It’s faded now but when I first got this tattoo on my wrist it was dark black. We’d been in Africa for two months, me and Eve and Tamar, and we weren’t doing much of anything. I guess you could say we were missionaries. I got the word “LOVE.” tattooed to my wrist in a tattoo parlor in the city. The ceiling fans were turning but the air wasn’t moving. Sweat was beading up on all our foreheads. The tattoo gun buzzed like it was made out of hot white electricity.
We’d been in Africa for two months, in a little village in Ghana about an hour north of Accra, the capitol city. It was August and the heat was terrible. A few nights a week, on some sort of schedule we could never figure out, all the power in the village would shut off and the ceiling fans would stop turning. We laid in our beds in the dark and our skin stuck to the sheets. Heat like that can make you go crazy, like the guy in that Albert Camus book. You can’t get away from it. We had mosquito nets but mosquitos still got through and they bit my ankles where the skin was thin against the bone. I scratched my ankles until there was blood under my fingernails.
In the mornings I drank Nescafe on the porch. I watched the sun rise. It was cooler in the morning, more bearable. I watched the moisture evaporate out of the air. I drank Nescafe until I started sweating and then I went inside and drank Nescafe. I opened the windows. I swept our room with a bundle of sticks. I walked into town for lunch and then back to our hostel for a nap. I read Annie Dillard and played Uno. And when the sun started going down I sat on the porch again and drank Nescafe. The termites started chirping.
In the two months we’d been in Africa we hadn’t done anything. And so we started talking about getting tattoos. It was a way of making this trip significant. I looked up tattoo parlors online and only found one. Lion Tattoo on the outskirts of Accra. I called the guy and asked how much he charged, when he was open, if he sterilized his needles.
You sterilize your needles, right?, I said again before hanging up.
My needles are sterile, my friend, he said. I promise you I am a professional one hundred percent.
The next morning we took a bus to the bus station, half an hour south of the village. We waited for a transfer to Accra. The bus station was swarming like it always was. Busses were pulling in and out, honking, revving their engines. Mechanics were half swallowed inside engine wells and women were carrying baskets on their heads with one hand on the side for stability. Everything was covered in a little bit of dust. Nothing here was new. It was hard to imagine anything here ever being new. The busses, they were modified mini-vans, I couldn’t imagine them ever rolling off the line at a factory, sparkling clean.
A little girl tugged at my shirt. She was carrying bags of water on her head, one-liter squares of purified drinking water, two cents each. The bags were cold and wet. I bought one and held it against my neck. I bit off a corner and drank the whole thing. Now there were five children around me selling water. They were pressing bags against my arms. I pushed them all away but they swarmed back again. They followed me through the bus station like I was the pied piper. One of the reasons we’d come to Ghana was to start a children’s program but after a few weeks we’d realized that we didn’t know how. We had no idea what to do for these children, no idea how to make their lives better, and no idea what “better” even meant.
I turned to the line of kids behind me and yelled at them to leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me the fuck alone. They froze, looked at each other, and then laughed these hysterical little laughs. Their eyes bulged and their mouths opened wide. Their teeth looked like fangs. They scattered back into the crowd.
We got into Accra before noon. I had the address of the tattoo parlor written down on a piece of paper and we started asking people for directions. We followed pointing fingers through the city like pinballs. We were getting close to the ocean and I could smell the salt water. It was a better smell than the rest of Accra, which smelled like garbage, hot and rotten and sweet.
Are you sure this place exists? Eve said. Her face was getting red.
Pretty sure, I said.
What’s it called again? Eve said.
Lion Tattoo, I said.
Everything here is Lion this or Glorious that or Heavenly that, Tamar said.
Glorious Tire Repair, Eve said.
Heavenly Meat on a Stick, Tamar said.
The website said it was in Accra, I said.
It’s hard to imagine these shops having websites, Eve said.
It wasn’t a very good site, I said.
When was it last updated? Tamar said. This place might have gone out of business years ago. Tattoos are taboo here.
If they’re taboo then why would it ever have existed? I said.
We stopped for lunch at an outdoor cafe. We sat on white plastic chairs at a white plastic table and ate off blue plastic plates. Africa was full of plastic, and a lot of it was multi colored like it had been melted down and remade three or four times. It was so thin you could see through it. We ate jollof rice and drank pineapple Fanta. We sterilized our hands with Purell.
Do you guys ever feel like your hands can never get clean enough? Tamar said.
I’ll be covered in dust for the rest of my life, I said.
We hired a taxi and showed him the address. We drove along the coast, the big, empty, yellow beach. The cars around us were Mercedes Benz and Land Rovers. Ghana was the richest country in West Africa. Some people called it the Gold Coast. For the most part these people were doing fine, they had more money than I did, and almost nobody needed our help. With the window down and the wind coming off the ocean I felt cool for the first time in months. I fell asleep in the front seat. When I woke up fifteen minutes later Eve and Tamar were sleeping too. We were still driving.
How much longer? I asked the driver.
Very close, very close, he said.
I looked down at my wrist and rubbed my thumb against the spot where I was going to get tattooed. I pushed the tendons around. I dug my fingernail into the skin and left half moon imprints. I’d gotten the idea for my tattoo from a Bible verse: Now all that remains are faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love. This trip was going to be the end of my belief in God, but I didn’t know that at the time, and sometimes you fight for something the hardest just before you give up. Five minutes later I asked the driver how much longer and he said we were very close. We’d been driving for half an hour.
Are you sure you know where this place is? I said.
Let me see again, he said and I showed him piece of paper. He nodded.
Perhaps we should ask directions, he said.
An hour later we were standing in an alley behind an apartment complex. Lion Tattoo is on the third floor, a woman had told us. We’d paid the taxi driver and he’d driven away. It was mid afternoon now and the heat was getting unbearable. I wiped the sweat off my glasses with the tail of my shirt. It left these thick smudges that made everything look like a dream. It was cooler inside the building but the air felt like it hadn’t moved in weeks. We walked up the stairs to the third floor, to the address I had written down, to a locked door. I knocked. This building looked abandoned. The wallpaper was peeling off the walls and the stairs creaked like they might fall through. It was dark in here. Our eyes had to adjust. I knocked again.
I’m feeling weird about this, Tamar said.
I nodded. We had agreed before we came that if any of us felt weird we would call the whole thing off and go back to the hostel. After all they were just tattoos. They weren’t important. But I think all of us knew that wasn’t true. These tattoos were important. These tattoos were the most important thing we were going to do in Africa and if we didn’t get them we might as well not have come to Africa at all.
I’m feeling weird, Tamar said again.
I nodded and kept knocking.
A man opened the door, a tall African in boxer shorts and a wife beater. His eyes were blood shot and his forehead was shiny.
Lion Tattoo? I said.
He turned away but left the door open.
Inside, the place looked more like a tattoo parlor than I had expected. The floors were white tile and the lights were florescent. They buzzed above us. The walls were covered in photographs, white people pulling up their shirts or pulling down their pants to show their new shiny bloody tattoos. There were white people and only white people on the walls. No Africans. Not one. And so while these tattoos were meant to remind us of Africa, they were actually the most American thing we could be doing. They were a way of separating ourselves from this place and these people, both of which we had started to despise. Because after two months it was clear we weren’t going to accomplish anything. We weren’t going to change anything and we weren’t going to be changed ourselves. We had come to Ghana because we thought God told us to, but there was nothing here for us, nothing for us to do, and so we looked for someone, anyone, to blame. Anyone but ourselves.
You know, the African said as he assembled the pieces of his tattoo gun, I was the 1995 weight lifting champion of Ohio. We nodded and looked around the room. I looked close at the pictures on the walls. These tattoos weren’t very good. The lines were crooked and shaky and people’s faces looked defeated, like they were showing wounds instead of art.
Do you know what they called me in Ohio?, the African said.
We looked at him.
They called me Mr. Ohio.
He revved his tattoo gun like an engine and pointed high up on the wall to a picture of himself. He was huge and muscular and his skin looked hard as plastic. He was wearing American flag shorts and holding a three-tiered trophy. I knew we should leave but we were already here and what was the difference anyway. I held out my arm and he dipped the tattoo gun in a vile of black ink. I had no idea where the ink came from or where it had been or how many other needles had been dipped in and out of it. He held my wrist in his left hand. He wasn’t so muscular anymore but his hands were still strong. The air in the room was still and all of us were sweating. He turned my wrist side to side and chewed his tongue between his teeth like a fat wad of gum.
Michael Nagel’s essays have been published by The Awl, Apt, Curbside Splendor, the Bygone Bureau and elsewhere. He and his wife live in Dallas.