LPfiction

Category Linkin Park

Ink and Chocolate by L.Phoenix

Koi Fish and Roses

A/N: I know there isn’t a Club Tattoo in California, but we’re going to pretend there is. XD And yes, this makes story number three for me but I’m burnt out on Knowing Me, Knowing You and I’m waiting for inspiration for CCC, which I’m sure will happen eventually. Also, I really wanted to co-write this with hearts.on.fire so if you’re reading this, lady, I sent you an email and if you’re interested, please get a hold of me!


DICLAIMER: F.I.C.T.I.O.N.


* * * * * * * * * *


California. It’s home, and I love it. I love the scents, the sounds, the people and the street artists dressed as Superheroes and Marvel Characters and Disney Princesses; the live music and the men banging on trash cans and other random objects to produce beats and songs. And there’s the dancers, mimes, painters, and the graffiti on the side of buildings and under the bridges. Honestly, there’s no other place I’d rather be.


It’s a smoggy day in Downtown Santa Monica, the air dense, and the streets hectic for it being eight in the morning. My portfolio tucked under my arm, I adjust my sunglasses and smile at passerby’s and take a hearty whiff of the sugary smelling desserts coming from the open doors of bakeries and the freshly brewed coffee beans from the cafes. The aquamarine sky—cloudless and bright—provides plenty of room for the sun and little room for the heat to escape, and I can already tell it’s going to be a hell-fire, sweltering afternoon.


I haven’t been to Third Street Promenade in… uh… maybe since I was sixteen and my ex-girlfriend wanted to go to the Pier and we did some shopping after. It has that touristy-touch to it but, to be unbiased to Santa Monica, just about any city in Los Angeles or partnered to Los Angeles does. If not for tourists, there wouldn’t be businesses, and that’s precisely what Santa Monica is all about: restaurants, high-end chain stores, smaller, family-owned stores, and dinosaur sculptures covered in ivy and skyscrapers and the lavender, white tipped mountain view. And as I mentioned earlier, it’s busy, yet not virtually as congested as my teenage-memory recalled it to be.


Club Tattoo is located on 3rd Street and pretty much claims its own strip. Okay, that’s a bit of a tall tale, but the main store where the actual tattooing takes place is the span of three stores and, next to that, is another four stores—two for merchandise and two more for tattoo equipment. This is insane. I’m insane. No way was the owner going to hire me. I’m a dude who’s never even stepped foot into a tattoo shop much less been on either side of a tattoo machine. Yeah, my art is respectable, even I’ll admit to that. It’s not said out of arrogance. I’m… confident is all. But I need the job, the income, the job security, and I want to learn; to broaden my craft. So, you know, why the hell not, right? What have I got to lose?


Oh, you know, your pride and self-confidence and chancing looking like a goddamn fool…


I didn’t even know what to wear for this interview. What’s an orthodox outfit for a tattooed-base job interview? A suit is too much, too formal, too swank. Jeans and a t-shirt is too casual. After an hour and half of changing into and out of numerous outfits, I settled on a button up collared shirt and a black blazer and blue jeans. My DC’s are pure black so at least, in my opinion, they’re somewhat formal and casual.


And, hey, at least I have this badass faux-hawk going for me, and it’s styled damn-near seamlessly and my goatee is trimmed and shaved in the proper places. And I smell nice. People like nice smelling people. I read somewhere that personal hygiene is either a deal breaker or deal maker when it comes to a job interview so I may actually have this whole ordeal in my ball court. Cologne is an absolute godsend!


I stand in front of the double doors—all glass with two vertical, black metal handles—and check my reflection above the white club decals and the old fashioned, gothic lettering spelling out Club Tattoo. After a few in-and-out breaths, I pull the door open and step in through the main lobby. The walls are black and there’s paintings and wall-art and rows of flash art you can flip through like posters in a music shop. There’s a peculiar aroma. Not a rancid one, just… different, like rubbing alcohol and ink and some sort of soap.


I hear the buzzing of tattoo machines and the conversations between artists and clients. There’s a girl with pink hair getting a back piece of black and gray sunflowers done by a dude with a Club Tattoo t-shirt and trucker hat. In the other corner of the room is a bulky meat head getting something done by a pretty girl in a black and white polka dress and her hair is done up like one of those classy pin-up models. And, damn, I gotta give her credit for being able to find an empty spot on that meat-head’s body to tattoo. Even his bald head is inked in tribal lines. I touch my temple. That has to hurt like a mo-fo!


I’m so riveted by my environment. I’ve nothing against tattoos whatsoever. I love any form of art, but this is a whole new world for me; foreign and strange and stimulating. I have butterflies flapping around in my stomach like they’re trapped in a mason jar. There’s art everywhere, even on the white, wooden table in the waiting room where there’s a cup of permanent markers in every color imaginable, and the white table is decorated in drawings done by either other clients or artists or celebrities or all three for all I know. The ebony walls give the atmosphere a mysterious though calming feel, and the area rugs are white as are the curtains and the couches and chairs in the waiting lounge.


I’m overwhelmed. I feel the art happening; can sense the creative flow within the space, and it makes my skin crawl (in a good way, mind you) and I kinda just wanna grab my paints and add splashes of color to all the blackness around me.


“Hi there, can I help you?”


I spin around and… and… shit, the butterflies in my stomach are officially tweaking on meth. I’m face to face with a guy and, to be truthful with you, I haven’t an idea how long he’s been watching me scope out the shop and I feel my internal temperature rise higher than the California sun, and I have my portfolio hugged against my chest as if it’ll somehow shield me from the intensity of this guy’s milk chocolate eyes locked on mine.


“H-h-hi. I’m Mike Shinoda. I have an interview with Mr. Bennington.”


Fuck me, I’m a Stuttering Stanley. C’mon, Mike, don’t spaz out, man! Holding my shit together’s gonna be the challenge of the century. I mean, hot damn!, this man is gorgeous! Slim and muscular (my favorite) and pale but an appealing sort of pale. Not like… post-mortem pale; more of a white apricot. And he’s so… colorful. Orange koi fish and blue ocean waves live and swim on his shoulders and blue, orange, and yellow flames burn his wrists and forearms. I want to cut his flesh off his bones and frame it and hang it above my bed.


Yeah, that’s not creepy at all, Shinoda… don’t say that out loud. Ever.


Oh, and he has a mohawk too. It’s shaved down flat, but it’s a mohawk all the same and brunette, and his lip is pierced, one of those labret deals and his outfit is… not so off-the-cuff— a white and black Club Tattoo t-shirt with the sleeves torn off. His lower half, however, is hidden behind the bulky crescent-shaped, black desk.


“Oh, you’re Mike! I'm Chester,” he exclaims, smiling, and, wow, his smile modifies his appearance by a milestone. Straight white teeth and dimples and his voice is robust and cheery. This dude might be my boss?! Man, I’m in trouble… is it still frowned upon to blow-job your way up the corporate ladder? I mean, I’d give him a blow job whether he hires me or not.


Yeah, don’t say that out loud either, Mike. Fucking pervert. Be professional!


I walk over to the black, half-moon desk, remove my sunglasses, tuck them on my collar, and shake his hand. His grip is virile, welcomingly, and we’re kinda just standing here, holding hands, and my methed-out butterflies transform into methed-out bats and my cheeks and the tips of my ears are catching fire, and our eye-contact is sealed.


We clear our throats simultaneously and my hand falls back to my side. He calls, “Jessie!,” and a young girl comes skipping from somewhere in the back, her hot-red, fat curls bouncing, and she's fashioned from shoulder to toe in all black—leather pants, mid-drift shirt, black knee-high boots. Her cheeks are pierced (her cheeks!) and her makeup’s heavy and dark and she is post-mortem pale.


“Yes, Chester?”


“Do you mind watching the front desk for about an hour while I interview Mr. Shinoda here?”


She inspects me with beaming, almond eyes. “Of course!”


“Thanks, Jess.” Chester turns to me and chucks his head to the left. “Come with me, Mr. Shinoda.”


I nod and sidestep the desk. Don’t judge me, but my sights immediately attract to his backside adorned in black jeans that are snug against his muscular ass cheeks. Seriously, whatever gym he attends deserves a gold medal because that gym’s done his body gooooood.


He chaperones me to a room in the very back of the store down a hallway where the restrooms are. We enter his office and I pass him, my teeth gnawing at my bottom lip, and he tells me to make myself at home. We don’t perch in front of his black desk with a computer and leather chairs, but on a velvet-maroon colored couch, side by side and at an angle where we can suitably look at each other. My eyes whirl over the walls, also black, and posters advertising three other Club Tattoo locations, two in Las Vegas, and one in Phoenix Arizona alongside colorful paintings of more flash art and portraits of celebrities.


“So, Mike, how do you know Dave?” asks Chester, his tattooed elbows on his knees, his milk chocolate eyes approachable and I want to float inside them and swim backstrokes.


“Um… I met him through a mutual friend I went to college with. We’ve known each other for a few years and we ran into each other at a bar last week and he was telling me how he worked here and said you were looking for an assistant and, well, here I am.”


Okay, so far so good. I’m not rambling or blubbering like a stammering neanderthal. I’m, by some miracle, able to bypass the sexiness of my potential future boss and emphasis on my goal. I hand him my portfolio and he places it on his lap and unzips it. I talk as he leafs through my work:


“I know it’s an assistant job and a portfolio isn’t necessarily needed but I figured if I got the job I’d like to take a stab at an apprenticeship. As you can see, my style is very diverse. I can do anything from classic rococo and renaissance to manga to realism, contemporary, and abstract. I do watercolor, pencil, acrylic, copic, and ink.”


He hums and thumbs the pages, his knee bobbing. “Wow, your work is… incredible. Where’d you go to school?”


“Pasadena Art College. I went for Graphic Design and I do a lot of freelance work, mostly advertising, and it doesn’t leave a whole lotta growth for my artistic abilities. I feel kinda… uh…”


He peers up at me. “Trapped?”


“Yeah.” I shrug. “That’s a good term for it. I want to expand my creativeness; wanna see how far I can push myself in a new field.”


“You do graffiti as well?”


Mental face-palm! How on earth did I forget to mention that?


“Tons. That’s how I pay my bills.” I chuckle. “As you can see in the photos there I’ve done a lot of work for businesses in LA and Hollywood.”


His eyes bulge and he flips my portfolio so it’s upright in my line of vision, and he points to the black and white graffiti representation of Kat Von D and her crew at LA Ink on the side of the High Voltage building.


You did this?” he asks, gawping.


Fuck, my cheeks are burning again. I’mma turn this shop to ash by the end of this interview. “Erm… yeah… if not for Kat I wouldn’t have a house.”


“She’s a pretty cool chick. I was on an episode of LA Ink a few years back as a guest artist. We painted some skateboards together and I did a tattoo on one of her clients. Strange thing, reality shows. Very staged. We were offered a show by the same people who run LA Ink but I turned it down. I’m too private a man and I didn’t want to have to fake drama for the sake of entertainment. I am where I am for the art.”


Christ on a cracker! Sexy and humble? I didn’t know men or even humans like Chester Bennington still existed in Santa Monica or the world in general at that.


“That’s very noble of you.”


His dimples intent profoundly, our observations aligned. “Thanks. It wasn’t just up to me though. I talked to my team about it first. That’s the sort of environment we have here at Club Tattoo, Mr. Shinoda. We run a very tight ship but it’s also relaxed and easy going. I do not tolerate any sort of bullying or gossip. If there’s a problem, we take it up with each other in a very professional, private manner. I expect a straight-edged environment as well. No drugs. I don’t care what you do outside of the workplace, but keep that shit at home, and I don’t want you coming in hung over or strung out.”


“I don’t do drugs, sir,” I endorse at once. “And I rarely drink and I don’t think I’d know how to bully if you put a gun to my head and demanded me to stick some dudes head in a toilet and flush.”


Chester’s laughter filters throughout the room and it transforms me into human slush. Goddamnit, I was hoping I’d have to suck him off for the job, but I’m almost positive I just landed it. Ah, well, maybe I can suck him off some other time…


“Alright, Mike.” He returns me my portfolio. “I’ll be straight up; you don’t look like the type of person who’s ever been inside a tattoo shop.”


Am I that obvious?


“You’re right,” I admit. I don’t see the point in sparing the details. “Even when I did work for Kat I didn’t go inside the shop. She was being filmed at the time and all that. I don’t have a single tattoo on my body and don’t have an urge to get one either, but that’s not to say I can’t be a benefiter add-on to you and your company. I’m a fast learner, sir, and I’d love to be given an opportunity to prove to you my worth.”


He raises his hands at his chest in defense. “Slow down, I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. We don’t really do apprenticeships here. I usually hire artists with years of experience. It saves me the time and hassle, you know? But, I don’t know…” he wags a finger back and forth my direction. “You’re unique and you seem determined. So here’s what I can do. An apprenticeship is time-consuming. It’s going to take up most of your time here at the shop and it’ll be a bit costly for you in the long run because you’ll be responsible for supplying your own equipment. Basically what happens in a tattoo shop is the artists rent a space they can use and I get a percentage of their profit to keep the shop up and running. So I'll give you two options. You won’t have time to be an assistant and an apprentice. Would you like a paid assistant job or a non-paid apprenticeship?”


I pinch my bottom lip and read his patient guise. I could afford to decline the assistant job, but the extra cash is why I’m here to begin with. Then again, if I learn to tattoo, I could rack in the dough later on, and I’m definitely more of a think-ahead-into-the-future type.


“How long would the apprenticeship be?”


“At least a year.”


“I figured as such. And who’d be my mentor?”


Chester raises his arms and clasps his hands behind his head and answers with a grin, “Me. I can’t guarantee you how well I’ll do. I’ve never taken on an apprentice.”


My brow furrows. “Then why are you willing to take me on?”


“Well, if I’m being honest, I’m being selfish. Your art is diverse, and I need diverse artists. Most of my employees have their own style, not saying you don’t have a ‘Mike Shinoda Style’ because you totally do, but you’re also able to tune into other styles as well, and the more styles you can do, the more clients you’ll roll into my shop and that means more profit for you and for me. I like you. You’re sincere and headstrong and you took a huge chance coming at me with this proposal. So if you’re serious about expanding your artistic limits, then I’ll be serious about walking you through it. I can always hire any Tom, Dick, or Harry off the street to be my assistant, but to find an artist like you is rare.”


My spine arches. Holy hell, that’s by far the most flattering thing anyone’s ever said to me. How could I possibly even second guess turning down an apprenticeship, especially when I’d be learning from him? I don’t need the money. At least I’m pretty sure I don’t… lemme think…



….


……


…….


……….


Done thinking.


“I’d love nothing more than to learn from you.”


He claps his hands. “I was so hoping you’d say that! When can you start?”


“Whenever you’d like me to.”


“Alright! Let me print out a few documents for you to sign and we’ll get your license and social security card scanned and put into the system. Why don’t you have a seat at the desk.”


We migrate to the other side of the office and I hand over the required paperwork on my end as he gives me his. He goes over the contracts with me, our fingertips centimeters from touching, our heads hovering over his desk, and eyes scanning the black type lettering. He radiates a fragrance of ink and soap… a tang of art—my crucial weakness.


The documents are self-explanatory. I sign an agreement stating that I would be volunteering my time free of payment under an apprenticeship with Chester Bennington. It’s a yearlong contract but not a firm restriction. There’s a chance I’d be profiting and tattooing by the end of the year depending on how quickly I learned and if I passed a series of tests given to me by my mentor.


I look at Chester at the same time he looks at me. “I give it six months before you’re bringing in your own cliental.”


I smile, admiring his optimism and faith in my artistic abilities after only knowing me for an hour and browsing at my portfolio. I sign the contracts and tuck my ID and SSC back into my wallet.


“So first things first,” he says, lounging back into his computer chair. “We’re going to need to get you machines and needles and ink and all that other good stuff. You will be responsible for setting up and taking down my station and the cleanup. This isn’t me being an asshole. It’s simply the best way you’ll learn. My mentor was a downright bastard. Like, he’d have me take his laundry to my home to be cleaned and pressed. I was expected to get his lunch and clean the bathrooms in the parlor and do all this other crazy ass bullshit for his employees. I was basically a tattooed slave. I’m not going to do that to you. We hire cleaners and we have lunch breaks or someone will be nice and bring in pizzas or subs or whatever, but you’re not pressured to do any of that. We’re adults and can take care of ourselves. You are my apprentice. If you’re not busy with me and another artist asks you to help them and you want to, that’s fine by me, but if they demand anything from you, you come to me and I’ll take care of it.”


I nod. “I don’t mind helping. And I also wouldn’t mind doing your laundry.”


“I knew you’d say that.” He winks and my flesh flushes. “I’m a grown ass man. I can do my own laundry.” We share a short titter. “I don’t tattoo often but I’ll start having Jessie schedule me more clients. I don’t have anyone today so if you’re no hurry to leave I can take you to the equipment shop and help you choose machines and all that.”


“No, no hurry.”


“Awesome. Whadda say we get some coffee first?”


“Sounds great.”


We stand and he shakes my hand again, and a tingle shoots throughout my bloodstream; like I’d run headfirst into an electrical fence. Neither of us pulls away even minutes after he officiates me into Club Tattoo.


Damn… it’s gonna be one helluva year.


* * * * * * * * * *


On our way out to get coffee and tattoo equipment, Chester, first, introduces me to the ‘Club Family’ as he calls them.


Dave’s here and drawing out a lotus flower for an Asian girl who can’t be any older than eighteen. He flashes me a full smile, his ginger hair concealed beneath a Club Tattoo hat, his matching beard and goatee kept, his black t-shirt showing off his traditional Japanese tattooed half-sleeves on both arms.


Jessie is their appointment guru and secretary; the youngest of the crew—nineteen—and short and petite and a mid-westerner who ended up in California after her oldest sister moved to Los Angeles.


“I just fell in love with the city,” she says to me, and I smile in acknowledgment.


“It’s home,” I agree, and Chester, staring at me from his peripheral, lays his hand on the small of my back and leads me around the rest of the parlor.


Joe Hahn, Korean, short and stocky, seems to be the trickster of the shop: happy, go-lucky, always cracking jokes, but I survey his work in his station and am astonished by his sketchy style. He should be doing special effects work in Hollywood and when I tell him as much, he gleams at me and explains that he’s done some work for Pixar and Disney and helped with a scene in the first Lord of the Rings.


“I designed the hobbit home!”


“No shit?!” I yelp, my eyes overgrown. “That’s incredible!”


“Yeah, it was fun and paid the bills, but I love my job here. Chester’s a great boss and friend. Wouldn’t trade it for all the hobbit homes in the world.” He smacks Chester on the back and he responds to Joe with a one-armed hug.


Ruby is the girl with the polka dot dress and pin-up hair. She’s soft-spoken and, out of the entire crew, inked the heaviest, even more so than Chester. She makes a swift introduction, shaking my hand and welcoming me to the Club, and rotates in her chair and immerses in her current work on the meat-head with the tribal skull tattoo.


Brad Delson, about the same age as the rest of us, is nose-deep on a thigh piece to a blond whom, I’m assuming, is fresh out of Beverly Hills. She gives Paris Hilton a run for her money with her glowing cheeks and tan, lean runway model body and lengthy, blond hair. Nonetheless, Brad pauses for a moment and greets me with a million-dollar smile and introduces himself.


“New assistant?” he asks me.


“Apprentice.”


His thick brows raise high on his forehead. “Damn. That’s unheard of in here. You must have a special talent for Chester to take such a leap of faith. Welcome to the family. You’re in for a crazy ride, dude!”


Chester, shaking his head but laughing, asks the crew ‘Rob’s whereabouts.


“He had to take the day off,” Jessie reports. “He jammed his hand in a door while helping a friend move furniture into a new apartment. He called when you were in your interview with Mike.”


“Oh, man, I hope he’s okay. I’ll give him a call later.” He looks at me. “Ready to go?”


“Yeah.”


“I’ll be back later, fam. If anyone needs me just call the cell.”


‘Goodbye’s’ and hand waves chase after us as Chester and I head towards the front door.


Now here we are, Chester and me, alone again, and the afternoon’s beginning to nosey in and, as I foretold, it’s a sweltering hot one, and Chester and I zig-zag past the hundreds of tourists and locals alike on our journey to a coffee shop a couple blocks from Club Tattoo.


“So how do you feel so far? Nervous?” he asks and I about fumble off the sidewalk by a pushy passerby. Chester grabs me just in time and loops an arm around my waist.


I gulp and try to camouflage my humiliation with a pun. “I swear you’d think I wasn’t born and raised in the second largest city in the United States.” He laughs and I say, “But no, I’m not nervous. I’m a people person and everyone seems cool and laid back. Jessie’s adorable and young.”


“Yeah, she’s a nice girl. I took a big gamble with her because of her age but, damn, she puts my OCD to shame. We’re all pretty protective of her so, you know, if you’re gonna mack on her you might get your ass handed to you in a fruit basket.”


I’m thankful my head didn’t snap in half when I turn to him with an agape mouth. “No, no, no! Nothing like that. I didn’t mean for it to come off that way, I swear. I just think she’s cute, like a gothic kitten. Besides, she’s not my type.”


“I was just messin’ with ya,” he teases and bumps his hip against mine. He hasn’t removed his arm from my waist and, feeling daring, I step in closer to his side and, to my relief, he doesn’t retract. “Is she too young or too tatted?”


“She’s too female,” I declare, smirking, and he smirks back.


“Mm-hm. Yeah, I can see how that could be a turn off for you. Ah, here we are, ‘Instant Karma’ café. They make thee best Americano’s. Could put Starbucks outta business, man.”


He opens the door for me and, dejectedly so, drops his arm from my body. ‘Instant Karma’ is John Lennon themed, it’s walls festooned in photos and paintings of The Fab Four and Lennon. The AC is cool despite the body heat emitting from a sum of corner-to-corner customers, and Chester stands behind me, his arms crossed, and he’s close enough that if I were to even as so much as to take a toe-step backward, I’d collide into him no questions asked.


His breath fogs my ear. “You like Americano’s?”


I shiver and not from the polar AC air. “Yeah, love them.”


“Cool. They’re on me.”


I banter at him from over my shoulder. “Hell no, they’re not. You’ve just done me a gigantic favor. Least I can do is buy your coffee.”


“Well, if you insist.”


We give-and-take smiles and when it’s our turn in line, I give the barista our order and tell her ‘Chester’ when she asks whose name to put the coffees under. I pay with my card, leave a tip, and Chester and I hang back next to the other end of the counter to wait for our Americano’s with heavy whipping cream.


“So I saw in your office the posters for the other Club Tattoo locations. Arizona and Las Vegas? How do you run all those shops from here?”


“My friends Thora and Sean Dowdell take care of the Phoenix location. We found the company together back in 1995; Phoenix is the original store. I was nineteen at the time. My younger brother, Brian, and my buddy Ryan run the two in Vegas.”


I whistle. “Wow. And, if you don’t mind me asking, how old are you now?”


“Twenty-six.”


Damn. Impressive.”


He thanks me, a rouge escalating from his apricot pale skin. “I’ve done well for myself, I suppose. It was a practical goal, y’know? Not exactly what I wanted to do with my life but I enjoy my job. I like being a business owner but it can get exhausting.”


“Chester!” the barista calls out and I retrieve our drinks and when offering Chester his, our fingers brush, and the rouge is back on his face full force. My heart drums faster and louder than the LA street musicians banging on trash cans.


“What did you want to do?” I ask as we take a seat at a small, wooden table next to the window wall. He crosses his legs, his foot grazing my shin, and we don’t scoot from the contact.


“You’ll just make fun of me.”


“No, I won’t,” I promise, blowing into the mouth of my coffee lid, staring at him from across the table. “I swear.”


He picks at his coffee sleeve, bits of cardboard littering the wooden surface, and he’s nibbling on his labret, the metal clinking like fork on glass. “I wanted to be a rock star,” he mumbles.


I smile at him. “I can see that. You have the look for it. And you have a sexy voice.”


Chester pauses, his eyes like two UFOs, and I’m mentally kicking the shit out of myself for not thinking before speaking. He’s my boss! My BOSS! I can’t be going around telling my boss his voice is sexy. What in the utter blazin’ depths of Satan’s asshole is wrong with me?!


“I-I-I’m sorry. I didn’t—”


“It’s fine.” He pats my arms reassuringly. “I’ll gladly take the compliment. I know you didn’t mean anything sexual by it. I’d like to think my singing voice is sexy. I was a front man for a band in Phoenix when I was younger. ‘Grey Daze.’ I can give you one of our demo’s if you’d like? It’s nothing grand or whatever. They continued on even after I left. I miss it. I miss singing for a crowd and writing music and all that.”


I glimpse from his hand on my forearm and to his reminiscing and regretful expression. I practically detect his heart shattering over The Beatles playing ‘Eight Days a Week’ overhead.


“Why’d you quit?”


“Life… happens,” he answers, slowly, his fingertips stroking my wrist. Uh-oh. Is he flirting with me? This is weird… he’s my boss! Bosses don’t flirt with their employees! I mean, they do, but they shouldn’t. “Being in a rock band full time wouldn’t put food on the table or keep the electric on, right? I had a future to consider and I’ve always loved drawing and painting and then I met Sean and he was already doing tattoos for a small shop in Phoenix and I got an apprenticeship. Started tattooing on my own when I was twenty-one and Sean and I left the shop and started Club and the rest, as they say, is history. It’s been a long, bumpy road, but worth every milestone.”


“But are you happy?”


He searches my eyes and I stare back, brazen, unblinking, his lips thin. “I guess I am. I’m stupid successful. I went from living in my car to a shitty apartment in the ghetto in Phoenix to moving to Los Angeles and opening up not two but four tattoo shops. I shouldn’t bitch about my life. I live comfortably. I miss Phoenix but Santa Monica isn’t all that bad. Kinda wish I would’ve stayed in LA though but it is what it is. I’ve met some celebrities and I work with the most awesome people on earth. I can sing anytime, y’know? In the shower, in the car, when I have the house to myself.” He chuckles and runs his fingertips along the dips of my knuckles. “You have nice hands. Artistic hands. I don’t know what makes a hand look artistic but it’s the best way to describe yours.”


Shit. Yep. He’s flirting. That’s flirting. No doubt.


I sip my coffee, the liquid scorching my tongue, but I resist the impulse to spit it out and fan my poor, blistering flesh, and I’m not speaking on behalf of only my tongue. For real. It’s hotter than a donkey with a blowtorch in this stuffy café. Aw, man— incoming word vomit:


“You’re colorful.”


He chuckles. “Thank you. Anyway—” he backs away from me, “—we should get going. We got a lot of stuff to go over today.”


“Yeah, yeah, of course.”


We stand and push our chairs in and I thought that our physical contact had come to a screeching halt, but his hand magnetically sticks to my lower back on our stroll to the equipment store, and we’re not saying much aside from how muggy and humid the afternoon is, and I don’t mind the small talk because God only knows what my word vomit will spew out next; it’ll be anything but professional, I can promise you that much.


He opens the door to Club Tattoo Ink and Equipment and there’s rows upon rows of ink bottles and gloves and transfer paper and art supplies. In glass cases are machines, power boxes, pedals, and boxes of needles, tubes, and tips.


A bulky dude, Daryl, crew cut and covered from neck to wrists in ink, introduces himself and gives Chester a hug.


“Whatcha need, boss?”


“I do need to restock on a few things for the shop but I’m mainly here to put together an apprentice set for Mike. He just joined the team today. You should see his work, dude, out of this mother fuckin’ world!


Daryl’s shocking blue irises veer at me. “Holy hell! I don’t think Chester’s ever hired an apprentice! I can’t wait to see what you bring to the table! And welcome to the family, man, you’re gonna love working at Club Tattoo.”


“Thanks, man. How long have you been working here?” I ask.


“Coming on six years. Let me go in the back and get you a basket so you don’t have to haul all the shit in your arms. Be right back.”


Chester smiles his gratitude and tugs me by the wrist towards a glass display. “First things first: Machines. We have our own brand but we carry others as well and it’s totally up to you on what you’d prefer.”


“I don’t know anything about machines so I’ll leave it up to you.”


“Fair enough.” He indicates to two different machines and talks with his hands. “So there’s Rotary machines and Coil machines. They carry out the same jobs which, simply put, is to deposit ink into the dermis, but they offer two different methods. A coil is more traditional. It relies on electromagnetic currents to trigger a draw and release of the machine’s armature bar, which is that little rectangular box thingy right there. Whenever you walk into a tattoo shop and hear that sweet, sweet, buuuuzzzzzzing sound? That’s a Coil.


“Now, Rotaries use a gentler process; super quiet. Like, you’ll hear a gentle hum and that’s about it. A small motor encased in a Rotary move the needles up and down in a smooth, cyclical pattern and transfers in and out of the skin more fluidly and evenly than a Coil. I personally prefer a Rotary because it’s smoother and glides easier, but the buzzing is crucial to know if you’re pushing the needles in far enough and at a correct angle. If you’re pushing in too deep, the buzzing will kinda… sound draggy and if you’re at an askew angle, the buzzing will stop and let you know, ‘hey! Back to the proper angle, bitch!’”


Daryl shows up in the midst of our mirth and equips Chester with a black, plastic basket with the white club logo and old gothic lettering. Chester thanks him and he and I scurry about the shop and he goes into great depths about needles, inks, green soap, and power boxes and pedals. I have him choose everything for me and he decides on a Coil machine just so I can get the feel for a traditional machine.


“When you’re comfortable and advanced, we’ll update you to a Rotary,” he says. “You good with all the choices here? Anything you wanna replace?”


I shake my head. “No. I’m excited!”


“Me too! I feel like a kid in a tattoo shop! Wait…” his eyes wheel around us and he smirks at me. “I guess I am a kid in a tattoo shop. Well, more of an old man, but you know what I’m saying.”


“You’re not old.” I roll my eyes. “If you’re old then I’m old and I’m only a year younger than you so, no, you’re not old.”


“Seems legit. Alright, so I’m not gonna have you pay for this unless you end up breaking one of the machines. For right now, though, you’re merely borrowing the equipment. The inks and pigskin and other throwaway tidbits I’ll donate to your apprenticeship foundation.”


“You really don’t have to do that, Chester. There has to be at least a couple grand worth of stuff here.”


“Give or take, yeah. No worries. When you start bringing in clients we’ll discuss reimbursements, alright?”


“That’s… really too generous of you.”


We’re toe-to-toe and he’s craning his neck, his eyelids flickering before stilling, his pupils eclipsing his delicious, chocolate irises. “It’s my pleasure,” his voice rumbles. “Ready to get back to the shop so I can show you how to connect everything?”


“Hell yeah!”


“Awesome! Let’s do this!”


* * * * * * * * * *


Back in the shop and after sanitizing our hands with antibacterial soap (“A must! Always, Mike! Even if you’re not tattooing a person. Gotta get ya in the habit of it.”), we tread to Chester’s space of the shop, the largest of any other, and sit next to each other on rolling stools.


We lean in jointly, head to head and I’m watching his hands as he assembles the machine. “There are two electromagnetic coils and they provide the power for the machine. The coils move the armature bar which is connected to a barred needle. And we don’t use reuse anything in here: needles, obviously, tubes, inks. Everything is one use and we recycle the plastic tubes and there’s a hazard bucket for used needles. Anyway, so, assembling the barrel.”


He gives me the machine and it’s, remarkably so, lighter than I estimated. His fingers glide over mine as I connect the barrel and string the needle through.


“This is an RL needle, which means ‘round liner’ and if you look close enough, you’ll see they’re in a tight circle. Round liners are for outlining and there’s different variations. You have a Number Twelve, or a .35mm diameter, and it’s one of your larger-diameter needle sizes and commonly used but not nearly as used as a Number Ten, 0.33mm. You’ll be using a Number Ten more often than a Number Twelve. A needle tip shouldn’t stick out any more than 2mm and no less than 1 mm, but skin types are various so you’ll sometimes have to adapt to the thickness or thinness. If there’s an excessive amount of blood, then you’re going in too deep and need to readjust the needle. You won’t be able to determine this on pig skin but you’ll get the feel for it once you start practicing on people.”


He tutors me through loading the needle, making sure the looped end is toward the back and that the barrel’s larger end is attached to the frame of the machine.


“That loop there? Attach it to the front edge of the armature bar. There ya go! Nice! You’re a natural at this!”


I denote his pleased smile past my eyelashes. Our knees knock and brush and come to a standstill, pressing in place. Our fingers overlap and I swear I’m trying to center on what I’m supposed to be doing, and there’s a chaos of buzzing machines and heavy metal music and conversations between artists and clients bumbling about us, but I hear only Chester’s unsteady breathing and feel only his skin on mine.


“You’re gonna use rubber bands to hold the needle back and you gotta keep it tight against the back of the tube. This assures that your needle stay puts when you work and that’s extremely important for obvious reasons. Now, as for your needle, if it’s sticking out too little you won’t get the ink in far enough, and too much will overwork the skin and cause more pain and bleeding and coming from a guy who’s been under the needle a freakishly amount of times, you don’t want to induce more pain and bleeding to your clients.”


I narrow my eyes and remark slickly, “I wouldn't want to make you bleed.”


Chester, blinking, reflects my penetrating stare, his mouth twitching at the corners. “I’m sure it wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen to me.”


Jesus bunny hopping Christ, working here is going to be the death of me! We carry on with a few more minutes of inferno blazing eye-flirting before he clears his throat and shows me how to connect the machine to the power box.


“Make sure your foot pedal is within reach. Power button is here right in front and you can adjust the voltage here,” he points to a knob next to the power button. “Okay, now we’re gonna find the gap between the front spring and the contact screw tip.”


Chester takes my left hand and instructs me to use my pointer finger to hold down the armature bar to the top of the coil. It generates a gap between the front spring and the contact screw tip. He explains that if the gap is anything over the width of two nickels stacked together, it’s not going to do much when we power on the machine.


“Rule of thumb: dime gap for lining and nickel gap for shading. So since this is a liner, go ahead and adjust the contact screw to about a dime.”


I unscrew the metal bit on the top of the machine, eyeballing the break between the necessary components.


“Perfect,” he whispers encouragingly. “Now tighten the thumbscrew; make sure it’s locked to the contact screw.”


I twist and lock the thumbscrew.


“Awesome, Mike, well done. That’s an old school method of tuning your machine but it’s the most important aspect to setting up your machine. Tuning is everything. We’re going to run the machine at a ten volt, which is a bit high for normal usage but a good starting jolt for troubleshooting.”


He switches on the power box, tells me to step down on the pedal and then—


“IT’S ALLLLIIIIVE!” Chester, Joe, Brad, Dave, Ruby, and Jessie shout in unison and I fold at the stomach, laughing.


“I was totally not expecting that!”


Chester, sniggering as well, turns off the power and places the machine down on the work table. “You’ll hear that a lot. It’s a tradition for us whenever we’re done tuning a machine. Alright, so, setting up your ink. We’re only going to work on line work today. We’ve already wrapped the table with cling wrap. Just put a dab of Vaseline on the plastic and that will hold your ink cap in place. Here’s a sheet of pigskin. If you’re uncomfortable in this chair I can get you another one with a backrest. If you want to trace a stencil we can do that or if you want to freehand you can do that as well. I’ll actually set up my machines and do some work on pigskin with ya,” he proposes, smirking.


God, if I blush one more time today I’ll turn into a permanent walking, talking, breathing sunburn. I watch him as he moves around me and spreads his equipment on the empty spot to my right. I’ve never seen anyone as fixated on their job than Chester: wordless, forehead puckered, eyes squinted as he tunes his machine. Once he’s good to go, we slip on pairs of latex gloves, something that isn’t essential in a practice session but done so for future routine.


Chester turns on his machine and I link in with the rest of the crew for a chanting, as you can guess:


“IT’S ALLLIIIIIVE!”


Chester bestows upon me a toothy smile. “You’re gonna fit in here so fuckin’ well, Shinoda.”


I mirror his mien, flick on my machine, and follow his instruction on how much ink to apply to the needle and how to regulate my voltage based on trial and error. It doesn’t take long until I find just the right amount of power and I go ham on the pigskin, freehanding a design.


“Don’t be afraid to go a bit heavy on the Vaseline,” he says. “It’ll make the needle glide over the skin much easier and more efficiently. And make sure you’re not spluttering the ink everywhere. Use paper towels to wipe away the excess ink on the skin if you can’t see what you’re doing. And you can clear your needle of ink with the rubbing alcohol and water mixture in that paper cup. Make sure the machine is still running and just kinda dap or jiggle the tip of the needle in the cup and then wipe it down and re-ink and continue.”


I’m in a state of utter shock and luxury. I wasn’t expecting to walk into Club Tattoo and be put under an apprenticeship on the fucking spot. I hadn’t projected I’d be sitting next to the goddamn owner (and a sexy one to boot!) of the business itself, our bodies inches apart, heads down, hands moving, machines buzzing.


We’re gone astray in our own little artistic, utopian universes. For me, this is worth rolling out of bed each morning for: artistic freedom and expanding my craft; learning new mediums. Ink isn’t all that dissimilar from paint, and needles not all that different from brushes. Once I found how deep and the precise angle to push the ink, my mental design came to life on a square piece of animal skin. It’s done in brush strokes, similar to an acrylic painting, and Chester’s beside me, his left hand dipping in and out of ink, his machine three times quieter than mine.


“I haven’t heard any glitches in your machine,” he says. “Things must be going well over there for ya. Not that I was expecting any less.”


“Just like learning any other medium,” I reply, concentrating on my piece.


He hums in agreement.


We’re forty-five minutes into our work, and the overall mesosphere of the shop is serene and carefree, the crew and clients conversing or telling jokes that result in us gasping for air. Chester’s lurid and flamboyant; the life and heart of the parlor, and his employees gravitate towards him like moths to a torch. No one’s yelling or cursing. They take turns switching the Spotify playlists and everyone seems okay with it, the genres fluctuating from hip-hop to classic rock to heavy metal.


“Mike’s turn for the music!” Chester announces. Without looking away from his sheet of skin, he asks, “What’ll it be, Spike Minoda?”


Shit, a day in and he’s already branded me a nickname. Should I be swooning? Aw, why the fuck not? I should create a nickname for him. Bubble Butt Bennington? No! Noooooooo! Bad Mike! Head out of the gutter, buddy! Insatiable Inked God? Fuck! NO!


“Thanks, Chazzy.” There we go. That’s nice and polite. Not very unique but, eh, it’ll do, and I’ll think up something cleverer later. “Run-DMC?” I suggest.


“Hell yeah!” He boasts. “Jess, Run DMC!”


“Affirmative!”


Chester head bobs to the music and sings along to ‘King of Rock’ and I’m cheesing like a lovesick teenager and join in with him. I meet his gaze, our smiles gentle but gleeful, and we rap to each other a verse, laugh, and go back to our ink.


Almost complete with my piece, relishing the art and the music and the presence of Chester and his crew and the upbeat surroundings, the door dings open and, in a snap!, the ambiance I basked in shifts downward to uncomfortable and dim. The music is turned down to a level above inaudible.


“How the hell can ya’ll concentrate on anything when the music is that loud? Jesus!”


A woman walks towards us, her shiny, onyx stilettoes click, click, clicking against the tile. She’s dressed… well, she’s not really dressed in much: a tight, gold and flashy top that resembles a bikini with stringy frays swaying in front of her flat tummy, and her skintight black shorts show off her bronze legs. Her ebony curls are piled atop her crown. A purse hangs from her elbows and I wonder why anyone would need a bag that big. Like, what’s she towing around in that thing? A three-course meal? A family of newborn puppies? The secret to the goddamn universe?


“Hi, hubby,” she greets Chester and kisses him… square on the mother-fuckin' mouth.


Kill me. I’m a goddamn fool. Why wouldn’t he be married?! And to a woman! No, wait, a snob. Her Spanish eyes fall on me and I stare back openly and her top lip hooks up a bit and she points a hot pink, manicured finger at me.


“Who’re you?”


“This is Mike Shinoda,” answers Chester, and I’m a bit peeved that he’s speaking on my behalf, but her glare could decapitate me, so I’ll let him handle the dank situation.


She scowls at him. “I thought you were looking for a new assistant? Why is he tattooing pigskin?”


“He’s my apprentice.”


She clicks her tongue, her arched eyebrows drawn low, darkening her already blackened irises. “Chester, we didn’t discuss this.”


“Not here, Sam,” he mutters, a hang swinging, signposting the shop. The clients are shifting in their chairs or tables, and the workers are shaking their heads but ensuing on as if this is all… normal.


“Fine. Office.”


Chester doesn’t budge.


“Now, Chester!” she hisses and he groans, turns off his machine, takes off his gloves and they flop onto the table in a messy heap.


She clicks, clicks, clicks her way to the back and Chester, passing me, pauses and squeezes my shoulder. He bends and whispers in my ear, “Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be back. And,” he juts his chin at my sheet of skin. “That’s professional level work. You got my eyes down perfectly. Nice job.”


Our softened gazes meet and then detach from another screeching, “CHESTER!”


Chester rolls his eyes and disappears into the office, the door slamming shut. Jessie strolls over to me and goes to work organizing Chester’s area, aligning the equipment, throwing away used paper towels and his black latex gloves.


“Lucky you,” she says to me in a hush, her ruby lips in a thin grimace. “Your first day here and you've got the pleasure of meeting Samantha Bennington.”


“Wife?”


She nods. “Total buzzkill as I’m sure you’ve already noticed. She doesn’t come in very often. Maybe three times a week. Spends all her time shopping, blowing his money, and when she does come in she makes a scene and scolds him for the dumbest shit in front of everyone. She’s probably in there pitching a fit because he took on an apprentice.”


“What’s the big deal?” I ask her and she sits down on Chester’s stool, facing me. “It’s not like I’m on payroll.”


“Money won’t be the issue when it comes to you.”


“What’s the issue then?”


She picks up Chester’s sheet of pig skin and showcases to me a full colored portrait of myself done in the style of traditional tattoo, bold lines, bright shades, and I’m surrounded by red and orange roses. How strange… I look down at my piece done in realism black and gray, koi fish and ocean waves framing Chester’s face.


Jessie and I look at each other and she answers:


“The issue, Mike, is his attention because from here on out, you’ll have every bit of it and undividedly so.”


I stare at the floor, dumbfounded. I can hear Sam screaming but she’s too far away, her words muffled.


Yep. It’s gonna be a helluva year.


* * * * * * * * * *


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