My grandparents own a convenience store in a busy part of town, where we have to “help as Sales Personnel” for part of our summer vacation. At two o’clock on a weekday however, we don’t have customers — so my grandfather and I would people-watch although there is barely anyone in sight except the unemployed and maids running errands. It was also a sketchy part of town and I remember seeing guys walk by shirtless, with massive tattoos on their arms, their necks. I was 8 years old and that gets scary. This one guy in particular looked like he just got out of prison, and I would sit there watching him drink with his buddies, marveling at the artwork, speculating what everything on his arm meant. Gang signs? I recognize Jesus. But what about the other symbols? Are they religious too? Or is it evil? I wonder what my religion teacher would say.
Tatay (what I called my grandfather in Tagalog, pronounced as “tah-tahy”), who was hanging out at the convenience store with me, probably saw my curious face. Next thing I knew, he handed me a black sharpie and asked me to draw whatever I wanted across his back. His bare back.
“Anything?” I asked.
“Anything,” he replied.
I hesitated for a moment but I decided to seize the unique opportunity and draw an eagle in the middle of his back with a giant wing span that spread across up to his shoulders. I added sun. Clouds. Trees (they were my specialty). And even flowers. I remember going to town with it, as much as an 8-year old can.
When I was done, I expected Tatay to put his shirt back on, and cover the silly masterpiece I created on this skin canvas. But he didn’t.
Instead, with his shirt off, he walked across the narrow street, where his (real-) inked acquaintances were getting drunk. I overheard them good naturedly tease Tatay for his “tattoos,” and he proudly said in response, that his granddaughter drew them (while pointing at me). He was showing it off like it was a Van Gogh or a Da Vinci. The gangsters indulge the tough old man and nod their heads in approval.
Tatay was a bad-ass, I realized then. He even made the guy with the Jesus tattoo wave at me.