“Does it hurt?” When you’re a tattoo artist, that’s the most universal question. For Chris MacDonald, the answer is simple: hurts less than a broken heart. Those words are painted above the entrance to his shop, Under My Thumb Tattoos, as a reminder.
Chris and his brothers were as wild as the wind, in their house among the fields of Alliston, Ontario, when their parents divorced. Shell-shocked, they were uprooted and brought to Toronto by their dad. Their mother’s mental illness worsened in the aftermath, and she disappeared. As a teenager, Chris left home and found himself immersed in the city’s underbelly, a world where drugs, skateboarding, and punk rock reigned. Between the youth shelters, suicidal thoughts, and haunted apartments, a light shined: and it was art.
He eventually found himself following the path of his brother, Rob, and pursuing life as a tattooist. Then, at the height of a destructive summer, everything changed: he met Megan, the girl who would become his rock of ages.
This remarkable memoir examines what tattooing means to MacDonald and traces the connection his artistic motives have to both his family and childhood. The Things I Came Here With is about how crucial our past is to understanding our future, but it’s also a love letter to his daughter about the importance of expression, life’s uncertainty, and beauty.
About the author
Excerpt: The Things I Came Here With: A Memoir (by (author) Chris MacDonald)
I lower my tattoo machine and carefully dip the needle in ink. At this moment, the sum of all moving parts — my past mistakes, victories, knowledge, insecurities, faith, ego and ego death — congregates around me. They’ve come to witness this flash in time, to catch a glimpse of themselves in the mirror I’ve held up, to see what I can do with what’s been given to me. But levity is needed for viability, for everyone involved. “Ready, Freddy?” I ask rhetorically, smiling, before dropping my eyes. I press my foot down, activating that old, familiar sound. That’s when everything vanishes, and the only ones left in the arena are myself and this thing.
Bound by an unseen tie, we watch as the grains of sand fall at a pace so unnerving that to stay here without wavering would see me dead in a week. Every action from this point is calculated to maintain the balance. I set out with harmony at its peak, arcing, and try and hold it until the end. But it will likely begin to falter from this point, so to bask in this minute is essential. If I can hold it, both of us are free, and the tightness in my gut will dissolve. I’ll relearn every time how nice it feels to be calm. If it gets away, inevitably I’ll live that death over and over.
My hands used to tremble like the windows of a Dundas apartment when the streetcar blew by, but they don’t anymore. So I lower the needle with precision and make contact. Below my machine and under my thumb, I can feel its vibrations in the fingertips of my opposite hand stretching the skin. The steady buzz is a powerful comfort to me, and lulls me into an alpha state. Ink pools as I push the needle along, and a fluid river follows. The pigment reflects the lights above like infinitesimal stars, and the musty scent of carbon drifts up. What with everything I’ve learned, I wonder if it will work. Or was it just some bizarre dream? Some days, I’m certain I’ve lost my bravado, for in all my carelessness came an easy way to the finish line. These days there’s a higher state. I’ve become a telescope, and my own worst, tyrannical critic. All I want is to complete my job with competence, to see this person elated, and create a cycle of positive energy. To have our exchange be genuine is all I want. So I ask someone, something, like a quick breath out into the atmosphere, to please guide me through the process. As I lift the needle up and wipe the smudge away with a damp paper towel, it all comes down to this. It’s all on the line, and happens in seconds. But the line is good, so for now, the day is as well.