Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Illustrated Woman

"Nothing evokes that superior shudder, that anal-retentive cluck of civilized disapproval, quite like the tattoo." -John Gray

Tattoos are a curious thing. Despite their use in non-Western cultures and their increasing popularity here in the US, for the most part, they still evoke a negative response as shown in the comment above. A 2012 Harris Interactive poll reported that "Currently one in five U.S. adults has at least one tattoo (21%) which is up from the 16% and 14% who reported having a tattoo when this question was asked in 2003 and 2008, respectively."

Yet a lot of us still think of tattoos as mostly an act of rebellion. The same Harris poll reports "among those without tattoos....
  • At least two in five say that people with tattoos are less attractive (45%) or sexy (39%);
  • One-quarter say that people with tattoos are less intelligent (27%), healthy (25%) or spiritual (25%);
  • However, having a tattoo seems to make little difference in non-tattooed people's perceptions regarding strength and athleticism (82% say it makes no difference); yet,
  • Half of those without a tattoo say people with tattoos are more rebellious (50%). "

But this is not the story in other parts of the world. Through out history, tattoos have been used to indicate a rite of passage (Crusaders, Tahitians), as spiritual talismen (Borneans, sailors), as an indication of group affiliation both positive and negative (Romans, Coptic Christians, Maori), as simply body adornment (Japanese) and the normally assumed reason, as an act of rebellion (Japanese, early Christians in Rome). And they have also adorned people of all sorts of social and economic strata. King Alfonso XIII of Spain, King Frederick IX of Denmark and the 'Sailor King' George V of the United Kingdom all shared the same tattoo artist, George Burchett.

I first met my neighbor Betty two years ago after her kids started playing with my kids. I would be lying if I didn't say the first thing I noticed about her were her tattoos. However, I know how stupid stereotypes can be. I didn't know the reasons behind why she adorned herself in this manner much like I'm sure many people do not know the reason I teach my children at home. But I do know behind every great work of art is a great story. So I asked her to share her story and she graciously agreed.

The First Tattoo

D: How old were you when you got your first tattoo?

B: I was 17. It was a small sunrise on the small of my back which got eaten by a larger tattoo later. A few months later, I got another one.

D: What made you decide to get your first tattoo?

B: I knew from a young age it was something I wanted. There was no defining moment or someone I wanted to emulate. It was more of just an opportunity presented itself as opposed to anything else.

D: What was your parent's reaction?

B: Not much in the beginning. My tattoos were small then. I think my mother accepted my tattoo as a sign of my independent spirit and fierceness. She was actually more upset when I pierced my nose because it was on my face. Over time, as the tattoos got bigger, her reaction was, 'Well, it looks very pretty, but I'd rather see it on a piece of paper on the wall.' And then the reaction became, 'It'll make it easier to identify the body.'

D: Any draw backs to tattooing at a young age?

B: There are definitely reasons why 18 should be the absolute minimum. For one thing, you're going to keep growing and your body is going to change shape and size, and as a result, so will the tattoo you get. And stretch marks through tattoos don't look very good, I can tell you that.


D: So what's the biggest stereotype that you run into as someone with tattoos?

B: Probably that I'm a biker. Or that my boyfriend's a biker. I get a lot of, "So, do you ride?"

D: Which is funny because when I first met you, you were on your bicycle a lot, so technically, you do ride. It's just not a Harley.

B: Yes, I power my bike myself. There's also the stereotype that comes up when I seek medical attention from someone other than my usual doctor. For example, in an emergency room situation, I'm perceived as drug seeking. I actually bounced that off of a doctor friend of mine and she said, "Oh, yeah. It's the tooth to tattoo ratio." Which means, generally, if a person has more tattoos than teeth, they're thought to be a drug user. I said to her, "Well I have all my teeth!" And she said, "Yeah honey, but you got more tattoos."
Then there were times when my children were younger, and I would pick them up from daycare and I would be asked, "Are you a relative?" or "Are you the nanny?" I guess I look young to begin with, and having the tattoos makes me seem even younger.

D: Does it bother you when people ask you about the tattoos? Is it kind of like being pregnant when people ask the same questions all the time?

B: It's a mixed bag. I never mind when kids ask. Sometimes when kids ask, their parents tell them, "Don't be rude." But I'm fine with kids asking questions. With adults however, it largely depends on the approach, and I'm usually pretty clear in the beginning as to whether or not I want to have this conversation. If I'm not in the mood and people persist, they will get a tongue lashing. And touching is never ok.

D: Like the way some people will reach out and touch a pregnant woman's belly without asking?

B: I have to say no one touched me when I was pregnant. But every once in a while, someone will try to touch one of my tattoos. Sometimes men see my tattoos as an opening to hitting on me, and that gets shut down really quick. People who want to tell me that I'll regret it when I'm older, I have no interest or time for that. But I get that people are curious and interested cause there's a lot going on in some of the tattoos. So if there is a genuine interest, a curiosity for the details, I'm fine with that.
It's funny how sometimes people feel like they have license to make comments about what is actually a personal choice. It's almost like if you couldn't chose your situation; for example a physical disability or race, then to comment would be rude. But if they perceive that you could have chosen another path like eat less to not gain weight, put down the cigarettes, not get a tattoo, then they feel like they have the right to criticize you on the choices you've made.
So generally, compliments are nice, genuine questions about design details are ok, but if you're going to tell me I'll regret it, don't bother making the comment.

D: Have your tattoos hindered you in finding a job?

B: Yes. I had the upper half of my arms tattooed and was working for a place that had about 500 employees. The entire dress code for the place re-written on account of me. My employer considered my tattoos 'inappropriate accessories'.

D: Was this a manufacturing job? Public service?

B: This was was a mental health and drug treatment facility. I once applied to be an office assistant at a doctor's office, but the doctor felt my appearance might make some of the other patients uneasy.
Right now, the place I work for doesn't care. They care more about piercings. For example, where I work now, men are not allowed to wear earrings. My co-worker, Eddy has to take his nose ring out before coming into work. I think I'm getting away with mine because I'm a woman.
I mean, I feel like people need to run their businesses, they need to control how their business is perceived, they need to have their marketing, and employees to whom the customer can relate. Like it or not, it's a capitalist society, and people can shape their businesses how they want. And if somebody doesn't want visible tattoos and piercings, then, they have that right. Not every person is for every job and I'm ok with the fact I've made choices that exclude me from certain jobs. Like I'm pretty sure I won't get a job at Yankee Candle. I'm not really their demographic.

D: Any tattoos that you regret? I mean either because the meaning or significance has passed or the tattoo was poorly executed?

B: No. I mean some of the stuff on my lower legs is not the best because it was done by friends who were learning. Which is fine because I don't look at them, you know?


D: It seems tattoos are becoming more prevalent. Tattoo shops are popping up like Dunkin' Donuts. Any thoughts?

B: I feel like somewhere around the early to mid 2000's, the tattoo thing started snowballing. There were very few tattoo parlors up through the late 90's. When our tattoo artist friends got licensed in the 90's, the license numbers, which are sequential, were still in double digits. Now there's a ton of them. Lee (Betty's husband) and I used to be aware of pretty much all the shops in the state. Now we can't even keep up. For a while, at the end of the 90's the beginning of the 2000's, I was one of the more heavily tattoo'd women in Providence. And now, you know...

D: You've lost your title?

B: I don't have tattoos on my face, I can't hold a candle anymore.

D: Do you think this current tattoo trend is a passing fad or here to stay?

B: I noticed when the rock-a-billy thing hit, tattoos started getting more common. Then there started to be themes and trends. For example, dark solids, not a lot of negative space, like the tribal or Celtic designs were common a while back. Now there's a lot more piece meal stuff. Instead of being one tattoo from shoulder to wrist, it'll be a bunch of smaller ones. Text has gotten huge. You know, the sayings, phrases, or quotes. Also behind the ear thing is really big.

D: Is there any place you wouldn't get a tattoo?

B: Pain wise, square in the center of my palm, that spot was horrible. It got less bad as the tattoo went out towards the edges, but it was one of the more painful spots. For social reasons, I think my face is off limits.

D: Do you have a favorite? Or would that be like picking which one of your children you like better?

B: Kind of. I really like the Hoover Dam tattoo on my arm. And I have some pieces on my leg that I like a lot. I have a very well done five cent mug of beer. I like the "No." on my palm. It's my favorite sentence. Oh, and I like my hinges a lot.

Hinges: tattoo as talisman

Tattoos have often been used as talismen to protect against bad events. For example, sailors would have the north star or a compass rose tattoo'd to "guide" them home. Or tattoos of hinges would be done on the elbow on the belief that it would add strength to the joint. Prison inmates would have religious images tattoo'd to protect them while incarcerated. 
artist: Jen Guertin

D: Tell me about the hinges.

B: I like the elbow hinge prison tattoo idea. I thought it's a good tattoo to put on that space just in terms of how it fits and such. However, I wanted to make it pretty so I did some research on art nouveau and was intrigued by the idea that the hinges at one point in time were this beautiful. I mean, they're on the door, you don't see them, yet there's so much detail in them.

D: In something considered so insignificant?

B: Yeah.

D: The architect Mies van der Rohe said, "God is in the details."

B: Yes.

NUT ON RIGHT HAND: tattoo as memorial

D: Tell me about the nut on your right hand.

artist: Mike Brousseau
B: Lee's father was a machinist and had tools upon tools in his garage along with bins and containers and cans and jars of various size, nuts, bolts, washers, screws, nails, whatever. I mean, hundreds of thousands of tiny pieces of hardware. He also had a weed-wacker which required a left-hand threaded nut because otherwise, when the motor spins, the housing would undo itself. However, when he needed another nut for his weed-wacker, he could not find a 9mm left-hand threaded nut. He would call the hardware stores and they would tell him that there was no such thing. Finally he found one, and since he went through such hell to get it, he was going to make sure he didn't lose it. So this nut was on a giant tag on his window sill in his kitchen and that's where it stayed for years. When he died, I took to wearing it on a necklace, but then I realized if I moved my head in a certain way and momentum carried the necklace, I was going to eventually chip my teeth. Then I carried it in my wallet and thought this isn't good either because I'm gonna lose it. So I had it tattoo'd on my hand, actual size and now the nut can live at home.

D: There's irony in that it's on your right hand.

B: I know! It doesn't make any sense. I had a reason for that and I don't remember what it was.

Hoover Dam: tattoo as homage

D: What's Hoover Dam all about?

B: I love the Hoover Dam.

D: Fond childhood memories of vacations there?

B: No.

D: Art-deco architecture?

B: Yes! In high school, I loved learning about the Hoover Dam; the architecture, the massive scale, the fact that it was a government project that was completed ahead of schedule and under budget, that it was designed to create jobs with everything that was going on at the time. And there was a lot of ingenuity that went into it. Like, concrete as it cures produces heat, and they had to figure out a way how to cool it down, and expedite that process. Just a lot of ingenuity, a lot of insane ingenuity. 

D: Are these wheat stalks or arrow tails?

 B: They are wheat stalks from a memorial plaque to the workers who died in construction. The plaque has the wheat stalks coming off and lightning coming down and it says, "They died to make the desert bloom." I have a book with some good pictures, one of which is this guy chiseling out some of the rock face. The workers would go down on these swing seats, down this rock face and periodically would fall to their death. I have the other quote from the plaque "The best safety device is a careful man." on my arm as well.
D: What's with Colossus here, was he part of the original design?

B: He's one of the "Winged Figures of the Republic"; two 30 foot tall bronze statues on either side of the memorial. He was one of my 'must have' components because the statues are gorgeous. And they're bronze so they've oxidized and they have that blueish color on them.

D: Who put the design together? Was this you and the artist working together? Did you sketch this out?

B: It was mostly him. I mean, I had a bunch of pictures from our trip there which I gave to him. I told him what my favorite elements were and what absolutely had to be in the tattoo and what I could pass on. Then he traced the size of my arm and put the design together. We changed a few things to make it fit properly, but otherwise, this is it. We had the tattoo end above the wrist bone for coverage purposes. I really like the idea of taking something I like very much and putting it into an aesthetically pleasing art form.

D: Between design, execution and then coloring, how long did that take?

B: A lot of time. The artist who did this was a guy who lived in Brooklyn and would come up to visit periodically. So I had to get it done during those visits he was up here.

D: So you picked a specific artist for this tattoo?

B: Yeah.

D: You felt like you couldn't trust a design that complex on just anyone.

B: Right. Every tattoo artist has a different skill set. There are people that like doing black and gray work, some people like doing color work. So you really have to pick the artist based on what you're getting done.
artist: Mike Drexler


D: Is the "No." for your kids?

B: It's just my favorite sentence, and it's just for me. I think a lot of times, particularly when you're a young lady in the world, people expect you to extend yourself beyond what you're capable of to meet needs of everyone. And you're just suppose to be dutiful and do it all. But this is to remind me to maintain firm boundaries. No. Don't overextend. Say, "No."

D: When did you get that? Was it before or after you had the kids?

B: After, definitely after the kids. I came home, and my eldest said to me, "I know what that spells."  This tattoo was actually something tacked on the end of a bigger tattoo I had done so the artist didn't wasting sterile materials on something little.

artist: Mike Lussier

Asian Characters: tattoo as rite of passage/group affiliation
In a lot of non-western cultures, tattoos have been used to mark rites of passage such as a girl achieving marrying age or a boy becoming a man and therefore a full member of the community. Examples of this can been seen among the people groups of the South Pacific. Tattoos have also been used to show affiliation with a group. For example, the Maori would tattoo their face with the design of their tribe or early Coptic Christians would tattoo a cross on their wrists to show their allegiance to the faith.

artist: Mike Lussier
D: Asian characters on your feet? Please tell me that you had those translated properly. You understand that as an Asian, I had to ask you that.

B: Yeah. I know. In Providence, there's a Japanese language and culture center. I went and I had them check all of my characters. The two on my feet say Love and Faith.

D: Why is that?

B: Well, I don't have Lee's name tattoo'd anywhere on me. You know, that whole superstition that once you have your partner's name tattoo'd on you, it's a jinx and the relationship is doomed? When Lee and I got married, our vows were the Quaker vows, which said we would be loving and faithful. So I had "Love" and "Faith" done on the tops of my feet, as a sort of indicator of our marriage vows. It's not his name, but it's something. I put the characters are on the tops of my feet on purpose since the feet are the foundation.
But I also have a hot dog tattoo. That's our husband/wife matchy deal.

Lee's tattoo (a whole 'nother story in and of itself)

Woman on the Shoulder: tattoo as homage
"Sailor Jerry" or Norman Collins was an American born Navy sailor and tattoo artist. He is considered by many to have popularized the ubiquitous sailor tattoo (anchors, women, classically styled scroll banners). He used what is called "flash": straight forward tattoos images designed to be chosen from an assortment of images which could also be reproduced with ease.

D: What's with the woman on your shoulder?

B: That is traditional Sailor Jerry flash. At one point, I worked with a guy named Don at a job that Lee's father got me. Don had a tattoo done by Sailor Jerry himself and occasionally, at work, he'd see me looking at it and be like, "You can touch it. Go ahead, you can touch it."

D: The whole lady in the rose and the hand shaking and the heart, that's all part of the one design?

B: Yes. I picked the elements that I liked. The pretty lady and a rose is just sort of the standard thing.

D: It wasn't just because you're in Rhode Island that you did the sea faring thing?

B: No. Maybe. I'm not sure. Anyway, there's also stars and dots is the background and then there's little anchor. Then somewhere is buried a little dollar sign. Underneath it all is a little flowery arm band that existed before.

artist: Paul Slifer

Japanese Motif: tattoo as adornment

Japanese tattoos traditionally used vibrant colors as well as using subject matter from nature (i.e. flowers, animals, fish). Unlike western cultures in which the tattoo is more of an emblem with minimal consideration given to location, Asian tattoos are designed with the location of the body and a general theme or story in mind. As a result, they also tend to be larger in scale. 
artist: Paul Silfer
B: This shoulder has my traditional Japanese art. It's just something I have an affinity for. It's very nice art. The tattoos are gorgeous, the body suits are gorgeous. I like Asian art in general. Like the wood block prints?

D: So this tattoo started simply with the idea that you wanted something Asian?

B: Yeah. Like the Sailor Jerry stuff, I picked the traditional elements that I liked, like the fish, the flowers and the water. The tattoo artist then put all the elements together for me. It's not quite done though. There's some more color work that needs to be done, but I'm not sure when I'll get around to it.

D: Why's that?

B: Well, it's an investment of time not only to have the work done, but then the recovery period where the arm would be sore. Between home and work, it's hard finding time nowadays.

Kitchener Stitch

The Kitchener stitch is a technique used in knitting to bind two unfinished ends into one seamless piece. While it's not a difficult stitch, it can be confusing to remember which part comes first.

artist: Mike Brusseau
D: I love the fact that you're such a devoted craft person that you had the Kitchener stitch done on your thumb.

B: I went back and forth as to... that's why the nut ended up on the right side! Because when I'm doing Kitchener stitch, I have to hold the piece in my left hand and then do the stitching with my right hand. I needed to have the reference on my left thumb so that it stayed still and I could look at it as I'm knitting. So then I didn't want to clutter up my left hand too much and that's why the left threaded nut had to go on the right hand!
But about the Kitchener; I would have to look it up every time I needed to finish a knitting piece. I was like, "Wait, is it, is it..." so I just put it on my thumb. I had my friend Mike Brousseau do the tattoo and he was like, "Wait, what? What is this?" I said, "Don't think about it. It doesn't need to make sense to you. It makes sense to me. Just slap it on there." And he did.

Your Next Tattoo

D: Now in keeping with the knitting theme, you said you're going to have a picture of Madame Defarge tattooed next. Any particular reason for Madame Defarge outside of the knitting thing? Are you really into Dickens? You have a thing for the French Revolution?

B: None of those. It's just that people generally consider knitting to be something nice, sweet little old grannies do. You know, it's the nice woman who's in a rocking chair on her porch, who always has lemonade for you. Madame Defarge was knitting the names of the people who were going to die.

That last comment of Betty's made me laugh. We have so many stereotypes of people; tattoo'd people are irresponsible, knitters are grannies on porches, etc., but I think the author Chimamanda Adichie hit the nail on the head when she said, “... the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
As I've gotten to know her, I've learned that Betty is a woman of many admirable qualities, skills and talents, and it's as if the many tattoo traditions represented on her illustrate that, and in turn, show that she is so much more than just one story.

Monday, September 09, 2013

My Business Plan

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