Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Indie Ink Runs Deep: Tom Vater

Every now and then I manage to talk a small press author into showing us a little skin... tattooed skin, that is. I know there are websites and books out there that have been-there-done-that already, but I hadn't seen one with a specific focus on the authors and publishers of the small press community. Whether it's the influence for their book, influenced by their book, or completely unrelated to the book, we get to hear the story behind their indie ink....

Today's ink story comes from Tom Vater, co-owner of Crime Wave Press.

My Rumble In The Jungle – Getting Tattooed In An Iban Village in Borneo

I was in the jungle in Borneo, somewhere, a day’s travel from Kuching - first by car, then by boat up a Conradian river, to an Iban longhouse community. I was on assignment with two French journalists to write and photograph a story on the tattoo traditions of the Iban.

The Iban are an ethnic minority living in Sarawak, Brunei and West Kalimantan on Borneo, former head hunters, but long socially check-mated by national politics, loggers and oil palm companies. And by cheap alcohol.

The young men in the villages we visited knew little about their grandfathers’ tattoos, but they did know a thing or two about getting so drunk in the mornings that the communal space in front of the private long house sections had turned into alcohol graveyards by mid-day. They called the stuff they drank langkau. It was made from rice, and perhaps lighter fuel, judging by its taste.

Well, they say that if you can’t fight them, join them, but I am not a drinker and don’t like having a glass shoved into my face for days on end. Other problems, the usual casualties of alcohol abuse in remote areas, soon manifested. Dark stuff. The booze really was doing damage to this community.
To complicate things, Obama friend and master TV chef Anthony Bourdain, the Donald Trump of cooking, had been to the village the previous year and had given every villager a fistful of cash in return for their cooperation while he shot his culinary reality apocalypse. This had created significant and unrealistic expectations of our little group of poor-ass, underpaid freelance journalists who needed to get the story on the cheap.

Sadly, the local boys had not picked up any cooking skills from Mr Bourdain and focused instead on barbecued snake and grilled bits of chicken, only the best bits – feet, necks and unidentified grizzly parts. A rare river turtle languished in a plastic bucket, but we didn’t get around to sampling it. Even the community dogs looked depressed.

Luckily, we had Captain Alex with us, a south American tattooist with a penchant for excess, not least in his personal collection of body art, which crawled across his entire magnificently tortured torso up to his chin and beyond, right up to his roguish eyes – Alex was the very personification of an inebriated Jack Sparrow who’d lost his boat, but not his calling.

Alex was the soul of the party. And he saved my life in the jungle. I would have died of sadness and boredom in the face of the never-ending drink fest, if he hadn’t offered to take the edge off time and tattoo me while my friends wrote and shot the story of the last of the tattooed Iban.

Fine by me and a minute later I was on the rattan floor, looking up at the ceiling. Alex sat cross-legged next to me, piss-drunk and bare-chested, his chest covered in Buddhist amulets, his wild hair flying around as he went through his gear to find a need. A monkey skull grinned up from the floor to his right acting the perfect pirate trope. Alex was glowing in the darkness. It was a perfect moment.
“It’s like psychiatric ward in here,” he laughed under his poisoned breath. Ezra, a miraculously sober Iban boy, assisted the old pirate in his ambitious plans. The village boys crowded around us, plastic receptacles swinging in the air.

Without much fanfare, they wiped my arm, stuck a cigarette in my mouth, and laughed fiendishly. But then Alex stopped in his tracks. He had decided to bless me. Bless me he did, half catholic, half Buddhist, all Alex. That made me feel better. He had the ink pots lined up and a needle out of its wrapper. He had a camping torch taped around his head. This was going to be a late night manual job, fast and dirty, like in the movies. And so Alex took a swig of whatever was going, lit another nail, watched the smoke rise into the darkness and got to work on my arm, plunging the needle inelegantly into my inner biceps.

There wasn’t much more to it than that. He poked and drank and smoked and the longhouse boys did much the same, grazing through one cig packet after another, drinking one plastic bottle of langkau after another while I looked at the silhouettes of heads blocking the distance between me and the weakly flickering neon strip above me. The dogs barked, the toads croaked, mosquitoes buzzed around us, and the ghosts of history, old men whose chests and backs were covered in beautiful fading flower patterns loomed over us every now and then. Half-way through the poking festival, Alex started to pass out and delegated the completion of the mission to Ezra who, not being as smashed, did a commendable job finishing me off.

Time has passed, the trip has faded. An anchor and a tiny fishhook below it now grace my arm. The lines have bled because the needle went in too deep, the tattoo is weeping. I looked up the meaning of anchor tattoos– apparently I will be blessed with loyalty, honour, stability and security, hope, protection, salvation and enlightenment and will engage in dedication to the greater good.
Experiencing serious societal dysfunction is sobering, so much so that one needs to be drunk to tolerate it. But as I said, I don’t drink and I couldn’t handle the passive-aggressive vibe, typical amongst young male champion drinkers anywhere in the world. I couldn’t leave, so getting tattooed seemed a good way to pass the moment. Every time I look at the tattoo now, I feel... nothing. It’s always about the moment.


Tom Vater is a writer working predominantly in Asia. He is the co-owner of Crime Wave Press, a Hong Kong based crime fiction imprint.

Tom has written for The Asia Wall Street Journal, The Times, The Guardian, The Nikkei Asian Review, Th Daily Telegraph, Penthouse and other publications and has published a dozen non-fiction books and co-authored several documentary screenplays.

Tom has also published three crime novels. His two detective thrillers, featuring former conflict journalist turned PI Maier, The Cambodian Book of the Dead and The Man with the Golden Mind take place against a meticulously researched historical background in Southeast Asia.

1 comment:

  1. "Torture tatt in Borneo" is now on my Bucket List.

    "… if you can't fight them, join them."

    Most tattoo collectors would have accepted the offer of local brew, possibly gotten hammered, before getting on that "studio" floor. Damn, Tom Vater.