On a warm afternoon in early September, I met a man while on a walking tour of Wisconsin. He was tall, once muscular but now gaining weight, with a childlike face. He asked me if I knew where he could find a job, revealing that he hadn't had a stable job in forty years. Despite the heat, he wore his wool shirt buttoned up to his neck. He decided to spend the night where we were and I offered him some food.
He revealed that he was covered in illustrations from his neck to his belt line, and even on his palm. The illustrations were incredibly detailed and vibrant, like miniature works of art.
This wasn’t the work of a cheap carnival tattoo man with three colors and whisky on his breath. This was the accomplishment of a living genius, vibrant, clear, and beautiful.
He confessed that he had tried to remove them with sandpaper, acid, and a knife because they predicted the future. He explained that during the day, he could work at a carnival, but at night, the pictures moved and changed.
For, you see, these Illustrations predict the future. It’s all right in sunlight. I could keep a carnival day job. But at night—the pictures move. The pictures change.
He had been illustrated in 1900, when he was twenty years old and working at a carnival. He broke his leg and decided to get tattooed to pass the time. The artist was an old woman who claimed she could travel in time. He had found her by seeing her sign by the road advertising skin illustrations. He sat all night while she tattooed him, and by morning he was covered in vibrant illustrations. He had been searching for her for fifty years, intending to kill her when he found her.
He explained that when he had been around a person long enough, a spot on his right shoulder blade would cloud over and fill in with an illustration of that person's life. This would often lead to him being fired from jobs. As he spoke, he would touch the illustrations as if adjusting their frames or brushing away dust. He warned me not to look at them and to turn the other way when I slept. Despite his warning, I found myself fascinated by the illustrations and watched as they began to move, each telling a brief story.