It all started with a panther head.
Woodrow and Wyatt both worked at small tattoo parlours old enough that they used to cater exclusively to youthful World War II soldiers, who got tattoos to help them cheat death or to tell the story about how they had just cheated death. The parlours were in neighbouring towns that were separated by a great lake. In terms of the sights and the quality of the locals, neither town was notable in any way. Woodrow and Wyatt arrived at the parlours within the same year, eager to be a part of the authentic tattoo history of the middle of the country. They looked as if they could be brothers, with long bushy beards that obscured the direction their mouths were slanting in. After working at the parlours for a few years, they each moved into A-frame lakeside homes that you could swim between in a straight line, if you had the inclination.
In the small but global community of tattoo groupies, Woodrow and Wyatt slowly became quite famous. Woodrow worked efficiently and without chitchat, laying down classic lines so accurately that repetition over a spot was never necessary, something more sensitive customers were grateful for. Wyatt was known for having lengthy discussions with his customers beforehand and was a gentle communicator on why some ideas just wouldn’t work. He always insisted that his apprentice get a deli sandwich for his customer.
People would travel for miles to be tattooed by either Woodrow or Wyatt (often both, as one was sure to recommend the other). The artists were so close that competition never factored into the legends about them. After dinner, you could usually see them sitting out the back of one of their homes, discussing art and whether opening a brewery really would be a good idea. Until one young man came to town and ruined everything.
The young man had never had a tattoo but was of the opinion, common in well-off young men, that if he had something, it had to be the rarest and best version of that thing. He worked in finance but didn’t want anyone cool to know this, so when he hopped out of his car at the mouth of Woodrow’s town he was wearing pristine workwear.
The young man wanted a panther on his forearm. Woodrow quickly drew up the image – a little different from his usual style but it suited the customer – presenting it within minutes. Overjoyed, the young man consented.
The first time he asked “Are we done yet?” was at the 15-minute mark. By the fifth time (48 minutes) Woodrow gruffly said that a tattoo of this detail would, in fact, take many hours – he would likely have to return the next day. The young man sprang from the table.
“I don’t have time for this!” he said, half a bleeding panther on his arm. The young man strode over to the apprentice at the front desk and demanded a refund. The apprentice added an “asshole tax”. Woodrow went out the back for a two-hour cigarette break.
Woodrow never told Wyatt about the young man, perhaps because he was embarrassed. Had he told him, it might have never happened. In any case, a few weeks later the young man returned. But this time he went to Wyatt.
The young man explained that he had had a terrible experience. It had turned him off the whole art form, he said, but he needed to get this tattoo finished. Wyatt was so moved by this story that it didn’t feel like such a sin
to finish the work of an anonymous artist – who, by all accounts, was a real tyrant. They got to work.
It wasn’t long until the word got out: Wyatt had “fixed” one of Woodrow’s tattoos. Not just that, he had completely transformed it – what was once a traditional image of a prowling jungle cat was now a surrealist, swirling image of a panther-like hallucination.
For several nights, Woodrow agonised. How could Wyatt have done this? Weren’t they friends? Why had he taken something pure and warped it into such an abomination? Why would a panther smoke a joint, anyway?
Woodrow ignored all of Wyatt’s calls. It started to get back to Wyatt that Woodrow was calling him a traitor in the community. Wyatt stopped calling.
Woodrow began asking customers to sign documents that made it legally impossible for anyone to finish any tattoo that he had started. Wyatt asked his customers to sign agreements that they would not visit any other shop in a 100-kilometre radius. There were rumours that Woodrow inflated his prices; there were rumours that Wyatt didn’t pay his staff. Customers would report that Woodrow would grumble that Wyatt’s style aged badly. Wyatt would casually mention that Woodrow’s tattoos were too conservative, the type of thing you could get anywhere by anyone. No one could figure out which of them started etching their signature under every tattoo.
As their relationship soured, so did their reputations. Overseas visitors became less frequent, which angered the local motel owners. Woodrow and Wyatt weren’t seen crossing the lake.
Much later, the young man, having become an older man, abandoned finance and became a politician preoccupied with restoring the nation’s soul. One eagle-eyed reporter noticed that there was a scar on the politician’s forearm. When asked about it, he claimed it was a scar from when he had protected an old woman from an armed attacker in a supermarket car park many years ago.
To both Woodrow and Wyatt, it was clear that the politician must have had the panther lasered off at great expense – and not very well.
The night that the politician was defeated in a humiliating election, a few locals claimed to have seen Woodrow and Wyatt sitting on the pier of the lake together. It could have just been a rumour. It probably was. But it made everyone feel better about the whole thing.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 23, 2023 as "The Lake".
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