Tattoo parlors don’t appear often in novels and even if they do, it’s usually on a casual note and to introduce sinister characters, so I was kind of looking forward to reading ‘The Missing Ink,’ proudly announced as ‘tattoo shop mystery.’
The main character of the novel, Brett Kavanaugh, is a female tattoo artist and owner of a high-end tattoo parlor called ‘Painted Lady.’ Along with her crew which consists of an overweight Joel, a pixielike Bitsy and a narcissistic Ace she prefers a challenge of a costume piece from doing flash only and feels proud of adhering to all state regulations in Nevada. The plot of the story revolves around a rich girl who wanted a ‘devotion tat’ but never came for her appointment. Brett and her crew get involved in the whole mystery even though they seem to be driven more by their noisiness than by a real concern about the missing girl.
The whole story isn’t badly written and makes for maybe not very demanding but still quite pleasant and entertaining a read. However, if the author’s ambition was to write a short novel about tattoo artists and their world, she really could have done more research.
The world of modern body modification is way more complex and richer than just tattoos and obsolete body piercings. The only modifications that are described and mentioned in this book are tattoos (and some of the stories behind tattoos were taken straight from ‘Miami Ink’ and “L.A.Ink” as it seems!) and kind of traditional by now multiple ear piercings (only Brett’s piercings were mentioned here and she’s a ‘proud’ owner of ‘hoops running the length of her earlobes’ which are pretty unoriginal these days!) If the story takes place in Las Vegas, one of the busiest and liveliest places not only in the US but also in the world, we should be presented with more outrageous and daring mods. There’s nothing about ear stretching here, nothing about such ear piercings as industrial, tragus or conch, nothing about scarification, implants or tongue splits, so chances are that if the real customers came into the ‘Painted Lady’ only to see the artists not wearing original work themselves, they would quickly change their minds about getting modified at this shop.
There’s a sort of fakiness and unneeded pathos here whenever Olson tries to get more profound about the tattoos and people who get them. ‘Many people who came into the shop had a story, a deeply personal story’ is definitely a true statement but it lacks subtlety and ever since Ami James proclaimed how his customers become a legend of his shop, somehow the meanings behind people’s tattoos ballooned to pathetic proportions and, when used by TV to get better stats and more money, lost on their real value.
Olson stated in the interviews that she tried to write against the stereotypes about tattoos and she managed to avoid the old negative stereotypes about tattooed people. Unfortunately, however, she doesn’t know much about the world of tattoos and other forms of body modification and her only resources here seem to be such TV shows as Miami Ink where everything is very polished and neat to please the wide audience out there. She acknowledged the book ‘Bodies of Subversion’ but when she refers to it in the novel she again does it in too pathetic a tone.
There are numerous repetitions in the novel (Brett’s phone always ‘blasts Springsteen’ and she tends to use the ‘go figure’ phrase way too often to name just two of them) and Olson pretty much all the time refers to tattoos as ‘tats’ or ‘ink’ – obviously she doesn’t know that a vast majority of people involved in the tattoo culture finds it slightly offensive and prefers the simple and correct word ‘tattoo’ instead!
Like I’ve already said, the book makes for a quick and entertaining read but it also shows that the author’s research was not perfect. Ink-TV and occasional glimpses of tattoos in the magazines don’t give a detailed picture of this subculture and more efforts should be put in to capture what it’s all about. Hopefully the next Tattoo Shop Mystery, scheduled to be published in April 2010, will show the world of tattoos and body modifications in general from a more detailed angle and the characters we already know will convince us that they really care about their own and other’s tattoos, not ‘tats’!
Karen E. Olson, The Missing Ink. A Tattoo Shop Mystery, Signet 2009;