Suddenly I knew exactly what tattoo
I would get. Not that I had immediate plans to mark myself up, but it seems important to know what you would
get, so you have something to say if it comes up in conversation. But once you have an answer to the tattoo question, then you have to answer the question of whether you're doing it - and the possibility becomes real once you've seen it, in your mind's eye
, on your skin, standing in front of the bathroom mirror. I admit I might have flexed
. You know, for visualization
So here it is. On the left arm: Charlie Brown. He’d be vertical, his round head toward my shoulder and feet toward my elbow. It’s important that I find the right pose for him; it can’t be too worried-looking but it can’t be too happy or neutral either. Maybe that look that says "I've just been told something that confuses me but doesn't really surprise me." In fact, if I can find a good reference panel, it'll be one of the ones where he just doesn't have a mouth at all. Expressionless! (If the mouth is what makes the expression, what does it tell us that the mouth, even before he aged, was always Schulz's shakiest line?)
It's important that this go on the left arm, of course. El Sinestro, the shadow side, the hand they tell you not to eat with if you’re hanging out with nomads in the lower Sahara. In writing the image Charlie Brown on myself I'd be making a controversial statement, but I’d also be putting him in his place. (Although my left side is to the right of me when other people look at me, so maybe they’d read me wrong – which would give me a chance to tell them the story!)
And on the right arm – pause for drama – the World War I flying ace on his motherfucking Sopwith Camel. Snoopy on his doghouse. He’d have to be horizontal, of course, not vertical – careening down my arm in a power dive toward my business hand.
There’s a stretch of wetlands along I-80, for the last half-mile or so before you split off to head over the Bay Bridge into SF. Part of me still thinks of that spot as the center of the East Bay, although it isn't generally a place humans ever enjoyed being in unless they liked office buildings and factories. And today, it’s not unless you like Ikea. But on the bay side of the freeway, something was going on in those wetlands for years. I don’t even know if it had a name.
People, I gather students, would sneak out there, I gather at night, and build things. Sculptures, structures, sometimes just small makeshift billboards. They were nearly all political in nature, about squabbles I mostly didn’t understand and a few that I did. One structure I remember had some driftwood prisoners reaching through the metal bars of a salvaged bed headboard, over a plywood plank with a painted slogan. Others were less specific and more artistic, and some had been there so long you couldn't really tell what they were. Once you swung around the curve toward the toll plaza approach, there was a little clearing surrounded by shrubs where someone built a 12-foot-tall wheelchair and painted the chair’s back with a modified American flag. I thought wheelchairs were cool.
That’s all background. It was actually the "block" before that on 80 westbound, north of the Emeryville exit and north of the little bulb with the office buildings and the restaurant – which, come to think of it, was called Charley Brown’s, I wonder if there was any cause and effect there? – north of all that there’s just a bay inlet, with a little slope of boulders leading down to the water from the shoulder of the frontage road. In the middle of this half-mile of plain, deserted water, maybe fifty feet out from the shore, there were two telephone poles, jutting out to maybe eight feet above sea level. Atop these were a pair of sculptures, real ones, pieces of craft that made the political advertisements a short distance ahead look like the tide had pushed them in. These sculptures were wood, I assume, and over years, I never saw them look chipped or weatherbeaten. On the pole on the right, appearing to travel the same way as the freeway traffic, was Snoopy in aviator goggles and leather helmet, piloting his doghouse grimly. On the pole on the left was something we never saw in the comics, a beautiful replica of the red biplane flown by the Red Baron.
My parents liked Snoopy and the Red Baron too. They’d point out the window just as eagerly as I did a lot of the time. There was something particularly wonderful about how they gave us what the comics didn’t, they put the Baron’s real plane right there. The whole thing was a kind of joke about realness that tickled me in a pretty smart way, even though I was only eight. The fact that you knew it wasn’t an authorized King Features Syndicate production added to it somehow. It made the mute frozenness of it that much funnier, like some unknown artist was taking a valuable second of their time onstage to stick their tongue out at me.
It turns out, though, that the artist is known, at least in part. Tyler Hoare builds the "post people" that dwelt and continue to dwell on the remains of a pier down closer to the restaurant.1 One time when we went there for brunch, I swear all those human figures mounted there by the shoreline were Star Wars figures, but my brother and I could have been reading them wrong. Hoare also periodically makes anchored art-boats that get ripped to shreds by the bay tides within a week, but the body of work we’re talking about is airplanes, specifically biplanes. He started with a model of a Sopwith Camel (yes!) on the same post as his Red Baron plane later stood. Another artist, unknown to us, added Snoopy. (Hoare also made the red biplane that hangs from the ceiling of the high school theater building where I spent so much of my time and love back then, starting with a production of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown. Truth!) Once, when the Snoopy sculpture had fallen down, Hoare replaced it with a UFO, only to find a few days later that a new Snoopy had mysteriously appeared in its place.2
The stuff closer to the bridge started vanishing when I was around nine, I think. The big wheelchair went first, as it was judged a rubbernecking hazard to the already-pretty-bad bridge-approach traffic. Around the time that went, most of the visually interesting stuff on the marsh seemed to degrade into half-demolished wet stumps. It might have been a threat to the ecosystem down there, as if it weren’t already half-choked by car exhaust. I don’t remember exactly when Snoopy and the Red Baron came down. I guess it wasn’t until I was at least mature enough not to get upset about it. (The newspaper says 1990.)
The folks at the Adventure Playground say they want to rebuild Snoopy and the Red Baron and mount them in the bay again.2 They’d be smaller this time, nowhere near the 80% scale or so that Hoare used for his original. They’d be dense things made of scrap wood, meant to withstand the weather for a good long time. I don’t know how I feel about that.
I was in Liz’s kitchen with Jake and his wife Kelly, grilling Kel about Burning Man. These are people I sort of know. Jake is shaven-headed and pierced, premature salt and pepper in his beard, dressed like an urban lumberjack graffiti artist and intense in conversation. Kelly is, well, really hot: New Orleans French brunette with Plato’s ideal hips and smoky eyes. I forget how we got from Burning Man to tattoos, but it seemed natural. It probably had something to do with naked people. Kelly’s got no ink yet – "I’m too scared! I know it’s going to hurt. I’m not even afraid of it hurting, so much as I’m afraid I’ll start to cry and then I can’t be a badass." Jake showed off some haphazard-looking ink from his misspent youth, on his forearm and his shins. He’s a semi-impoverished printmaker and perpetual student, and he has his shit together like few people I’ve met. He makes me wish I had the kind of past that tests you and forges you, instead of hanging from you like dead weight.
When I told them my plans, they were pretty wary at first, but at least they were still wearing honest smiles. If they knew me a little better, they’d know that my commitment to geek culture is like their commitment to each other: full of compromise, mutual ribbing, and contradictions held in abeyance, that couldn’t stand up if it weren’t all built on a foundation of deep, deep love.
Then Jake said something that turned my head around. "I dunno about the cartoon thing, man – " (he didn’t explain that part – there seems to be urban folk wisdom that tattoos of cartoon characters are a bad idea) " - but here’s what I would do, though. When you’re looking for the pose, look for something where it's like, Charlie Brown doing something he wouldn’t normally do. Like, he's stepping outside of himself and becoming more than just the ordinary Charlie Brown, doing something... uncharacteristic." It was kind of perfect (I don’t want to say spiritual).
Recently an Israeli Jewish witch friend offered to take something of mine to a Wiccan festival in the California woods and do something good with it for me. I gave her my old glasses, which had been resting on the dash of my old car for months, frame broken, arms separated at the hinges. She tells me that she wished "for positive change to come to the wearer of these glasses." Within a week, my car was totaled, and I had two offers for future jobs and a phone number from that girl I met at that one party. I think it was all positive change. It's about viewpoint.
I haven't gotten the tattoos yet, but I almost don't need to. Knowing what you'd get is like making a prayer, in that "the first thing it changes is the pray-er."3 I could get the tattoos and get them taken back off again, but it wouldn’t change the fact that I decided it once, wrote it into my history. Besides, I’m poor.
But I’m driving again now - I could drive up to the new Charles Schulz Museum if I could find the time. Where I could really go, where I've driven past more times than I can count without even thinking about it, is down by the frontage road in Emeryville. I could park right out there by the water, next to the windsurfers in their SUVs. I could halfstep my way down that short slope of rocks, leaning down with one hand to steady myself. I could wade, or tread water as need be. I could get my head to where it could look up at those two posts in the middle of the inlet, look at their tops so they'd be up in the sky, and I could imagine Snoopy and the Red Baron dogfighting over the Golden Gate, back and forth, out of the sun.
2 Matthew Artz, "Art at Sea," Berkeley Daily Planet, October 9, 2002
3Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
Snoopy and the Red Baron was not quite a graphic novel, but it was Charles Schulz' first printed work that wasn’t compiled from strips that had appeared in the newspaper. Like many early graphic novels, it was disguised as a children’s book. While sourced from Snoopy’s daily strip exploits atop his doghouse, imagining himself a "World War I flying ace" preparing to launch, flying madly, and crash-landing behind enemy lines to flirt with cute country barmaids, the content in Snoopy and the Red Baron is all original. It was first published in 1966 and is now out of print. Later non-compilation books from Schulz were largely collections of epigrams paired with out-of-context strip drawings, such as Happiness is a Warm Puppy. (Source: Amazon.com)