pencil and the birds on my shoulders aren’t done yet - but it’s there in essence and is faithful to what was in our minds. I stressed to Ben that the exact look of the women’s faces was critical as I want the women to look pre-Raphaelite not like soft porn actresses.
Next week I’ll look at the final version and then off we go. Well, that’s the idea but a look at Ben’s diary revealed he doesn’t have a two-hour slot available until November 1st. I can’t wait that long! He says some cancellations will happen before then and if they don’t I shall go into decline.
Grumpy Tits asked me again why I want all the beautiful women tattooed on me and why is there a compete absence of skulls and scary creatures? Chatting to a tattooed friend who has such things, he says that he wants the images on his skin to come from within himself and represent his life and then eventual death. But I suppose my desires are to reflect on my body the external world around me that I see as beautiful. You only have to walk around an art gallery and everywhere you see representations of women’s bodies. Yes, there’s ugliness in life and death and I have to face that sometimes but I don’t have to embrace it do I? If I do, I’m not ready to tattoo it on my body.
Ben is not going to tattoo an outline on all my back at the first session but rather start from the buttocks upwards. So the first step will literally be a pain in the arse. Ouch!
We’re just off to Ben’s for the final stage of the design. I’ve got into a frame of mind that it’s never going to happen. The tattooing will never start. It’s all dragged on so long now I’ve arrived a mental stupor the likes of which you get in an airport facing long delays. I’ve drifted into that unreal state of fatalism, which mostly goes against my nature. This is just like being shunted from the main lounge to the gate. Is there a plane waiting there for me?
Not a lot of progress really but there was the drawing pinned up on the wall and it looks really good and well integrated. Ben’s diary is hopelessly busy. He hasn’t even got a spare one hour slot between now and November. I just have to hope for a cancellation. I console myself that it’s rather like eating at a restaurant that’s packed out. At least you know the food is probably good.
Ben asked “do you want to start at the top or the bottom”. I hesitated and GT interrupted facetiously saying “start at the bottom, there’s no gain without pain”. She thought that was very funny.
BEGINNING THE OUTLINE
November 1st 2006 – Breakfast
It’s taken you, the reader, only a few minutes to skip from September to November but in tattoo terms it’s been an eternity. At last the big day has arrived and I’ve been so hungry for my tattoo. But now it’s arrived I feel slightly apprehensive.
I’m back and my arse is tattooed with four fish. To the extent that I can see my new bum through mirrors they work wonderfully. There’s also a “joined up” look about the art linking with the other images I have on my hips and groin. I’ve had lots of opportunity to think about the importance of a body suit to me these past months and I realise I want one badly. But, and it’s a big but, the pain I suffered today troubles me. I think a lot of the problem is getting older. I’m sure it wasn’t so bad a few years ago but now my skin is less flexible and my strength, I hate to admit, must be lessened.
My next session is in a month’s time for two hours but then after that I’ve changed tack and booked ahead for a number of shorter but more frequent sessions. Let’s see how they go.
I felt a bit sorry for Ben today. He said you have the good with the bad. Sometimes his clients are nubile young women and sometimes there’s a hairy old arse like me. As I squirmed with the pain I said “this is no homo-erotic experience for me!” Ben’s was “I’m the straightest guy you’ll meet.” That may be some consolation for Grumpy Tits.
But my backpiece is on its way!
Friday December 1 2006
Today is session number two. Yesterday I had a chat with Ben about pain. I’ve decided to shorten the sessions and have them more frequently. I’m afraid at my age my strength isn’t what it was hard though it is to admit it.
That wasn’t too easy either. I thought backpieces weren’t that painful compared with some areas but am having to think again. Although it only lasted an hour it was a struggle. Ben works with intensity and boldness. “There’s no such thing as a pain free tattoo” he says by means of consoling me. Thanks Ben.
He has decided to leave the detail on the women’s faces until a later session when he will use a finer needle and concentrate on the task of giving them that pre-Raphaelite look. The area worked on is my lower back and if you include by bum he has now inked the outline of half the piece. Once home and cleaning it up I struggled with the help of mirrors to make sure I was washing and putting ointment on the whole area.
It’s about time I did it again so I’ll break off here. Now my virgin back really is beginning to disappear. It’s a wonderful feeling.
10th January 2007
Today Ben outlined the principal figure in the whole piece - that and a very large chrysanthemum. Before he began he asked for a delay so he could go and get some food because he was feeling wretched with a cold. As he ate his Samosas I chatted with him about the faces of the nudes in the design and we went back to look at the original drawings. Boringly I went on at greater length than I did at the last session about how keen I am to maintain the classic looks depicted by the original artists. I’m happy for Ben to have his own interpretations of Koi carp, trees, flowers, birds and grass but not the women. He again agreed there would be one session devoted to faces when he’d do everything to get them right. The advantage of knowing Ben quite well now is that I have the confidence to tell him just what I want without the fear in my own head of offending him. It’s my body after all.
This time my pain levels were much reduced. Mostly this must have been because the work was higher on my back. Other factors could have included that I was sitting up for the first time during the work on this backpiece and because I was really in the mood to be tattooed. I left wondering just how important a factor sitting up in the chair was to my pain levels. I must find out more.
Now my back and backside in total is at least two thirds covered and I am really starting to look like I have a different body. I love it. Only two weeks until the next session.
8th February 2007
Well, it wasn’t two weeks but longer. Ben called me a while ago and in croaking voice cancelled my appointment because he was too ill. So today I had a longer session. It hurt more than I had expected. But the end of the outline is in sight now, with just the top of the tree and another bird to do. When I got home and had a proper look in the mirrors (yes, plural) and I was excited because so much of my body is now inked. It has left me wondering how people are there in the country with full back pieces. Being tattooed is important because it make you different from most people so I’m fascinated by how small a club I’m joining.
Sitting there being tattooed and photographed I tried to put on a brave face. Being tattooed is painful and how could I possibly look my best? All I could contrive was a blank expression and my posture was dreadful.
It was quite a short session today and less painful than most times being on the upper back. Ben decided to use a pale ink for the branches of the tree because most of it will soon disappear under the leaves. We spent a little time chatting about how the foliage will cover much of the space currently unmarked on my upper back.
But here I am with my back and arse fully covered with outline. It’s a big moment. The reality is, of course, that it’s no more than setting up a base camp on an ambitious mountain ascent. There is such a long way to go yet. Before the colour starts, though, there’s the tree leaves, the detail in fine lines for the faces of the women and also some almost forgotten detail to my Koi.
The design of my whole piece has been pinned to the wall of Ben’s place for a few months now. Ben says he gets quite a number of remarks about it. Well, you can’t miss it but do they like it?
It’s taken almost four months to get this far. How much more for the vast amount of colouring to be done?
When I got home, after I’d had my lunch, I asked Grumpy Tits to clean my back ad put ointment on. How hard it must be for people without partners to care for back tattoos?
I’m just one short session away from the outline being finished. It’s so very near and had a stayed just a little bit longer Ben would have finished.
Ben’s front of house man, Stu, is an affable giant of a man. He must be about 6’7” tall and in places almost as wide. He’s never short of an opinion and as I was leaving he said “Stephen, you don’t much like the tattoo process do you?” He’s right, of course, and will have observed my pained face at every visit. But what I do like is coming home, ripping off all the cling film and looking at the latest work in the mirror. That puts a skip in my step for days.
I absolutely love the way the leaves have been inked on the tree. I think it looks quite special.
Meanwhile I have been playing the baddie in Panto. I’ve been wearing a cloak that reveals all the tats on my chest, stomach, arms and part of my hips. I think the producers see me as a real novelty act – something I ‘m willing to go along with. After the first performance on Wednesday I was asked how long did it take you to do that make up - those tattoos must have been hard to paint on!
I’m off for another session in a few minutes and I’m not looking forward to it. I think I’m suffering from tattoo fatigue. Instead of being excited I feel weary and just a bit apprehensive. Ah well, here goes……
It wasn’t as bad as I feared and I walked out in high spirits. And it’s done now. The outline is complete and I can’t stop looking at it in the mirror. Ben and I chatted about the “what next” and such things as “do we colour the principal female figure or just use grey shading”. It’s time to consult with Grumpy Tits.
My next appointment now isn’t until May, which gives me time to get hungry again and think hard about how we use the colours. For those who haven’t had anything like this done I have to tell them how different an emotional feeling it is to having largish tattoos done elsewhere. It’s the sheer scale of the coverage in one coherent step that makes me feel transformed.
THE COLOURING BEGINS
24 May 2007
GT came to talk colours with Ben. On arriving she was surprisingly subdued and feeling rather like a fish out of water - once having established that she wanted pastel colours to be used rather than garish or dark - she hopped it off home smartish.
I then had a brief chat with Ben about the long-term further coverage of my torso and showed him some ideas. My concern is to make sure that whatever is done now won’t exclude integration of work on the side of my body.
Then the colouring began. The outline was drawn from bottom up but Ben began this new stage at my shoulders filling in the dark background of the tree. There couldn’t have been an easier start for me as this is such a relatively pain free zone and of course now the outline is complete the worst may be over. Not much has been done yet but at the next session most of the green should be complete on the tree. The long journey has begun.
7 June 2007
The green of the trees was not finished as I’d hoped. Ben says this is the most fine and complicated area of colour in the whole backpiece so must unfold slowly.
12 July 2007
I had to cancel my last appointment because of bad news about Mum, which meant a dash to the north west of England. This time the green in the trees was completed. While the work was done by Ben, big Stu sat down with us and a long intense discussion about the state of England today followed. Earlier this year, when I was having the lines drawn I could not have participated in such a conversation because of the pain but now there’s no problem. Next time Ben will use stencil detailed drawings of the women’s faces to fill in those blanks and then onwards with a bit of brown for the branches. Grumpy Tits is requested to come up with some colours for the birds.
It’s now a year since I began this diary. What a long journey this is.
26th July 2007
No birds yet but at last my women have real pre-Raphaelite faces. They look just as I would have wanted. No porn stars these but real women of their period – well the artists’ fantasy women at any rate. Meanwhile the colouring of the top of the tree continues its slow winding path. Ben says this is much the most intricate part of the whole back piece. Well that was of his making because it was entirely his design. The tree trunk is complete too. So far the colours are all very dark and I’m becoming anxious that Ben might continue in this vein. I want there to be big contrasts and a highly visible picture.
16th August 2007
I tried out some local anaesthetic cream (Emla) today to see if it could do something to ease the pain. This part of the back is OK but the ribs will soon beckon so am attempting to see if I can make it more bearable so we can get up some pace. It didn’t seem to do a thing. I’ll try it once more with a much thicker application but don’t feel hopeful. Now all the leaves are complete and I have some bright red apples.
I’m feeling wretched as Mum died earlier this month and I think I’m a bit run down so the needle hurt more than I’d expect on this part of my body. I think it really makes a difference how you are mentally and physically when handling physical pain.
It’s been a long gap but Ben is so incredibly busy and it’s been a hard time for me grieving the loss of my Mum.
Anyhow today we’ve moved away from the slow detail of the tree to some sky and mountains and suddenly I can see that much of my upper back will be covered within a couple of months now. The big chrysanthemums should be relatively easy to finish and that’s going to make a big impact. With fortnightly appointments booked through until April now we can finally get the show on the road!
Thursday 8th November
The first chrysanthemum is done. Grumpy Tits decreed that it must not be pink or yellow so it is red. There’s just a little to be completed but there it is big and red. Next time Ben will do the other one.
Once they are done there are the women to be coloured in. Ben has decided he will not use my skin as the basis but will fully ink them. I said that he needed to remember that pre-Raphaelite women wouldn’t have frequented tanning parlours. So it will be interesting to see how he indicates their paleness while making sure their features are well defined.
Thursday 22 November
Quite an uneventful session as Ben did half of the much larger flower. I mellowed out to Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. Ben showed me some women who he might use as a guideline for skin texture and colour but they were more 21st century fantasy women than pre-Raphaelite! I shall have to bring him some examples by Burne-Jones and Rossetti.
Thursday 6th December
It was a wet, wet day and the big Chrysanthemum was completed and some of the green background filled in. We couldn’t reach agreement on the birds so again I shall have to come in with some guidelines. My worry is that they may just disappear into the foliage unless very distinctive. Ben has decided he’ll colour the women as the very last step in the whole piece. It was more painful today as the work was on and below the ribs – ouch!
Thursday 20th December 2007
Grumpy Tits decided to come with me today. I’m sure Ben’s heart sank when he saw her. She came to discuss the colouring of the birds and what eventually we should do with the women’s skin. Apart from some red on the birds’ heads they were to be done in black and grey and so they are now and look very splendid. Other than that, Ben completed bits and pieces including a blue necklace for the girl by the water and missing areas on one of the flowers.
GT went out for a while and came back to find that the session was to last half an hour longer than usual because there had been a “no show”. She took a short look at the tattooing itself and was surprised that I wasn’t making a fuss like I do when she puts cold ointment on my back.
Thursday 3rd January 2008.
Today it turned out to be leaves. Not much else to report really.... It’s now a year and a half since I started this diary.
Friday 15th February 2008
There’s been another unplanned hiatus. Dad died in January and his funeral clashed with my last appointment. I’m reeling from losing both my parents. It’s a terrible loss.
They died without ever knowing about my tattoos.
This was another session on those many leaves and there will need to be one more. Ben showed a picture of an albino snake so maybe we’ll use that design at my next visit. It would make a change and keep Ben interested.
Friday 29th February 2008
Today was snake time. My albino reptile emerged but as yet without its markings. GT is not thrilled with how it came out and thinks the colours are too lurid. Let’s see how it is once it’s healed. Ben also decided to embellish the blue sky and now the top of the tree is topped with the colour.
Progress feels so slow, which is because there is just so much detail in the design and my sessions are only one and a half hours long. I’ve now booked ahead as far as August.
More work on the grass. In fact Ben managed to finish this stage so next time we move onto the water!
NOW FOR MY BACKSIDE
Ben decided that he’s tackle the difficult but tedious business of covering up some of the tribal design on my rear end. One side will be a part of the water for the Koi carp, the other side will become part of a carp. After a little hesitation he went for the water today. Being such a dense piece of black with a strong outline to cover, it took some time to accomplish what he was looking for. It’s not yet quite finished but looks like it’s going to be really special. GT was with me and we looked at some photos from a Koi collectors magazine (the sort you find at garden centres) of real carp with black splodges. She thought the orange was too orange for her liking. Though I liked the fish in their natural splendour.
Friday April 11th
The water’s really coming along now with work on both cheeks established. Ben ranged over a largish region today. Another couple of sessions and then we should move onto the Koi carp. I wonder if I will get all this finished by my second anniversary in November. It’s looking possible.
Thursday April 24th
Big Stu thinks I must be a metrosexual. I don’t think he’s completely sure what a metrosexual is but my pillow has a case that is prettily embroidered. Since I’m lying on a bench for one and a half hours why not be comfortable? I know it’s not cool but tattoos or no, I am not cool. Colouring my arse is as peaceful as it comes; I could almost doze off at times.
The water now is almost complete and next time we can start the Koi.
Thursday 8th May
Stu wasn’t there today but is in hospital. He’s had a surge in his blood pressure. I hope he’s OK. He does get himself worked up about things.
The Koi on my right buttock was coloured in. It was a toughy because of the amount of black that has to be covered. I’d always imagined this past year or so from the outline that there’d be a large area of gold to be inked. But it’s not like that at all. Rather there are blobs of black and then of red and parts that are left as my skin colour and it all looks most effective.
Friday 13th June
Another of those gaps because Ben is so busy... Stu is back in harness after spending twelve days in hospital and even looked slightly slimmer – half a stone he says.
All my right buttock is now complete and much of the fish are most delicately shaded. This again is a surprise as I’d always imagined great slashes of yellow, orange or red. GT is impressed by the character in the fishes’ faces.
Thursday 26th June
And now there’s a finished fish on my left buttock. Ben had invited a young woman, Nina, in today to observe his work. She has expressed a keen interest in tattooing and didn’t flinch at all at staring at my bum for an hour and a half. She must be mad.
Thursday July 10
Bum done. Ben is in the throes of preparations for his wedding and his best man has just had major surgery. I brought frog drawings in and Ben quickly did the design but didn’t have enough time today to do the outline.
Thursday July 24
Now the frog is there and so is almost all the water. There’s a bit more to do in the pond and then the final stage ... the women. There will be another pause now as Ben gets married next weekend!
WOMEN, WOMEN, WOMEN
Thursday August 21st 2008
Grumpy Tits came with me to talk about the colouring of the women and I was armed with a number of pre-Raphaelite nudes as guidelines. One of the books of illustrations I’d picked up at a bargain price at Oxfam.
There was still some water to finish and then the work on the water nude started. When I got home I saw that she was anything but the pale skinned creature of the samples. In fact she is most definitely a woman of colour. I hoped as the reddening of the skin quietened it would look paler.
Sunday August 31st
But it’s not. She is very brown still. An earnest discussion is going to be needed next time about the approach to the other three women!
Thursday September 4th
The next nude’s hair is so pale that it’s almost invisible – more to be done on it next time. My brown lady is now complete. It feels strange to know that I am just two or three sessions away from completion.
Thursday October 4th
Fresh back from my holiday in Madrid I have my head filled with masters’ paintings of nudes from the Prado, the Thyssen and Queen Sofia galleries. Ben does the hair of the water nymph. It’s very yellow and orange and I think this is necessary for it to stand out from the greenery. Next will be the bodies of my nymph and then Eve. I think the shading on those should be done in grey, my own skin providing the natural colour.
On arriving home GT was dismissive of the bright colours.
Friday October 17th
It feels like I’m all but finished. All the women are now complete. My “Eve” looks rather more tanned and defined that a “Titian” but is certainly striking. I changed my mind about grey. Ben then moved on to add some greenery. Next time he will redo the snake in red and black markings and add more sky at the top to join the arm tattoos to the backpiece.
It is exhilarating but also a bit worrying. Now that my back is fully covered I find myself looking at the skin on the rest of my torso and disliking all the unlinked acres. Am I becoming dysmorphic?
At some point in the last two years my frame of reference has changed. Whereas earlier I was happy to have tattoos scattered over my body and anticipated one day I’d have a bodysuit I didn’t harbour negative feelings towards my uninked skin. Now the sheer thrill of having all my back and backside fully covered has made me look at my body differently. I don’t like the sides of my body and the front of my torso looks fiddly and inadequate. I want everything to be tattooed in the same complete way as my back.
It’s the absence of gaps that has become all important. Should I take a long break now to check on what’s going on in my head. Am I losing the plot? Or should I say to myself “I love it, it’s my body”, I should be happy to do what a like and to be happy I have found something so satisfying?
One of the many problems of growing older is looking at the ravages in the mirror. I know there is only one direction for my appearance. Except that my tattoos represent growth. My body may age, sag and wrinkle but my tattoos offset this. I can look forward to more and more brilliant coverage. Is this crazy?
THE FINAL TOUCHES
Saturday 1st November 2008
It’s two years today since the ink first began on my back. Now Ben has re-inked the snake. GT insisted it happened and it looks really good now, so she was right. This was only an hour session and the snake was all there was time for.
I heard from Sally, the editor of Total Tattoo this week. She had agreed to publish this diary when I began it almost two and a half years ago. Now she’s changed her mind. This is disappointing for me and I imagine rather frustrating for James, who is one of Sally’s photographers who has followed my progress all the way. I wonder if I shall find another way to publish my diary. I could approach other magazines, if James agrees or could publish it the form of a blog, which I could then continue to keep going indefinitely as my body art continues towards a body suit.
Tuesday 18th November 2008
Two years and four months after beginning this diary and two years and two weeks after the first ink, my backpiece is finished. It’s cost about £3,250 and caused me physical pain. But it’s there in all its splendour. Or should I say here, part of me now and my physical being.
Ben finished off the vegetation at the feet of Eve and tarted up the dark girl and filled in a few other missing bits and pieces. There wasn’t time to expand the sky so that will have to wait until the next phase.
I bought some cakes to celebrate with Ben, Stu and Dave the piercer. Now for a few months rest.
Photos: James Sandercock