"What's with the banana on your arm?" A Velvet Underground tattoo tale
Photos courtesy of Sarah Stanley-Ayre
About 14 years ago, I read Legs McNeil's infamous book, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. That's how I first encountered the Velvet Underground's Lou Reed. I was a tall and gangly high school freshman in New Jersey with a mouth full of metal. My boyfriend and constant companion at the time had hair down to his ass, a room full of horror movie memorabilia, and a penchant for Marilyn Manson.
I'd just discovered Trash and Vaudeville, a store on St. Mark's Place in New York's East Village. It still peddled the vestiges of an alternative culture gone awry. I was basically drowning in plaid and carefully sewn-on patches painted with band logos and slogans: "No Gods, No Managers." Like so many acne-riddled adolescents who came before
me, I was generally pissed.
This first quote from Lou Reed serves as a fitting preface for the book's onslaught of punk rock nihilism and debauchery.
Rock 'n' roll is so great, people should start dying for it. You don't understand. The music gave you back your beat so you could dream. A whole generation running with a Fender bass... The people just have to die for the music. People are dying for everything else, so why not the music? Die for it. Isn't it pretty? Wouldn't you die for something pretty?
Please Kill Me turned me on, and also scared the shit out of me. I had just started getting into drugs and was going to lots of squatter punk shows in Tompkins Square Park, mainly because my boyfriend liked them, and because I had all of this teenage angst that I didn't know what to do with. Reading that book opened my eyes to a different kind of punk -- one I identified more deeply with. It also showed me a different New York City. Suddenly, walking through Chelsea, I was joined by the ghosts of an earlier era.
I bought The Velvet Underground and Nico album shortly thereafter, while on vacation somewhere in New England. I vividly recall sitting in the backseat of our family minivan with my portable CD player turned way up, watching miles of green flash by as we drove through the mountains.
It took me a while to wrap my 14-year-old mind around what I was hearing. Lou Reed's odd vocal cadence, the endless drone and off-putting melodies... Nico's velvety and foreboding recitation of "Femme Fatale" and "All Tomorrow's Parties." I listened to each song two or three times before moving on to the next. The album kept getting weirder and more awesome, finally culminating with "The Black Angel's Death Song" and "European Son," layered by sounds of hissing steam and breaking glass. I was instantly hooked.
A year later, I was in the bathroom of a friend's apartment in New Jersey, wearing a VU T-shirt, an ancient pair of Converse sneakers and some ridiculous bondage pants. This guy I knew was nodding out in the bathtub. I did my first rail of heroin, then walked outside and sat on the building's front steps, staring into the night.
"I don't want to die. Do I?" asked Lou Reed. I asked myself the same question many times. My descent into heroin addiction dragged me through the bowels of New York City. I was perpetually waiting for the man. I listened to the song "Heroin" over and over. "I don't know just where I'm going... but I'm gonna try for the kingdom if I can..."
I wound up in California for a couple of years. Wherever I went, the VU came along. Listening to their music was a way for me to go home.
After doing a brief stint in Austin, Texas, I returned to L.A. in hopes of cleaning up. I'd been tattooed a couple of times at this shop called Newport Tattoo, and had become attached to artist Kareem Masarani's work. He was really skilled at doing the pop art style that I loved so much. One evening I was on a date, and had a revelation that I needed to get the banana from the cover of the Velvet Underground album I loved so dearly tattooed to my arm. I needed it immediately. I interrupted dinner to call Kareem, and then my date drove me down to Newport Beach to get the tattoo.
I was wearing this red flannel shirt that I had sewn part of a VU t-shirt onto the back of, and Kareem used that to draw my tattoo. I wanted it in a place where I'd always see it, so I got it on the top of my right wrist. I broke up with my date from that night shortly after but as for my VU tattoo, it's true love forever.
After five years in Minneapolis, the tattoo serves as a reminder to me of all of the places I've been, the hell that I've gone through, and the band that was by my side through it all.
I've been sober for almost a year now, and have abandoned most of the messed-up ideologies I once derived from the pages of Please Kill Me. No matter where I go next, though, I know I can always put on my favorite old VU album and disappear, if just for one blissful moment.
"The myriad choices of his fate
Set themselves out upon a plate
For him to choose
What he had to lose...
Sacrificial remains make it hard to forget
Where you come from."
-"The Black Angel's Death Song"
Rest in peace, Lou Reed.
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