By Zach Chassler
I got my first tattoo in 1993 from a guy named Ram who operated illegally out of a Boston walk up. He was a friend’s ex and I paid him in one hundred unmarked single dollar bills for a tattoo that reads “Las Vegas,” has a topless showgirl on it, a poker hand, and a pair of dice. The summer before I had been to Vegas for the first time and loved the way that as a city, it was very upfront and singular in its motive: “give me your money.” I didn’t sense any artifice from it and thought lack of artifice was something to be admired. So, the ink. Also this was around the time tribal tattoos were gaining popularity and I wanted an “old school” tattoo that was self-explanatory. Yet, I know, here I am explaining it.
I also love to gamble. Note: the word here is “gamble” and not the word combination “play cards.” I like cards but I’m a shitty player. Gambling is luck. I justify my gambling by saying that when I gamble I’m paying a rental fee to sit in one place and watch the universe at work. I’m not a person who will say things like “you know, everything happens for a reason” because strictly speaking I don’t feel that to be true. Things might happen for a certain purpose but if there’s a governing intelligence out there, it doesn’t think like us and it doesn’t dick around teaching lessons. It does its random thing. When I gamble I wait for those moments when its random thing turns a card flip in my favor.
I’m a great gambler that way. Happy enough to lose so long as every once in a while, my number comes up. On the other hand, I’m so lousy at playing cards that it took me a full four years to realize something about my Las Vegas tattoo. I was shaving, looking in the mirror, and thinking to myself “I don’t regret this one bit” when I realized that the poker hand on the design I had approved was aces full of kings. A good hand but entirely beatable. At first I felt like a sap, but I quickly realized that only a real dick would have a tattoo of the top hand – a royal flush. That would be the equivalent of having “I RULE” across one’s forehead. Aces full is reasonable. It’s a great hand, but it can be beat.
It took me over a decade longer to realize just how badly it could be beat. For years I told people who were as clueless as I about playing cards that my tattoo was of the second best hand but of course, that isn’t true. Every straight flush beats it and every set of quads beats it. That’s a bunch of better hands right there. Not even worth doing the math over. I still don’t know what the significance of the dice, a 7 is, because I don’t play craps. I associate 7 with the word “craps” and therefore shit, but then there’s also “lucky seven” to think about, so who the hell knows?
It got my second tattoo 17 years later following a ceremony. I’m not going to get too specific, but it’s a ceremony that involves meditation, what some people refer to as “plant medicine,” and a lot of throwing up. You can do the math on this. I have been taking part in these ceremonies about once a year since 2005 when an ex-girlfriend of mine, having just sat in one, called me and told me it was something that I “had” to do.
When you do one of these ceremonies, it turns out, you also pay a rental fee to see the universe at work. During my first ceremony I sat next to a woman who I had never met. Ceremonies are intense and meditative, not some freeform thing, so we never spoke. Over the course of the next 5 hours, I met this woman’s spirit, and realized that we were going to be married and spend the rest of our lives together. Yes, I just wrote that – the part about meeting a stranger’s spirit. It’s no bullshit. I can’t dress it up; it’s what happened. A few weeks later I learned that she had experienced the exact same thing, right down to small, shared details – like where we were going to live. We got married six months later, moved to the place we said we would, and have never looked back. We have twin, two year-old girls.
Just like that: magic. The universe doing its random thing, me getting to be there for it, and it all working out in my favor.
But I didn’t get a tattoo after that, I got it following a ceremony 5 years later. It’s of a sperm whale and it’s on my forearm. The irony is that I got the Vegas tattoo thinking that it wouldn’t have to be explained, that it was so upfront it defied narrative. The sperm whale has a story behind it, and deep meaning. I can write about the Vegas tattoo; how I really didn’t know what I was getting a picture of but just liked the idea of it. How it all worked out even though the whole thing is kind of dopey. I could also write about the whale, but to do so would necessitate language like “incarnate” that might sound even dopier.
I’m not a tattoo guy. I used to try and think of the most random images I could have put on me – stuff like a plate of French fries or what have you – because I wasn’t big on things having meaning. Somehow or another though, I would up with two permanent markers on my body with meanings to me that continue to unfold and combine, regardless of how goofy they might seem.
And I’m not embarrassed by either of them.
Former New Yorker, story analyst, and freelance writer, Zach Chassler, currently lives in Topanga Canyon with his wife and twin daughters.