As The Beginning Eats the End

image“So, how did you get into tattooing?”  They all ask.  Every time.  Here’s the real story.  Beginning to end.

I was 18 years old and my whole world had become, in the previous year, much bigger, much deeper, and much wilder.  I was newly created.  Where once I had been a devout holy-roller who raised her hands up and sang with tears streaming down her face about the Amazing Love of Christ and to whom the only book that mattered anymore was the Bible, now I’d become a science-fiction-reading, philosophizing, world-tasting, third-eye-opening deviant.  Everything I had ever judged as immoral, everything I had never been allowed to do, I suddenly needed to do.  It became my new religion.  So, of course, I needed tattoos and piercings.  Lots of them.

For my very first tattoo, I appropriately sketched up a miniature version of a pastel drawing I had done called “Man’s Last Moment of Innocence,” wherein an innocent Eve looks up wide-eyed at the Serpent, holding the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, deciding whether or not to take a bite.  Everything in her world is innocent, because she sees through innocent eyes.  She knows nothing of sin or suffering.  Though I had already plunged into a world of “sin” I was still shrouded in a shield of naiveté.  I took my drawing, and a drawing of an angel for my mother to get tattooed with me, to an artist named Rob B. who owned Bison Tattoos in Cutler Ridge, FL.  He was a big old biker Santa Claus, and I remember being surprised at how expensive our tattoos would be.  It instantly got me thinking- hmmmmmm… this guy must make a ton of money.  Everybody always told me I’d never make money as an artist, and whenever I pictured myself as an adult making my way as an artist, I saw hours of solitary studio time, a lonely hermit splashing her feelings on a canvas, just the way I had spent all my childhood and teen years shut in my room writing short stories and drawing pictures and comics.  This guy was making money and didn’t seem to be a hermit. Why, here he was talking to me and my mom and we’d never met before.  I bet he meets a ton of people doing this!

I had brought some other art with me as well and showed it to him, with future tattoos in mind, and the day I came in to get tattooed, I asked if he was hiring.  Turns out he was, and he offered me an apprenticeship based on my artwork.  I had never thought about tattooing before.  Seemed at least like a good way to get through college.  Oh yeah, college.  I already had a Bright Futures scholarship and was enrolled at FSU for the fall semester.  But I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.  And it seemed unfair that I had to choose when I knew nothing of the real world.  I didn’t want to waste my time flitting from major to major until I figured it out (I wish I had known that wouldn’t have been such a waste of time), I wanted to know for sure.  I withdrew from classes after a couple months and worked in restaurants hoping I’d figure it out and get back in school with a plan.  After about a year of doing that, I finally decided tattooing was the way to go.  I could cover all my bases- make money, meet people, create art for a living, and bonus: no school!  I found a tattoo shop in Tallahassee where I wanted to apprentice and came straight from work every day to talk to the owner (who was never there) and show him my portfolio.  After a few weeks of this, someone at the shop took pity and told the boss to stick around one afternoon and check it out.  Soon I had my apprenticeship.

And that’s when I got my first anxiety attack.  I remember calling my dad from the parking lot.  It wasn’t the shortness of breath and panicky feeling like I might die that I eventually would experience, it was just a heavy sense of foreboding.  I took it to mean that I was taking my future as a tattooer seriously and anxiety was a natural reaction to settling down and getting a real job that would require my devotion.

Let’s fast forward 10 years.  I’ve got an experienced hand, a great bed-side manner, a growing clientele, a unique style, and I’m working in the best shop I’ve ever worked.  I occasionally travel to epic comic/pop culture/sci-fi conventions to tattoo with my friends in Ink Fusion.  I’m making better money than I’ve made in my entire life.  And yet, I’ve decided to bring this 10 year journey to its close.

WHY??!!  Why would I do that?!  When people ask, every short answer I can come up with sounds hollow.  I can’t say I don’t love tattooing as an art form.  It is, after all, Earth’s most ancient.  We have found tattooed mummies that predate the first cave drawings.  It is fascinating, always growing, always changing.  It forces me to sit and focus and finish what I begin and do nothing else, captivating me in a way no other medium has.  So why quit?  Well maybe it was never really what I wanted in the first place.  As a child, I wanted to write and illustrate children’s books.  Maybe act or sing or both.  I wanted to be an artist, but I didn’t want to starve, because above all I always wanted to be a mother.

My family is a huge factor.  My husband just got a new job that will make it so that I don’t have to work if I don’t want to, which is ideal for whenever the next baby comes, but it takes so many more hours from our family during the week, that if I want to see him, it’s got to be on the weekends.  There’s only one tattoo artist I’ve followed that has come out and said “I don’t work weekends” and he can afford it.  He’s the kind of artist people will request off work for.  I’m still doing tattoos of pictures people bring me on their phones, pictures of other people’s tattoos.  Sure, not all the time, but I never turn them away unless they’re ill-advised (and yes, I always alter the image or try to talk them into something better.)

Then there’s the incident.  A sudden, crushing loss to our family sent me into some serious soul-searching.  I heard echoes of myself telling my clients over many many years, in comments here and there, how tattooing ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.  I thought of how much I spend on childcare and how foreign my own daughter seems to me on the days that she’s all mine.  How I’ve lived here almost 3 years and haven’t cultivated any friendships outside of work, and only realized it when I had to suffer alone.

My EUREKA! moment came while reading an issue of the graphic novel, Saga, written by Brian K Vaughn and stunningly illustrated by Fiona Staples.  The main characters are meeting with the author of the book which brought the lovers together, and he says something to the effect of, “Illustrated children’s books are the only true art form.”

I announced my last day (June 24th) to all my followers on facebook and instagram, and have been devouring works of fiction, free writing classes, books by Austin Kleon ever since.

Yesterday, the man who was apprenticing under Rob B. at Bison Tattoos when I first stepped into the world of tattooing sent me a message.  It was the photocopy Rob had taken of my drawing for my first tattoo, with my name, my mom’s name, my phone number, and our appointment written on it.  He had just found it this past weekend when visiting Rob’s daughter.  He’ll be sending it to me in the mail, and I’m going to frame it.

I got Man’s Last Moment of Innocence tattooed on my left shoulder blade, and always wanted to get a piece for Original Sin on the right side.  But now, I think I shall get a tattoo of the snake eating its tail there instead.  I recall the metaphor as it was used by a conductor in the Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle.  After watching a child prodigy play the flute beautifully, he reflects on the people of the symphony- where once they all may have played simply for the joy of playing, and now they play for the money to live to continue playing.  Here, he compared them to the snake eating its tail.  Hmm… methinks I have an idea for a new illustration!

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