Friday, 7 September 2012

Three Months, Three Weeks: Tattoo You

Tattoos really are a unique art form that carry so many connotations both good and bad that I am sure entire text-books have been written on the subject.  Many cultures condemn tattoos and at least one time in human history having a tattoo could get you killed and skinned to make lamp-shades. On the other hand in some cultures having a tattoo is absolutely normal and often considered a rite of passage into adulthood. Certainly the Polynesians of the South Pacific believed that every great warrior should be heavily tattooed; that it would give him some magical protection in battle.  There might be some truth to that too; the frequent mild infections that resulted from old-school tattoo methods likely stimulated that warrior's immune system against many common bacteria. In Western Culture being tattooed has always been contentious and remains so today, despite the apparent popularity of tattoos lately.

In my parent's day only the sailors, soldiers and juvenile delinquents had tattoos.  I know both my mother and father tended to look down their twinned noses at people with tattoos and probably refused to even deal with people that had extensive skin-ink.  There was just that assumption that "those" people came from the wrong side of the tracks ( That term actually meant something in my parent's day. Hell, there is still that stigma attached to many Prairie towns: if you are a born North-ender from Regina, you are from "that' side of town. Same goes for Lethbridge, Alberta.).  I actually have a friend from Atlanta Georgia who, as a corporate executive, would refuse to hire people simply on the basis of having visible tattoos. He believed anyone who felt obliged to display skin-ink was far too much of an individualist to function well within a corporate environment.  And there is the stigma that really does accompany the ownership of clearly visible tattoo work: the belief that getting tattooed is some sort of rebellious act.

Perhaps over the last ten years getting a tattoo has become more acceptable and maybe even popular. I am not sure this is a good thing and I suspect that the cloistered subculture that revels in skin-art find the new popularity of tattoos quite irritating much of the time.  The fresh-meat newbee who proudly flashes his tiny tribal art or oriental kanji "flash" tattoo (stock and trade fodder off the parlour wall) hidden high on the fleshy part of his arm is basically just some Johnie-come-lately jumping of the popular band-waggon. Let's just ignore that most of the people sporting oriental kanji tats have no idea whatsoever if the kanji actually means what they were told it represents. There is a lot of mystical and meaningless nonsense etched on the bodies of the XYZ generations.

 On the other hand, all tattoo collectors started somewhere and all those first "tats" are small, trial balloons. My own trial balloon was a tiny "yin-yang" sign hidden on my left pectoral. In truth, while tattoos have definitely become more acceptable, the true tattoo collector who has "full sleeves" or a "full shirt" retain their original mystique. The person that has extensive skin art really is just a little different or unique; once your tattoo work starts overflowing your clothes you can consider yourself a member of the tribe of the committed. Tattoos really do hurt; nobody would get extensive work without being truly committed.

Everyone remembers their first tattoo. My own little yin-yang was unplanned really; I did if for love rather than desire.  Roni, Calista and I were vacationing in Maui, Hawaii when Calista was about 13 months old. I mentioned to Roni that an old friend of mine had got one of his tattoos at a well known parlour in Lahaina called "Skin Deep". Immediately Roni took it in her head that she wanted a flower (hibiscus I believe) on her left shoulder.  I had no issue with a small flower on her shoulder so I agreed to drive the thirty minutes down the highway to Lahaina. I would take Calista, do some window shopping, catch some rays and Roni would get punctured by a razor sharp, ink covered needle thousands of times.  Seemed like a good deal to me. Little did I know that Roni thought I would be a knight in shining armour and act as the guinea pig: I had to go first.

I guess she talked me into it somewhere between Kihei and Lahaina, because when we arrived at "Skin Deep" I was the one that stepped up to the desk first. I could see the contempt in the young Australian artist as I picked the first colourful "flash" out of the catalogue: a tiny "rainbow" yin-yang I thought would be subtle enough that my mother would not disown me if she saw it.  I guess the implication of the "rainbow coalition" flew right over my head (or did not exist back then?)  Anyway, I think the obviously irritated tattoo artist was half-way through the tattoo before Roni realised that I was never going to admit to her whether it hurt or not (the entire point of me being a guinea pig).  I think she kind of knew that it did hurt; the rigid smile on my face hiding my gritted teeth was her first hint that being punctured by needles repeatedly was not nearly as much fun as it sounded. No, if I was getting skin art, she was too. It was her damn idea anyway.

Calista was instantly taken by the new skin art. At thirteen months of age Calista had very few recognisable words at her command; Daddy, Mommy and a few choice curses to embarrass us in public. For some reason "tattoo" (pronounced "dadoo") was immediately assimilated. Her fascination of tattoos was just about on par with her interest in wall art; she could spend half an hour tracing the new and quite sensitive tattoos with the tip of her finger.  I am not sure she ever actually lost that fascination with skin art. As long as I can remember she had a collection of fake tattoos stashed in a treasury in her room. Over the years the subject matter matured with her from "Care Bears" to "Skull Candy" as her tastes changed, but they were always there on her arms or in her room.  Roni and I realised early on that we had to set some ground rules about skin-art when it came to our baby. Like it or not, she considered her body just another painter's canvass.

Right off the bat, the first time Calista mentioned getting inked, we said absolutely no until she was eighteen. I always told her that I was never going to give my consent, so she was going to have to wait until she didn't need my consent.  It was never about any prejudice against tattoos; it was about maturity.  I wanted my daughter to have enough life experience behind her that she knew what she was all about before she made a permanent personal statement with her skin. And that brought us to the second rule Roni and I set with regards to tattoos: any art she got done had to be deeply meaningful to her at the time and hopefully for her entire life.  I  forbade (or at least loudly derided) anything stupid like a boyfriend's name or initials. People come and go in your life, some with more grace than others. Nobody really needs a red heart with "Buck" in the centre of it unless "Buck" was a treasured childhood pony. I kind of suggested that, as an artist, she should consider designing her own tattoos or at least having a lot of input into every piece.  Tattoos should be deeply personal and I tried to convince her to make them so.

Something must have stuck with her because her eighteenth birthday came and went and there was no sign of any appointments at the tattoo parlour. What she did do was take her tattoo design and selection seriously. I saw many hand drawn designs; dragonflies were quite popular for several months. Many of the designs were serious efforts presented to either Roni or me for approval while many others were little more than marginal doodles pencilled while a particularly boring lecture at university played out. Calista had fully embraced the idea that tattoos should be an important personal statement; to the day she died she scoffed at anyone that would select a "flash" off the wall or out of a catalogue. Real tattoo aficionados designed or directed their own work and it always meant something.

Calista's first "tat" was the memorable saying "It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live" that I have previously discussed.  She had that piece done on her right fore-arm when she was living on her own in Regina after Roni and I had moved to Powell River. I never really discussed it with her but now, of course, I wish I had.  I really would have liked to know her reasoning for the selection of that particular passage, especially in light of her death.  It was big and bold, but hardly as fancy as I expected from my colour associated artist. To tell you the truth I was a wee bit disappointed.  But then, disappointment is common in impatient, ignorant people that cannot see the forest for the trees. She was not finished.

She wrapped the quote.

Inscription from Regina, Snitch from
Ink Nation Tattoo, Courtenay
She wrapped the "dwell" quote with her third tattoo, a massive "golden snitch", a golden winged ball who's capture wins the game of "Quidditch" in Harry Potter. Her version was very attractive, done in a gold and bronze colour pattern. This was a very impressive tattoo and I recognised my daughter had a plan and I should just keep my mouth shut.

Black Rose Tattoo, Courtenay BC.
Just before the "golden snitch" tattoo she snuck  a beautiful but under-appreciated butterfly from "Black Rose Tattoos" in Courtenay onto her right shoulder.  I cannot say I even noticed that tattoo until the last weekend she was home. I remember being shocked when I first saw it and having to cover my ignorance when she told me it had been there for months.  I never really looked at that tattoo closely and to me it was "just another butterfly". It was not until I started thinking about this post that I looked at that art piece closely and I realised what a superb job the tattoo artist had done on it. The bronze shading with the black gives an almost antiqued look to the butterfly and the fine line work holds up well even under close scrutiny with magnification.  This artist really knew what they were doing.

Its not a painting: welcome to the wonderful world of Calista,
where even a photograph takes on Impressionist flavor.
Ink Nation, down on 5th, Courtenay. At the bridge.

Sometime in the late winter, in early 2012, Calista was given a photojournalism assignment to highlight a local business. She decided that a tattoo parlour would prove to be rich ground for a budding photographer, so she ingratiated herself to the staff  at "Ink Nation' down on 5th in Courtenay and settled in for a long haul.  Van, her primary model, had seen photo students come and go over the years and generally considered them a great raging pain in the ass. Calista surprised him by staying in the background, discussing his art form and generally showing a real interest in the entire subject.  Van got the impression that Calista was considering trying her own hand at tattoo art. I now believe she was playing with the idea, but more as an illustrator rather than an actual "scratcher".  Calista visited the studio repeatedly over several weeks and eventually became one of the regulars that congregated on the very comfortable leather couches in the spacious front lobby. Her  fourth tattoo appeared sometime around this period; I have the impression that it was done as a favour for all the quality advertising photographs she showered on them after her assignment was completed. It was, again, something from Harry Potter; it was the semi-religious sign for the "Deathly Hallows".  The "Deathly Hallows" are three magical gifts bestowed upon the first true wizards by the Death himself.  Is this yet another omen from a girl living on limited time?
I don't actually have a picture of it on Calista. I never found the'
time. Why do we always think we are going to have more time?

Her last tattoo. Now there is a loaded statement. Some parents would be relieved to say their child had finally outgrown tattoos and had settled down.  My daughter never got to outgrow anything.  I suggest those parents that pray their children would just grow up and quit the kid-stuff need to change their priorities. Love everything about your kids because time will pass and all too soon these will be remembered as the golden days.  I just wish Calista had all sorts of opportunities to get more tattoos. Hell, more life in general is what she deserved.

"Believe in the Impossible". Now you know
where the phrase came from on her memorial card.
Anyway, her last tattoo was "Alice" of "Alice Through the Looking Glass".  She worked on this for months, lifting images from the Disney websites, modifying them to fit her vision and then redoing the entire "flash" while sitting on the couch in our front room.  At one point, when she had the image almost perfect, she decided to redo the entire cartoon to make some major revisions.  She liked the general form but did not want to start from scratch, so she had to find some way of tracing her existing image exactly.  Calista visited me at the veterinary clinic and pretty soon she had commandeered one of my X-ray viewer light boxes and had talked me into carrying the heavy unit out to her Smart Car.  At the time I was under the impression she was using it for her photography and was quite happy to lend a hand. It was not until I got home and found her camped out on the couch with the ungainly unit perched on the coffee table that I learnt the true purpose of the light box.  I remember laughing and being impressed at both her ingenuity and the resulting cartoon.

She never got to finish this tattoo. She had the black outlines done just before that last weekend home and she had an appointment with Van at Ink Nation the Tuesday following her death.  I had to call Ink Nation and tell them she would not be making that appointment. I had no idea how much a part of their group she had become, so I was a little shocked when Trish broke into nearly hysterical tears when I told her.  Van was close behind.  Van later did a wonderful eulogy for Calista at her memorial.

I now believe I know where all this was leading. Van tells us that she was working on "full sleeves" and certainly there was a theme happening. Her right arm was going to be themed on Harry Potter while her Left arm was going to be themed on "Alice". She had a couple of ideas on the board when she died and that butterfly was never part of the mix.  I guess her shoulder was far enough from her arm to be considered an entirely different canvass.  Calista had two links on her iPhone Facebook application that makes me think she had some aspirations of either making it onto the cover of a tattoo magazine or joining the ranks of the retro "pin-up girl" models.  Certainly she had the attitude to pull either off. Lord knows my Amazon was never going to make it as a long-legged anorexic fashion model; she liked her chocolate way too much and she was never going to be considered "skinny" by anyone.

You would think that would finish the all the tattoo business for Calista, but every life creates waves in front of their passage and leaves wakes behind them. There have been many memorial tattoos, some of them on family and some of them on people that I now consider extended family.  Each of those tattoos represent a little piece of Calista held here on Earth where she really belonged for probably another fifty or more years.  I have records of a few of those tattoos but many I just know about in passing.  Her cousins, who had come across two provinces to attend her memorial, had tattoos inked the day of her memorial. Both had scripts done about love and family and one had Calista's initials woven into the script.  Calista's uncle followed those two into the chair for a Celtic cross. Then there was Jared and his very upset Mom, Debbie. Debbie had a four-leaf clover tattoo done, each leaf representing one of her immediate family. A fifth leaf was done falling from the clover to represent that special girl we will all miss.  I hear from Debbie periodically; she followed up that tattoo with a jasmine flower; Calista's middle name was Jasmine. I guess the jasmine flower is quite rare; it seems fitting.  And there have been others, some of which I have only heard about through the grapevine (otherwise known as "Facebook" these days).  Here are a sampling of the few I have photographs of, explanations will be attached:
The Golden Snitch on my right pectoral. After
a twenty year hiatus from tattoos, I got two in
two months. Meaningless memorials really, but
when you have lost what Roni and I did, everything
makes sense, even madness.
Calista had planned this for herself
It works with either Harry Potter or
Alice.  It is meant to be the "Patronus"
guardian angel of one of the Potter
characters. Roni has this on her left

Its on my left pectoral, over my heart. It also covers that silly
little Yin-Yang put there nearly twenty years ago.
It has an "unfinished" feel to this tattoo because that is how
it is meant to feel.  This was a preliminary sketch that my girl
was playing with in early winter.  She was putting something together
for her Godmother, Sherry.  Her mother has it on her right forearm.

I won't add a name to this since it is not my story to tell,
but the owner of this tattoo added "RIP Calista Fleming"
when she posted it on Facebook. Touching, really touching.
It probably hurt a lot too.

The first memorial tattoo, done within days of her loss.
Jared: well done and we won't forget this touching

memorial. It's bold.

This is unlikely to be my final memorial to my girl.
I wear it all the time now; its a whale tail. And something
more. Much more.

There has always been something mystical about tattoo art. Even I, a person who openly derides "new age" anything, has my superstitious side when it comes to my tattoos. For years I had three tattoos: one on each shoulder and one on my left pectoral. Somehow this arrangement always seemed wrong, unbalanced or incomplete. I always intended to get a fourth tattoo, but years extended to decades and pretty soon I was pushing fifty and it just seemed somewhat immature for a middle-aged professional to get fresh ink.  On the other hand, when Calista died the only appropriate personal memorial to my artistic daughter who loved tattoos was to get that magical fourth tattoo.  There was the illogical, unjustified superstition that by filling that last quadrant, I could hold onto the essence of Calista.  I am not sure it worked; I felt obliged to return for another tattoo just four weeks later. The camera-cover-up idea came to me late one night. My original plan was to get a photo-like reproduction of Calista's treasured Canon 40D and have her name replace the Canon logo. Van was willing, but pointed out that he just could not do that justice with the available canvas of my ageing (and sagging) left pectoral.  The final tattoo is great, but there remains that crazy thought that if I had got that Canon reproduction something of her spirit would manifest itself physically. And that brings me to the whale tail.
The silver whale tail is more than just a bit of flash to decorate an old man's neck. It is actually a tiny depository for a pinch of Calista's ashes.  That's right; the ashes of my cremated daughter hang on my neck as I type this.  I was a little sceptical when Roni suggested the miniature silver urns, but now I cannot pass a day without mine.  I actually dread to take my necklace off for fear that whatever spiritual essence of Calista it may hold will depart in the short time I neglect "my precious".  When I sleep I hang the small necklace on her large urn that sits in our bedroom; somehow it makes sense.  Its as if by putting the necklace over the larger urn it can "recharge" its spiritual powers.  I know that all sounds absolutely insane, but each of us create our own reality. My reality is that I would believe anything if it would give me more time with my daughter, even insane things like believing that pulverised ashes in a silver necklace embody her spirit.
Of course, I am not really addressing the bigger metaphysical question: do I have the right to try to bind Calista's spirit to this plane of existence? Why do Roni and I believe she would choose to remain here with us?  Perhaps there really is a better place for her just beyond the limited horizon of this Earth. Maybe by trying to trap her spirit here I am just subjecting her to a form of insufferable purgatory.  These may be valid thoughts, but, for now, I just want to be selfish and try to call her back to Roni and I.  She should come back to at least Roni, even if just for one good hug.

1 comment:

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