Up The Needle: Underground Tattoo in Granada, Spain

Next to a sizzling barbecue on a rooftop in Granada, Spain, I wondered which crime they would choose for me. An acquaintance had promised free food, and now I cursed myself for not seeing the set-up. My hosts looked like they’d thrown people off buildings before. At the very least, I’d walk out robbed.

André had the build of a bank. Juanito plotted while salting phonebook-sized slabs of beef.

Reaching to shake Juanito’s hand, I stepped on his dog’s tail. The dog yelped and ran inside. On cue, a painted ball of muscles, sweating oil, took the dog’s place beside me. In his ears, around his neck, on his fingers and wrists: Gold. The man could have anchored a battleship.

“Where you from?” he said, eyes rolling in different directions.

“New York.”

“Turkey,” he said, pointing to a muscular neck with a muscular finger. I imagined what people would say about how I died. Thrown off a sixth-floor balcony. Anything less than ten is an embarrassment. No matter. Instead of grabbing the back of my collar, the Turk offered me a piece of meat. Perfect. And as it seemed, he wasn’t that tough, either.

I went inside with André for beer and saw the photo. A topless woman tattooed from sternum to spine, save the nipple. André caught me peeping and claimed it was his girlfriend. Nervous again, I apologized.

“No,” he said, “My girlfriend did it. If you want, she can do one for you.” Damn my rusty Spanish for awkward moments with tattoo pimps. “Right here.” Make that unlicensed, in-house tattoo pimps.

André slapped a padded table and I noticed everything I’d missed. The mirror lined with tattoo photos and stenciled designs. A rack of crusty inkbottles. A plastic practice leg wedged in a most uncomfortable position. A saxophone case?

“Needles,” André said, freeing it from beneath crumpled napkins and clothes. My beef chunk dripped grease. The dog licked it up to the beat of Cypress Hill. Hash smoke blew in from the terrace. “Come by whenever you want.”

Somewhere, a fluorescent lamp flickers on
Somewhere, a fluorescent lamp flickers on
A week later, I showed up at the apartment. Joining Juanito and his girlfriend Katia on the couch, I asked when the next tattoo session would be. Juanito rolled up his sleeve. “Tonight,” he said. “I’m putting color in this one.” This one was a Polynesian sun god stretched across his right tricep. He said it was Tangaroa, but nobody in our hemisphere could be sure.

Soon after, Andrés and Candice arrived. Ski instructors at the Sierra Nevada, they have the money and recklessness needed to fuel a cornucopia of counterculture pursuits. Candice wore a spiral of ebony in her left ear, plugged through a penny-sized hole. She sat down with Juanito and began sketching on a grocery receipt. After brief negotiations, Juanito didn’t want colors anymore. “It’s metrosexual,” he said, opting for black stripes and shadow on the sun god’s points.

Within twenty minutes, the chaos of the room disappeared. Fluorescent light flooded the makeshift studio. Candice even opened a new box of latex gloves and a new roll of paper towels. A wheeled table held the instruments – new needles in teal shrink-wrap, towels, swabs and other white and shiny bits. From ancient leather pouches, Candice removed two tattoo guns and tuned their buzz to the same pitch. She kissed André and clapped.


Juanito, shirtless, tripped slightly as he took The Seat. Candice slapped his arm, swabbed it up, made some final adjustments and promptly received a phone call. She answered with her gloves on, instructing the caller to buy two bottles of rum, two bottles of Jack Daniel’s and a block of hash. Meanwhile, Juanito popped stomach zits. Order complete, Candice said goodbye in four different ways and got down to business. The gun buzzed and fell. Juanito’s eyes rolled to the ceiling as a drop of sweat slid from his pit.

As Juanito’s grandchildren will agree, Candice became a model of total focus. Juanito entered a trance as well, helped along by a mural of exploding bubbles. Katia watched from behind. They formed a trinity of faces at peace – Candice, maskless, moving her chin and hand in synch; Juanito, now staring through the wall, a few thousand miles east; Katia, centered above, head of dreadlocks, wide-eyed behind crossed arms.

I wouldn’t let Candice tattoo me. She stifled half of her sneezes and tallied one mid-painting cough. She let my boots within five feet of the needles. She’s visited Brazil. When a friend dropped by, Candice paused to greet her with the obligatory two kisses. Yes, she has an autoclave and a five-year-old diploma on the wall, but the scar slashing across her forehead reeks of a moped accident, or more generally, a lapse of balance and control.

More importantly, there were too many questions. What else have the leather pouches held? Where’s the sax? Who was the golden Turk?

Earlier, while making room on the couch, Katia pulled a small, red safe from behind the cushions and placed it on the coffee table. An unexplained safe never helped me feel safe. Within it, more reasons I wouldn’t get inked. The business here can go in any direction.

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