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  • Needle
  • Cheon Woon Young (bio)
    Translated by Sora Kim-Russell (bio)

He asked me to give him a tattoo of the world's biggest spider. The print he brought looked more like a giant red crab. It was called a Goliath bird-eating spider, the biggest spider in the world.

"Look at that perfect symmetry. Doesn't it look like it was folded in half and cut out?" he said, his eyes fixed on the print. "Draw it exactly the same way, exactly. Including those soft hairs all over its body."

What he wanted wasn't the spider's hairs or its long, symmetrical legs. He wanted the skin of the Chelicerata. Spiders can overpower other animals despite their small size because of their hard outer skin. Most of the people who came to me wanted to get this tough Chelicerata skin from me. This is because human skin is closer to that of fruit than of insects and is wounded easily. Yet, because the skin is so tender, it makes it easier to draw spider skin on human flesh.

While I was spreading a towel on the bed, the man had undressed and was holding the photograph of the spider against himself to decide where to place the tattoo. It didn't look like there was enough room to draw a huge, thirty-centimeter-long spider on his chest or back. An elaborate butterfly was fluttering its wings around his navel. The bamboo climbing from wrist to shoulder was girding his forearm. [End Page 271]

I lit the alcohol lamp and burned some incense. The pine scented smoke floated around the room like a ghost. I felt like I was going to have a seizure, needle clenched in hand, if the scent faded. I would have to keep adding sticks of incense until the job was done. I took the #5 needle from the needle case and heated it over the alcohol lamp. The needle turned black in the flame then flared red.

"Nowadays, everyone uses tattoo guns because of AIDS. The color comes out evenly and it's much safer. But I like the hand pricked tattoos you do with a needle. Tattoo guns remind me of sitting in a dentist's chair. You know that sensation when the needle pierces your gums? You're numb and feeling like you just bit into an unripe persimmon, and meanwhile, the doctor is treating the patient in the seat next to you first after anaesthetizing you. The sound of the drill gives me the creeps."

He spoke slowly, watching as I sterilized the needle. I set the needle down silently and swabbed my hands and the man's thigh with alcohol.

I don't talk while doing tattoos. Even at other times, I'm not much of a talker. To me, the desire to divulge, to convey my thoughts, feels like a rotten tooth. A decayed tooth that keeps getting in the way of your tongue and hurting you, even while, planted deep inside your gums, it reminds you constantly of your own existence. And by the time you're ready to pull it out and expose it to the light of day, it's already reeking and falling apart.

He would probably keep talking, demanding responses, until the job was done. He should have known better after two sessions with me, but like most people who ask for tattoos of things like spiders or scorpions, he couldn't master his fear in silence. I handed him a glass of strong cognac without ice. He wasn't allowed to use drugs or smoke weed in front of me. Only a person who can overcome pain is qualified to wear the skin of the Chelicerata. He was nervous, probably because I was drawing directly with the needle instead of outlining the tattoo with a marker first. I'm more [End Page 272] careful when I'm doing the outline than when I'm coloring it in-I make a shallow cut that swells and flares red but doesn't bleed-because this is where the indelible shape of the tattoo is determined.

I picked up the needle and began tattooing the...