I am frequently asked about the tattoo on my arm, at the grocery store, at the gas station, on the street - especially in summer, when it shows. This is my small tattoo - the other one, my first, is very large, but it's on my lower back, so people rarely see it. The one on my arm, while diminutive and discreet, is noticeable, it seems. I am asked, I think, partly because the writing is small and not always easy to read at a glance. Also, it's done in sienna ink so that it looks like henna (which was intentional) and this makes people wonder if it's temporary, and if so, why?
I actually had to have it done twice, since brown ink is difficult for a tattoo artist. It's less crisp and even than black, and more difficult to write with. To compound matters, I asked for it in vintage typewriter script, which meant some precision.
My my first tattoo was a quick and unequivocal decision - designed by me and re-interpreted (beautifully) by the tattoo artist (Lance at Bolder Ink), and done all in one nearly four-hour session, outline and coloring together. Once decided, I didn't want to wait. The pain of a long session was, for me, not unlike the endurance involved in a 20-mile run. Painful, slightly hallucinatory, but viscerally enjoyable. my second and last tattoo took me many months and much deliberating in the choosing. I knew I wanted a second one, I just didn't know what I wanted it to be. I had some ideas, but none of them felt exactly right.
At the time, my husband and I were both talking about a second tattoo, and both deliberating over what each of us wanted. My husband knew his design, but was not quite ready to commit to a spot.
In the end, I found my design on one of our early spring road trips from Colorado to the West Coast. We had decided to stop by the Salton Sea for a photo session, and it was there that I found my words.
The Salton Sea is a saline body of water directly on the San Andreas Fault east of San Diego. Created by flooding of the Colorado River and other waterways in a basin area that, like Death Valley, lies lower than sea level. In the '20s, the body of water became a tourist attraction, popular for its adaptability to various water sports. In the '50s, someone had the bright idea to make it into a resort community. But the Salton Sea is a tricky body of water. It's high salinity makes it uninhabitable to many fish, and flooding and drought raise and lower its water level on a regular basis. Local agricultural runoff became a problem along with high pollution levels in local inland waterways. Pollution and change in environment lead to massive fish die-offs, resulting in botulism in the water, and subsequent massive die-offs in the local waterfowl that migrate through the area.
The resulting miasma was devastating, and the planned resort communities died before they could flourish. Today, the entire area reeks.
Everything about the Salton sea area is hallucinatory and surreal. One or two of the local resort communities have persisted in spite of the desolation. Bombay Beach, for instance, still has a running café and a few contiguous houses. But the majority of structures surrounding the "sea" have gone to ruin.
Imagine if you will a salty inland waterway, stranded in the California desert, its horizons obscured by a miasma of smog, fog, and decaying wildlife, its shores dotted with two or three sparsely inhabited communities, the rest occupied by the hulking, dessicated corpses of long-dead resort hotels, their tattered curtains stirring in the reeking breeze.
This is what we found.
But on the sun-scoured side of one of the deceased resort hotels, I also found my tattoo.
The dead hotels have been turned into canvases for graffiti scrawled by an invisible tribe of desert rats. This I find irresistible. One of the graffiti scrawlings read "desert empire", and those two words spoke to my wandering heart. I am a desert rat at the core - I love to sleep in the desert, to feel the grit of sand in my teeth when I awake, to explore its most untracked regions, to experience its every mood in heat and cold, light and dark. I love the scent of a creosote bush after the rain, the carpet of flowers that blooms in early April on a good year.
These two words, "desert empire", spoke to me, and I wanted them. So when we reached the coast, my husband and I found a small tattoo parlor near the beach north of San Diego, and had our respective skins inscribed.
Later, back home in Denver, I googled "desert empire" and discovered that it is the casual moniker for a region of the Mojave desert near Death Valley. This, by great fortune, happens to be my favorite part of the southwestern desert. I am a great lover of the Mojave National Preserve, for instance. So it turned out that my instinct was dead on target. Desert Empire was, for many reasons, the perfect phrase for me to have engraved into my skin.
This is the second time I have posted this photo, but (in the words of the White Stripes) it bears repeating.
Slab City is (at least to my mind) the beating heart of modern-day Salton Sea. Its name comes from the slabs of concrete that were laid at the south end of the Salton Sea in preparation for resort communities that never materialized. The empty slabs have been taken over by a Road Warrior-esque community of semi-vagrants who have set up various retired recreational vehicles on the empty concrete to serve as makeshift homes. Many have been welded and chopped and imagined into artistic and often bizarre new dwellings. The vehicle parked outside are equally as strange and reinvented as the homes...re purposed bikes and motorcycles and dune buggies from the '70s, all chopped and re-welded and replaced with new and stranger parts.
To my mind, the entire community is materialized out of a William Gibson novel.