The Stink Bug is Here to Stay
What felt like an X-acto knife slowly slicing through the pale underbelly of my forearm was in actuality a specialized tattoo needle entering and leaving the skin about 20 times per second, depositing black, brown, and sepia ink into my epidermis and dermis. It hurt. Lord, it hurt. And don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise. Two muscle relaxers, three hours, and $400 later I was the proud owner of a five-inch brown marmorated stink bug tattoo.
WHAT? People who know me were shocked. They might consider me a bit of a bon vivant, but a tattoo? A stink bug? REALLY? At your age? “You’re a man who irons his button down shirts,” one close acquaintance remarked, shaking his head.
It’s true. I do like a crisply pressed shirt. And I use spray starch. But I also appreciate a thoughtful tattoo on a well-muscled bicep or on the back of an athletic calf.
I almost got a tattoo one night way back in 1979 while exploring lower Manhattan’s punk rock scene with some college chums who were heavily into the Clash and the Ramones. After an evening of loud music and lots of whiskey at CBGB—how I was allowed in that bar wearing a pink and green striped crewneck sweater I still don’t know—we stumbled into a seedy tattoo parlor somewhere in the East Village. Only a lack of cash in my wallet kept me from leaving with the logo of my then favorite band, the B-52s, on my upper arm.
Over the subsequent decades, I occasionally thought about going under the needle. But I never felt cool or edgy enough. And I still worried about the appropriateness of a tattoo in my white-collar world.
Moreover, I couldn’t come up with a meaningful idea for a design that I wanted inked onto my body. All around me gay guys were getting bands of barbed wire tattooed around their arms and legs and Tribal symbols emblazoned on their pecs and backs. Remember the Celtic craze? How about those ubiquitous Japanese Kanji characters that nobody was absolutely sure what they really meant? And I can’t tell you how many writers I’ve met who thought they were oh so clever with a feather quill tattoo. More recently, it seems like everyone is wearing elaborate tattoo sleeves or sporting petite inspirational words on their fingers and hands. Gentrification clearly begets homogenization.
By now you must be wondering why in the hell I would deign to get a stink bug tattoo?
As some long-time readers of this column might recall, I have written several times over the past decade about visits from a solitary brown marmorated stink bug. What you might not know is that these visits happen every single winter. One day a stink bug shows up in my Georgetown, DC apartment. The windows are shut and there are screens on the windows. Go figure. While in residence, the insect follows me around like a dog. It climbs onto my computer screen when I write. When I cook, it perches atop a little painting above my stove and watches me. It even sits on a lampshade beside my bed when I lay down to read. This winter it appeared to be fascinated with my water pick. Then one day it disappears as quietly as it arrives.
I have no explanation for why this particular species of insect keeps visiting me—a spirit, perhaps? But I can unequivocally attest to the fact that its arrival each year corresponds with a major spark in my creativity. I become almost manic in my devotion to writing, staying up until the wee hours of the morning then falling asleep at work. Coincidental?
To celebrate our 10-year anniversary, I got the brilliant idea to memorialize the stink bug in the form of a tattoo on my forearm. It’s personal and I bet nobody else has one. Seriously, why would they? My hope is that the tattoo will encourage many more stink bug visits and perhaps one day I shall solve this mystery. And if not, well, at least I got a good story out of it. ▼
Rich Barnett is the author of The Discreet Charms of a Bourgeois Beach Town, and Fun with Dick and James.