Tera C., Salon Owner, 37 years (San Diego, CA)

Tera C. is a co-owner – and manicurist – of my former salon. (I moved…to an “island”…where everyone becomes too lazy to drive a car.) One of the things I miss most is hearing her laugh…it’s infectious!

WHAT’S THE FIRST WORD THAT COMES TO MIND WHEN I SAY ‘TATTOO’?

Love (I love them)

WHEN DID YOU GET YOUR FIRST TATTOO?

When I was 18…two months after my 18th birthday.

WHAT MADE YOU WANT TO GET A TATTOO…WAS IT ANYTHING CULTURAL OR JUST SOMETHING YOU WERE INTERESTED IN?

It wasn’t anything cultural…it was two girlfriends on a whim. I’ve always liked adorning my body, like with jewelry, so I figured that would just be another adornment.

WHERE IS YOUR FIRST TATTOO?

On my ankle.

HOW DID YOU PICK THE DESIGN?

I went through a book at the [tattoo parlor and chose a sun]. I didn’t want anything that took very long because I was afraid of the pain…I’d never experienced it before.

WHAT DID YOU THINK ABOUT THE PAIN IN THE END?

I thought it wasn’t that bad. I was really happy because I knew that this thing on my body was forever. Nobody could take it away…nobody could make me take it off.

HOW DID YOU DECIDE WHERE YOU WERE GOING TO PUT IT? DID YOU KNOW AHEAD OF TIME YOU WERE GOING TO DO IT ON YOUR ANKLE?

No, when you’re 18 you don’t really know what you are going to do or where your life is going to go, so I wanted to put it somewhere it would be easy to conceal.

WHO DID IT? AND HOW DID YOU CHOOSE THEM?

I don’t even know. It was in Alameda. [The guy] did all the sailors’ tattoos at that time…there was an Alameda military base. That’s where I lived at the time. There was no research gone into it at all. It was just like “Okay…I don’t care, let’s just do it!”. I just saw the shop and went in. I was 18! Totally different than my other tattoos.

TELL ME ABOUT YOUR SECOND TATTOO…

My first one [on my ankle] was actually small [the sun] and my second one was actually a continuance of my first one. I got the Universe…all the planets. I came up with that idea. When I got my first tattoo [at] 18, everyone said “You’re going to regret that in 10 years.” So, I literally waited 10 years, and got my second one (the completion of my ankle) at 28. I’ve never regretted it.

WHO DID THIS ONE? AND WHY DID YOU CHOOSE HIM?

His name was Kahlil and he was at Ace Tattoo in Ocean Beach. He was my tattoo artist for [all but the first tattoo], but he moved away. He was phenomenal. I was in Ocean Beach one day and I saw this girl and she had sleeves and the color work that he did was just insane. Everything was great about his tattoos…the lines, the color, the shading, everything. So we found out who he was and then made an appointment. It took us 10 weeks to get in with him the first time.

YOUR THIRD TATTOO…

That one is on my [lower] back.

WHEN DID YOU GET THIS ONE?

It had to have been 2002, eight years ago, so I was 29.

HOW DID YOU PICK THAT DESIGN?

Lora and I went to Paris, France, and we went into this church that I was completely taken by…it was called Saint Chapelle. They have all this stained glass. And, it’s of the circular rose stained glass window.

HOW DID YOU DECIDE WHERE YOU WERE GOING TO PUT IT THAT TIME?

Again, because I’m not ballsy enough to stick it anywhere [I can’t conceal it]. For me they’re private. Some people do sleeves and stuff and that’s great, but they are private for me. I get enjoyment out of them.

WHERE IS YOUR FOURTH TATTOO?

My upper back.

HOW DID YOU PICK THAT DESIGN?

Well, my tattoos are all kind of similar. The one on my ankle is the Universe, the stars and planets. The one on my lower back is the rose window, [which] represents the beginning and the end. The alpha and omega. God. And, then the one on my upper back is a Celtic cross. So, it ties in with that whole theme and my spiritual background, my religion. Everyone has their own cross to bear…I’m not going to judge you. I literally wanted to put it on my back to symbolize the cross.

WHICH TATTOO, IF ANY, IS THE MOST MEANINGFUL TO YOU?

My cross [because of] what it stands for…my religion. My relationship with Christ and my empathy…well, I can’t say empathy because I’ve never had to carry a wooden cross through a town. Just so sometimes I can be humbled and realize I am here for a certain reason.

HAVE YOU EVER REGRETTED GETTING ANY OF YOUR TATTOOS?

Never. I regret not having more. I regret not being where I want to be with my body image, where I would probably have a half a sleeve. That’s what I regret.

DO YOU THINK YOU WILL GET MORE?

I would love to get more. I need to talk to a tattoo artist because I want to continue with my theme…but I want two big Gerber daisies on each shoulder. I don’t know how that will look with my cross, so I need to talk to an artist. And, I need to convince my husband because he’s not into tattooing, body mutilation, whatever you want to call it. He’s very conservative.

But, I love it….it’s just that it is not so much of a priority any more. We need something for the salon…for $200 I could have easily gotten another tattoo. But, things always end up coming up that take precedence over a tattoo, which kind of sucks because I really want more. I just never can find the money to allot for that.


Dante R., Construction & Catering, 34 Years (Coronado, CA)

Dante caught my attention one day while I was working out at the gym. He can’t help but be noticed…he’s quite fit (in a way that tends to turn most female heads ;)), he has captivating eyes, and his massive arms have several eye-catching tattoos. As I was pondering how I could tactfully ask him for an interview without coming off like a cougar, he walked by and said something friendly. I never waste an opportunity! Before he could get away, I told him about my project and asked if he would allow me to interview him. I’m not sure what was going through his mind when he said yes…is this just a smooth line, is it even legit, oh man…how do I get myself out of this awkward situation? I can only imagine. It was during this brief conversation that I noticed the scars on his upper chest and arm, partly covered by tattoos. I was enthralled and so thankful he agreed.

WHAT’S THE FIRST WORD THAT COMES TO MIND WHEN I SAY ‘TATTOO’?

Art

WHEN DID YOU GET YOUR FIRST TATTOO?

I was 16. I was a gang member when I was a kid and [a friend of mine] gave me this first “W.T.” [meaning “Wop Town”] on my back. When I got it done, I came back home and I was sleeping on the couch and my dad just happened to pull my blanket down and he’s like “What???”. He got really upset.

I don’t know if you’re familiar, but [“Wop”] is what they used to call the Italians back in the old days. I grew up in Little Italy [in San Diego]. So, back in the day there was a little gang called “Wop Town”. Still is.

YOU’RE HISPANIC THOUGH, RIGHT?

Yes. But, when I was like 12, 13 and 14, I lived with an Italian family. It’s a long story, but my mom had kicked me out, I couldn’t live with her, and they took me in.

WHAT WAS THE REASON BEHIND GETTING THIS TATTOO?

When you’re part of a gang, you want to people to see where you’re from. It’s stupid now, but…

DID EVERYONE GET IT ON THEIR BACK?

Mainly, yes…that’s one of the main spots, but they don’t get it that small. The only reason I think we went that small was because the ink was limited. It’s what we had around.

WHO DID IT?

It was actually a friend of mine [Character Tattoos]. He just recently did the ones on the front right here. He did the back and he did this other side. We were both 16 [at the time he did the “W.T.”].

DID HE KNOW THAT HE WANTED TO BE A TATTOO ARTIST AT 16?

Yeah, that’s what he is. He’s trying to get a shop going, but because of the economy [he’s holding off]. For me, its works out really well because for what most people pay $300 for at a shop, I get for like $150, depending on what I want. He does good for what I want.

WHICH ONE WAS YOUR SECOND TATTOO?

My second one might have been this [‘W.T.’ on my leg]…same thing (“Wop Town”), but I think I did this myself with a little home made gun. ‘V’ stands for ‘varrio’, which means ‘neighborhood’. And, the three little dots means ‘Crazy Life’. It’s kind of faded now.

YOUR THIRD TATTOO…

This might have been my third one…[this ‘W.T.’ on my arm]. As you can see, it’s a little faded. I don’t really care to cover it up…it reminds me of when I was a kid. That was the extent of the tattoos I got as a kid…everything else came later.

DID YOU DO THIS ONE YOURSELF?

A friend of mine did it first, but it faded, so I went back over it again with another machine.

WHICH TATTOO WAS FOURTH?

It might have been her…[the lady’s face on my upper left arm].

TELL ME ABOUT THIS DESIGN…

There’s nothing special about it. After a long weekend hanging out with my friends – I might have been 26 or 28, I don’t know – we were all drinking and went out and a bunch of us decided to get tattoos. Normally I’m not too picky about my tattoos. You know how some people say it has to have meaning? I guess I don’t think like that. So, I went over there and I picked something off of the wall. Of course, she doesn’t look anything like what I picked. Because I went back some other time and they really didn’t look anything alike. I was pretty drunk at the time.

WHO DID THIS ONE?

This was a guy in Chula Vista on Third Street…I can’t remember his name.

THE FIFTH TATTOO…

When I went back to the same guy [in Chula Vista], I got this one…[the girl’s face with the teardrop and half a man’s face]. People kind of trip out about this teardrop. If you look a little lower, there’s a guy with a fang sticking out of his mouth.

THE SIXTH TATTOO…

My [sixth tattoo] is the Aztec serpent. A lot of people like the way it came out. This was done by a neighbor of one of my buddies [from National City]. The guy was not too good at doing shading, but I think he captured it pretty well.

DID YOU DO THIS ONE FOR CULTURAL REASONS?

Yeah, a little bit. At the time, I wanted to get something Hispanic/Mexcian.

THE SEVENTH TATTOO…

This might have been [seventh]…the eyes. I picked [this design] out of a magazine. It had a full face to it, but I decided to eliminate everything else and just stick to the eyes. The guy [from Mark’s Tattoos] did a unbelievable job on the shading.

THE EIGHTH TATTOO…

“San Diego” was my eighth tattoo. This was done by Grafix Tattoos in Imperial Beach.

THE NINTH TATTOO…

And, the ninth was [the wizard], which was a recommendation from a buddy of mine. This was done by 1904 Tattoos up on Adams Avenue…the name of the guy might have been Jason. Personally, I think [he] did an unbelievable job on the shading of the hand. The hand is one of the most difficult things to draw or tattoo and the way that he broke it down makes it seem like it is coming out at you. You can even stretch the face and it doesn’t even look off…the guy did an unbelievable job.

THE TENTH TATTOO…

The tenth was the topless girl on the back. Same thing [on picking it off the wall]. I changed it up a little bit…it had some different stuff on it, I can’t remember exactly what it was. This was done by Mark’s Tattoos again.

THE ELEVENTH TATTOO…

The skulls. I went back to the guy who did the eyes [Mark’s Tattoos]…I went back to this guy like four or five times.

THE TWELFTH TATTOO…

After I got the wizard done, I fell in love with shading. I started getting into skulls. This one right here [on backs of shoulder blades] was actually part of one big tattoo [design], but I cut it in half and did part of it [on one shoulder] and the rest on the other side. I wish I went higher on one side and dropped it lower on the other side…I kind of regret going this high because it hurt a lot. I just really should have thought about it twice. Next time I know, right? I didn’t know if it was because of my plastic surgeries.

WHO DID THIS ONE?

My friend [who did my first three tattoos], Character Tattoos.

I WAS GOING TO ASK YOU ABOUT YOUR SCARS…IF YOU WERE COMFORTABLE TALKING ABOUT IT. WHAT HAPPENED?

So when I was a kid, I was a huge pyro. I burned a lot of mattresses, I burned a bathroom down…I was fascinated with fire. And, when I was eight years old, I had seen these older kids playing with fire and doing a trick that you see down in Mexico. In Mexico, you’ll be at a stop sign and you got adults coming up to you just blowing fire out of their mouth. So, anyways, I was doing that, but I guess I used the wrong liquid. I was doing it for so long…I thought I was a magician. I thought it was unbelievable. After a period of time doing it, I was drooling [the gasoline] down my mouth onto my shirt and the wind was blowing the opposite way and I just caught myself on fire.

DID YOU HAVE A LOT OF SURGERIES?

Yeah, actually to this day. In the last 10 years I must have had like four or five surgeries. I went to a doctor for a consultation to see what they could do and they put tissue expanders on my neck. That’s part of the reason, I think, that my shoulder was really sensitive. When they put tissue expanders, it’s actually like a balloon and they put liquid into it and it expands it. That’s what they did on my shoulders and that’s part of the reason it was really tender.

I THOUGHT YOU COULDN’T TATTOO ON TOP OF SCARS?

That’s what me and my buddy [from Character Tattoos] were experimenting with. Basically, this scar actually comes all the way out here, so we did a little coverage here and you can see the lines are actually pretty well drawn. My buddy told me he had tattooed somebody else that had a scar on his arm or hand and he said it came out really well, so I said ‘What the hell…we’re going to try it.’

WHICH ONE OF YOUR TATTOOS IS THE MOST MEANINGFUL TO YOU?

Maybe the first ones, because that was part of my childhood. I wished I would have stayed friends [the guys I was in the gang with]. I wanted to get older, hang out, barbecue, and this and that. My teenage years meant a lot to me, I guess.

HAVE YOU EVER REGRETTED GETTING ANY OF YOUR TATTOOS?

Not really…no. I keep mine above my sleeves…I never go down below that. Sometimes there are occasions when I dress up and I’m in a place where I don’t want them to show.

YOU MENTIONED GETTING MORE…WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO HAVE DONE?

I want to connect both of my back ones together…my shoulder blades. I don’t know what I want yet…every time I just leave it up to my buddies to come with drawings. Let them be creative…

“Tattoo History” by S. Gilbert (Part 1)

Back when I was a “Perfect Mom”, I started a family tradition of giving my husband and two kids a book each New Year’s Day. Being the woman that I am, I spend months searching for THE book…one that nails one of their interests or somehow applies to their life at that time. For the first several years, it escaped my husband that I was part of the tradition, but he finally got it (he may have been clued in by my snide comment “Hmmmm, I wonder where the hell MY book is???”). Being a man like every other man, he starts searching for my book on December 31…so I usually end up with something that is in stock at Barnes & Noble and only moderately interesting. (BUT, I give him big cudos for doing the deed because I’m definitely not a naggy wife.) My “awakening” in 2009 (see my other WordPress blog – “A Student of the Four Agreements”) must have rubbed off on him a tiny bit because this year he woke up! He actually put major thought and effort into finding my book and…he nailed it! About a week after the start of 2010 (OK, it was a little late, but who the hell cares?), I was climbing into bed and just about sat on my book…Tattoo History by Steve Gilbert. As I read it (slowly), I’m going to share some highlights that I found intriguing on this blog…

In the intro entitled “Confessions of a Tattoo Addict”, Steve tells how his lifelong interest in tattoos began when he was 10 years old during WWII. He shared his interest with his father who proceeded to tell him that “only criminals, savages, and feeble-minded people had tattoos”. (Mmmm…I think I may have legitimately thrown that gentleman for a loop!). Fortunately, Steve was not swayed (“Dad meant well and he was right about a lot of things, but not about that.”). He thought tattoos were “dangerous and fascinating” and spoke to him of “travel, adventure, danger, and sex”. (Wow…I feel exactly the same.) He grew up to be a tattoo artist, medical illustrator and freelance writer. In 2000, he wrote his book, which is a compilation of “historical writings about tattooing in various parts of the world from the seventeenth century to the present.”

It’s very easy for people who aren’t up on history to dismiss tattooing as simply freakish, rebellious, or trendy. But, the fact is that it is so much more than that. Scientists have found proof of tattooing dating back to 38,000 BC and unearthed numerous Egyptian, South American, and Eastern European/Asian mummies with tattoos adorning their bodies. There no doubt that there is deep social, religious and even therapeutic significance to tattoos. The appearance of societies and people has changed dramatically, but, for many, the underlying fascination with tattooing has not.

In the first chapter (entitled “Ancient History”), Steve mentions that “the earliest known tattoo that is a picture of something, rather than an abstract pattern, represents the god Bes.”

According to the Ancient Egypt: The Mythology website, “Bes was the god of music and dance, the god of war and slaughter, and a destroying force of nature. He was also a protector of children. (http://www.egyptianmyths.net/bes.htm)

The Greeks and Romans? Not so hot on tattoos…except for their barbarian slaves, mercenaries, and criminals. According to Steve, “the Latin word for ‘tattoo’ was stigma…among the definitions of ‘stigma’ listed by Webster are a ‘prick with a pointed instrument,’…’a distinguishing mark…but into the flesh of a slave or a criminal,’ and ‘a mark of disgrace or reproach’.” Starting in 787 AD, Pope Hadrian banned tattoos, which continued until the 19th century. No wonder Steve’s father – and so many other Westerners – have narrow and/or negative views about tattoos.

I’m going to go out on a limb and make my own preliminary conclusion (based on what I read in the first chapter of Tattoo History coupled with my own gut feeling)…tattooing was practiced widely in those societies where there was open expression of sensuality, eroticism, and emotion that was tied in with their religion. In those societies characterized by rigidity and a repression of human sensuality and eroticism, tattoos became tabu. There are individuals that still connect to the ancient ways deep in their spirit and they are the ones who adorn their body to this day. At the very least, I know that applies to me and most of the people I have interviewed to date.

(Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from the Introduction and Chapter 1 of Tattoo History by Steve Gilbert. See the link to the right to purchase this book.)

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