In 1995, I met Ilona and Narimantas in Kaunas, Lithuania. They’d met a month before at a bar in the Old Town called the Blue Orange (B.O.). Narimantas, bald and tattooed, was at the bar and saw Ilona with another guy. He said to her, “That guy you’re with, is he important to you? If not, come with me.”
Ilona, in the summer before her last year of uni, was intrigued by Narimantas’s manner and fuck-all attitude. Even upon meeting, he struck her as someone who didn’t care about the stupid things most people concern themselves with, and she liked.
She replied, “Not really.” She wasn’t particularly into the guy she was with. They were friends, really. Maybe a little more.
“Then come with me,” he repeated.
“Well, I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it,” she answered, taken aback.
“Don’t think too long or we’ll be pissed [drunk],” said Narimantas.
And so she went. I met them a few weeks later, and they were already thick as thieves. Weeks later, I took photos of Narimantas giving Ilona her first tattoo, over 16 years ago.
Then I lost them. After Ilona finished university, they left for the UK. Lithuania wasn’t in the EU yet, so they made their way in under the radar. Because unpleasant guys in track suits were interested in Narimantas’s whereabouts, they also left under the radar and I couldn’t track them, though I finally heard a rumor that they’d left for the UK. Narimantas found work as a tattoo artist and Ilona did all sorts of things. Seven years later, she became a tattoo artist as well.
They moved from London to Brighton and last year, to Worthing, where they opened their own shop, Mantas Tattoo. I visited in September, and it was fun to see them together (married), sixteen years later. Although much had changed, not much had changed. They are comfortable with each other, proud of each other, and don’t seem bored in the least. They both have their own interests and habits and they give each other that space. Ilona does more of the tattooing now than Mantas, and they both only work when they want to work.
They’ve set themselves up in a home in Worthing, and walk to their shop, which is right next to the train station. Their home is suburban and comfortable, decorated with Narimantas’s paintings and interesting skulls and skeletons. The top floor is a little cove-like hideout, with a computer for gaming, pillows on the floor, and other creature comforts (there’s a cat, too). While they’re both involved in different online communities, they don’t go out much, the way urban artists might, preferring the comfort and entertainments of home during non-working hours. I found this inspiring, as some Americans like to insult suburban life on principle, though they live totally uncreative, conformist lives in small, dreary, overpriced urban apartments. Narimantas and Ilona have definitely found a way for themselves and live lives they enjoy on their own terms. Not many people can say that—especially first generation immigrants.
Looking back, none of the friends I visited in the UK have traditional 9-5s. Alys and her boyfriend are photographers, Angela and Karen are yoga teachers and studio owners, and Andrew owns a bike repair shop. I can’t help but wonder if people feel more free to venture into their own businesses in the UK because they don’t have to worry about/pay for health insurance, living without a “real” job. A chat I had years ago with an economist friend lends weight to this argument—that our sickening medical industrial complex stifles creativity and small business in the US. And you can bet the corporate giants like it that way.
Marked Eternal is the name of Ilona’s blog.