3 min

My left biceps

Finishing up

I have only one tattoo. If you’ve  ever asked me to flex my left biceps, you’ve seen the four-letter word rise and ripple. I’ve left it unchanged for 12 years, but this week it has grown exponentially by three new words. I’m still in shock.

Over the years, I noticed the tattoo only when someone asked me about it. The question came often. If a writer gets a tattoo of a single word, it must be an important one, right?

Not necessarily.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story. I was in New York City doing a nude photo shoot with underground filmmaker, writer and photographer Richard Kern. We were feeling particularly experimental. Part of the shoot involved jumping a fence in Riverside Park and sneaking into an abandoned public works building. We played with rat traps. It was hot. 

At some point, I grabbed a black marker and started writing on my arm. It was the first time I had ever treated my body as a writing tablet, and it was a revelation. Later, I went home and played with the wording, making interlocking combinations that I imagined spiralling around my left biceps like a Scrabble board. I’m not very good at Scrabble, so maybe I saw it as my chance to create a game board I could never lose. I decided the first word would be “weld.” I designed a typeface on onionskin paper and took it to a tattoo artist on the Lower East Side. Forty bucks later, I was inked.

But I soon lost the blueprints, and I’ve been stuck with the word “weld” ever since. I have never welded anything in my life.

It’s one of the very few writing projects I’ve left unfinished. 

This was on my mind when a friend, artist Hicham Illoussamen, asked me to pose for photos so he could create a life-sized ink drawing of me as part of a gallery show. I decided to resume work on the tattoo. As we walked to the studio lent to us by craftsperson Chinh Vu, I wondered: what words are next? 

Hicham photographed me as we talked about art, change, subverting notions of masculinity, getting older and the things we do to document the passage of time. I held a marker identical to the one I held 12 years ago, sitting nude in a similar pose. Out of nowhere, a new word flashed onto my biceps: “Eek.”

A decade later, and this is all I got.

More words followed. I agreed with Hicham that I should get them tattooed. 

As I pick up this thread long left behind, I’m also letting one go. This is my last installment of Fingerprinted.

It saddens me to bring the column to a close, because it’s been such a big part of my life. Since 2008, I’ve used this space to explore aspects of my life that were previously voiceless and to document all kinds of silliness. But these days, it seems like the stories I want to tell don’t fit the column format. This is similar to how I once decided that, at the time, I had nothing more to write on my left biceps. 

Huge thanks to Xtra readers for your heartfelt responses and for putting up with me. It has been terrific company. Even though I watch from the sidelines in Montreal, it’s been exciting to see such community growth in Ottawa over the years, such successful struggle for empowerment and such conversation. 

Many thanks to friends for invaluable feedback, to Mark Ambrose Harris for the endless encouragement, and to Luna Allison, Lesley Fraser and others who have had the harrowing task of copyediting my stuff and making me look good.

I’d like to give extra special thanks to my editor, Xtra’s Marcus McCann, who has given me incredible editorial support and advice, challenged me to be clearer, dispatched my insecurities and backed me up. He has been so gracious about my fluctuating word counts. Thankless, tireless work. I’m also extremely grateful to Xtra’s Matt Mills for the job and for being such an anchor in the queer and publishing communities. They have both given me so much freedom to write. What great teachers you all have been.

To be sure, you haven’t seen the last of me in these pages. But right now, I really need to go finish this tattoo.