Tahiti & “Tattoo History” by S. Gilbert (Pt. 3)

The island of Moorea

I was lucky enough to go to Tahiti on my honeymoon…what seems like eons ago. It was my first expedition outside of the U.S. (with the exception of tequila missions to Tijuana, which just doesn’t count). Being a quasi-young newlywed guy guarding his pocketbook, Lance steered clear of the touristic (and pricey) island of Bora Bora and headed to the less visited Moorea and the remote Huahini. I was so “checked out” for the first 30 years of my life that I have very few solid memories…but, it’s odd…I do remember Tahiti…vividly. I think my recycled soul knew it was close to home…

I can remember exactly what it looked like – our huts just feet from the vividly turquoise water, the trade winds that we swore were going to rip off our thatched roof, the lush green of the interior countryside and central rain forest, the crumbling ruins, the sunset cocktail cruises, the crappy food (with the exception of the local dolphin delicacy that we broke down and ate…on our last day). I can still see the people…who were stunningly beautiful with the kindest of eyes. I don’t remember seeing any tattoos, but then I wouldn’t have been too attracted to them at the time…at least not on a conscious level.

The island of Huahini

I have several worthy memories from this two weeks of my life…

  • It was here that I took the first baby step out of my “box”…the only step I would take for many, many years, but one that would never leave me. The French colonizers didn’t make the Polynesians put all their clothes on when they took over…even in 1991, it was the norm to sunbathe topless. I am proud to say that I pushed myself to observe this local custom…and I had a mild sunburn to prove it!
  • I remember a beautiful girl who was staying at our resort in Huahini. She appeared to be an aspiring model with two drooling guys following her every move with their eyes – and their cameras. They were so young and free…and having an amazing experience. Of course, my conscious self judged her…but, my unconscious self wished I was brave enough to have such an exotic and thrilling adventure. Deep down I admired her and she would inspire me to be brave many years in the future. I sometimes wonder who she has become and if that experience is one of her most treasured memories.
  • On our second night in Huahini, I walked out of the humid shower into the humid room. As I dried my hair with a towel, a flash of movement caught my eye. I hit the floor…Lance gaping at me as if I had completely lost it. I struggled to get the words out…there was a man staring at me through the crack in the drapes!!! When I made eye contact with him, he turned and ran…I scrambled to the window and saw him disappear into the trees. Apparently the locals didn’t seem to miss movie theaters or televisions…the visiting honeymooners provided plenty of free entertainment!
  • And, then there was the moment that Lance tried to kill me…where the reef met the tide. I was not happy that he paddled the kayak right up to the point that we were told to avoid…I was both fuming and panicking while he happily snorkeled more than 50 feet away and I frantically struggled to stop myself from drifting out to die. I weighed 98 pounds when we got in the kayak…when I got back to shore, I weighed 90. And, I’m sure that I will die five years earlier than I should because of that experience.

I can’t wait to go back…I definitely feel a connection to the Polynesian culture. On my next visit, I will definitely be checking out tattoos – and abiding by all of the local customs, of course. Oh, and I think I’ll blow a kiss to the Polynesian peeping tom. 🙂

In Tattoo History (see the link at right to buy this amazing book), Steve Gilbert writes about the first accounts of Polynesian tattoos. We have Captain James Cook of England – and his naturalist, Joseph Banks – to thank for this peek into the past. The first voyage to the islands began in 1768, and lasted three years. Here are some of Banks’ writings on tattoos:

“I shall now mention their method of painting their bodies or ‘tattow’ as it is called in their language.” [We still use the same word today…there was no word in any Western language for this form of art.]

“Their method of doing it I will now describe. The color they use is lamp black which they prepare from the smoke of a kind of oily nuts used by them instead of candles. This is kept in coconut shells and mixed with water occasionally for use. Their instruments for pricking this under the skin are made of bone and shell, flat, the lower part of this is cut into sharp teeth from 3 to 20 according to the purpose it is to be used for and the upper fastened to a handle. These teeth are dipped into the black liquor and then driven by quick sharp blows struck upon the handle with a stick for that purpose into the skin so deep that every stroke is followed by a small quantity of blood…”

“…all the islanders I have seen (except those of Ohiteroa) agree in having all their buttocks covered with a deep black…”

“I saw this operation performed on the fifth of July on the buttocks of a girl about 14 years of age. For some time she bore it with great resolution, but afterwards began to complain and in a little time grew so outrageous that all the threats and force her friends could use could hardly oblige her to endure it.” (Tattoo History by Steve Gilbert, Pages 36-37)

I’m so grateful for technological advancements in tattooing, so my friends didn’t have to sit on me while Luis decorated my body…

Lora H., Hairstylist/Salon Owner, 30 Years (San Diego, CA)

I have a friend – one of my BG’s, in fact (I’ll let you guess what that stands for) – who always used to show up with the chicest hair. I suffered from serious hair envy…until one day I asked her if she would share her stylist with me. Of course, she acquiesced…a BG would do nothing less. That’s when I met Lora H., an amazing stylist who had just partnered with Tera C. (see the previous interview) and opened up Blush Creations Salon in San Diego. I was with Lora for several happy – and stylish – years…until I contracted a case of “island-itis”. That’s when you move to a small island, walk almost everywhere and develop a serious aversion to driving motor vehicles (with the exception of golf carts…but, I refuse to to do that ;)). Thank goodness for Facebook, which maintains those kind of connections that might otherwise just fade away. I was thrilled she agreed to be interviewed…

WHAT IS THE FIRST WORD THAT COMES TO MIND WHEN I SAY TATTOO?

Art

WHEN DID YOU GET YOUR FIRST TATTOO? HOW OLD WERE YOU?

I was 21…it was for my 21st birthday. I had wanted one since I was 14. I could’ve gotten one…we knew people and all my friends were getting them. (We used to hang out with the tattoo artist.) But, I didn’t want to be one of those people who just got some tattoo. There was nothing that I really wanted…I wanted to be sure what I wanted it of before I decided to get it, so I waited a long time.

WHAT MADE YOU WANT TO GET A TATTOO?

I just always liked the way they looked. I liked the fact that you could have a symbol on your body permanently. For me, personally, it’s things that represent something…a kind of constant reminder of something.

HOW DID YOU PICK THE DESIGN FOR YOUR FIRST TATTOO?

It’s actually just a star, but it was during a really dark time of my life and the only bit of faith that I had was in the stars. So, it represents a real turning point in my life.

WHERE IS IT AND HOW DID YOU DECIDE YOU WERE GOING TO PUT IT THERE?

It’s on my lower back. At that time, it was really the only option. I had seen a star that I really liked on a wrist, but I thought “No way could I do that…I’ll get sick of it. What if I want to hide it?” So, my back just seemed like the only option.

WHO DID IT? WHY DID YOU CHOOSE HIM/HER?

I don’t even know. I drove up with friends to L.A. [Los Angeles] and went to some shop my friends went to. They knew the shop, but I don’t even think we had an appointment…we just walked in.

HOW DID YOU PICK THE DESIGN OF YOUR SECOND ONE?

My wrist tattoo…that’s my “Trevor Tree”. [Trevor is Lora’s little boy.] I knew it had to be something to represent my son because it would be a constant reminder of having him. I was all over the place with what I wanted to get…all over the place. I didn’t want to just get “Trevor” across my wrist. The tattoo artist came up with the idea of the tree. It was something I could afford and get done now.

WHEN DID YOU GET IT DONE?

Just about two months ago, I think.

WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO PUT IT ON YOUR WRIST THIS TIME?

The funny thing is that I went out with some girlfriends – we went out dancing. We were eating afterwards and I had a stamp on my wrist and I said “I really want a tattoo there!” I’m 30 now and I’m going to be in this career – doing hair – so there’s no impact.

WHO DID THIS ONE AND HOW DID YOU PICK HIM/HER?

Ron Stan…he’s in El Cajon. Witchdoctor’s Tattoo Emporium is the name of his place. I saw a girl (she teaches swim to Trevor) with a tree tattoo on her back and she gave me his website. I checked it out and I really loved his philosophy…he’s an artist with a private studio. So I emailed him and I got scheduled in about a week later. It was quick…I wanted it done!

WHICH TATTOO IS MOST MEANINGFUL TO YOU?

That’s hard to say because [the tree] is of my son, but the other one really represents the beginning of my belief in a God and my whole life how it is now. It looks just kind of like a sticker tattoo, but to me it definitely reminds me of a lot.

HAVE YOU EVER REGRETTED GETTING YOUR TATTOOS?

No…absolutely not.

DO YOU HAVE PLANS TO GET MORE?

Eventually I want to get a big back piece done. That was originally my goal when I lost weight…before I had Trevor. Well, then I had Trevor and I gained all my weight back. So, when I lose it again that will be my reward!

“Tattoo History” by S. Gilbert (Part 2)

Okay, so some of you know me and some of you don’t. I hope the ones that do would categorize me as “open-minded”, but not “out there”. I’d like to assure the ones that don’t, that this is the case. Now, you can read on…

I got my tattoo last December. I will always remember the moment that I stood in front of my bathroom mirror and studied it for the first time…the strangest feeling immediately and completely overwhelmed me. It’s hard to put into words, but it was similar to that feeling you get when you come home after being away for awhile or when you are reconnected to someone who you have been separated from for far too long. It was a blend of familiarity, relief and happiness. I remember hearing inside my head “Finally!” and knowing to my core that my tattoo was supposed to be on my body. I was pretty taken aback…this was coming from somewhere deep in my subconscious. I instantly remembered what happened while recently reading James Michener’s book Hawaii…I had an intense connection to the Tahitian tribe (the ancestors of the native Hawaiians). When Michener wrote about the way they lived, their spirituality, and their belief system, I marveled at how it was exactly the way I think and I have absolutely no cultural connection with anything Polynesian. There were other things too…all my life, I’ve known that the way I feel when I hear tribal-style drumming is far from “normal”. It moves me…transports me to another place. I have to dance. And, the way I feel when I’m in Kauai has nothing to do with being a tourist…it’s like I belong in a place like this. (I remember having this exact same feeling on my honeymoon in Tahiti 20 years ago, but I shoved it down to a place I kept hidden until recently.) When I put all these things together – here’s where you have to remember that I’m not “out there”! – I began to wonder if my soul had been recycled at some point in time. Was it possible that it had previously resided on some remote Polynesian island? Well, if it did, it was having a damn good time dancing to those tribal drums next to the ocean! I had never even thought about reincarnation before (I was too busy being a suburban mom), but I do believe I’m going to be doing some investigating…

Now you know why Chapter 2 – “Polynesia” – in Tattoo History was of particular interest to me…

According to Wikipedia, Polynesia “is a subregion of Oceania, comprising a large grouping of over 1,000 islands scattered over the central and southern Pacific Ocean.” It includes, but is not limited to, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Tahiti, the Marquesas, Easter Island, and Hawaii. The ancient Polynesians were far from savages…they were deeply spiritual, navigated unbelievable distances using the stars as their guide, and were sophisticated artists.

When I started reading, I was disappointed – but not surprised – to find out that very little is known about tattooing in Polynesia and what little is known is from the perspective of the Europeans, not the natives. I have never wanted one of my three wishes – to time travel backward (never forward) – to be granted so badly! It’s not a surprise that Steve Gilbert – and many others – proclaim Polynesian tattooing as “the most intricate and skillful tattooing in the ancient world.” Sophisticated geometric designs were started during young adulthood (younger than today’s young adults) and expanded throughout a lifetime until they covered a person’s entire body. Both men and women were tattooed, but for different reasons and with different designs.

Why were the Polynesians so advanced in the arts? The theory is that in addition to desire and ability, they had time. Lots and lots of it. Because life was easy for them living in “Paradise” – no struggles for food and geographical protection from predators, enemies and disease – they could devote themselves to art. According to SG, “Everything they made was decorated: canoes, bowls, war clubs and tools. Even their bodies were punctured with elaborate designs.” I can definitely relate…

How did they do it – and as well as today’s tattoo artists who benefit from technology? They started with a bone, which was chiseled into a “comb-like series of pointed teeth” and attached it to a wood handle. They mixed soot and water together to make black ink. Add a small mallet into the mix and they had all that they needed to create masterpieces. There are still Polynesian tattoo artists who will only tattoo using this ancient method.

Although some early European visitors were enlightened, most were missionaries who viewed tattooing as evil because it was an outward symbol of the Polynesians’ superstitious and savage religion. Later, European settlers viewed tattooing as a resistance to their ways so it was outlawed. Thank God for rebels! When James Cook returned to Europe, people saw members of his crew decorated with Polynesian tattoos and a fad was started. The first tattoo artists were former sailors who had observed the native artists, practiced it on the ships, and opened up shops when they got back home.

Since getting my tattoo, I wondered how such a beautiful – and widespread – ancient art became trivialized as rebellious and distasteful by mainstream society. Now, I get it…because it was a threat to Christianity and the “Western way”, which were perceived as superior to every other religion and culture. I also understand more of that feeling that washed over me when I first looked at my tattoo…in addition to being a possible connection to a recycled soul, I was appreciating that it was an outward sign that I don’t buy into this narrow-minded opinion. And, that I’m a bit of a rebel :)…

For those of you who are interested, here is a long excerpt from the book (p. 26-27)…it’s a first-hand account of Polynesians and tattooing written in 1813 by Georg H. von Langsdorff in Voyages and Travels in Various Parts of the World.

“The most remarkable and interesting manner which the South-sea islanders have of ornamenting their naked bodies consists in punctuation, or, as they call it, tattooing. This kind of decoration, so common among many nations of the earth, merits greater attention fron travelers than it has hitherto received. It is undoubtedly very striking, that nations perfectly remote from each other, who have no means of intercourse whatever, and according to what appears to us never could have had any, should yet be all agreed in this practice.

Among all the known nations of the earth, none has carried the art of tattooing to so high a degree of perfection as the inhabitants of Washington’s Islands [the Marquesas]. The regular designs with which the bodies of the men of Nukuhiva are punctured from heat to foot supplies in some sort the absence of clothing; for, under so warm a heaven, clothing would be insupportable to them. Many people here seek as much to obtain distinction by the symmetry and regularity with which they are tattooed, as among us by the elegant manner in which they are dressed; and although no real elevation is designated by the greater superiority of these decorations, yet as only persons of rank can afford to be at the expense attendant upon any refinement in the ornament, it does become in fact a badge of distinction.

The operation of tattooing is performed by certain persons, who gain their livelihood from it entirely, and I presume that those who perform it with the greatest dexterity, and evince the greatest degree of taste in the disposition of the ornaments, are as much south after as among us a particularly good tailor. This much, however, must be said, that the choice made is not a matter of equal indifference with them as it is with us; for if the punctured garment be spoiled in the making, the mischief is irreparable, and it must be worn with all its faults the whole life through.”

The rest of the excerpt is a fascinating account of the tattooing of the chief’s son and details of the local tattoo designs. This is a GREAT book…click on the link on the right to buy it (although I wish I got royalties, I do not!).

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.)

Eileen B., 45 Years, Licensed Aesthetician/Manager-Laser Skin Care Clinic (Hermosa Beach, CA)

NOTE FROM THE BLOGGER…When I was firm about my decision to get a tattoo, I began to search for an artist who could do exactly what I wanted – a henna-style design. After visiting the websites of what seemed like every tattoo artist in San Diego (and even some in Europe!) and not finding a single one who showcased any work even remotely resembling henna, I began to lose hope. On Halloween Day 2009, I dragged my husband and teenage son to the Tattoopalooza in downtown San Diego. I was thoroughly discouraged after walking down two aisles and, again, not finding a single artist who dared to be different. I started walking faster and looking less. As I started down the third aisle, something drew me to the first table. I opened the artist’s binder, flipped through a few pages and froze on a page with an incredibly beautiful woman with the most unbelievable henna-style tattoo I had ever seen. The photo resembled a “Vargas girl” (Note…irony coming!). At that moment, I was pretty certain I had found my artist. That woman was Eileen B. and that artist was Luis Vargas (So she really was a “Vargas girl”, go figure.), the one I chose to ink his art on my body. As I left Luis’ studio the day he did my tattoo, I glanced up and saw Eileen’s picture on his wall…“Be sure and tell her that she was my inspiration,” I said. The next day, I had a Facebook friend request from Eileen…I now consider her a real friend.

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

Liberation

TELL ME ABOUT YOUR FIRST TATTOO…

I told [Luis] I definitely wanted ‘Wild at Heart’. I really did my research and I thought about it for a good six months. When I first said I was going to get a tattoo my mom was like “[Ohhh]” because I had just come out of the 24 year relationship and my mom was like “Please, give yourself at least six months.” Everyone kind of freaked out around me…my mom, my older sister, a couple of my friends. They were like “Wait, wait, wait.” So, I did…I said I would wait six months, which was good. I’m glad that I did wait because at that point I knew for certain that it was something that I definitely wanted and I was able to pick [designs] that were meaningful to me.

WHEN DID YOU GET IT?

Last March [2009]…that was my first sitting.

WHAT IS IT THAT MADE YOU WANT TO GET A TATTOO?

People have been piercing, adorning, marking their bodies basically since the beginning of mankind. So, I think it’s just a way of expressing yourself. I think body art should tell a story. Not all of it does and I don’t like all body art, but there’s a lot of it that I do like. I guess I just needed to say something…and I said it really loud. One of the girls at work who is pretty sensitive and in tune to things said “The first time you came in and I saw that, I thought, she’s marking all this pain on her body and this is where she’s telling the story.” And, this guy [Luis Vargas] has kind of helped me through it all.

Marking your body should be somewhat ceremonial…look at ancient man and societies today where they’re still pretty primitive, like in the Amazon. There is something instinctual in us that wants us to be able to express. We were at Spaghettini’s the other night and there was this family leaving the restaurant and there was this jazz band playing. We were sitting right there and this little teeny tiny child just starts dancing around. Expressing ourselves is just instinctive.

SO, AGAIN, YOU KNEW THAT YOU WANTED ‘WILD AT HEART’ WHEN YOU WENT IN…SO REMIND ME WHY YOU CHOSE EACH DESIGN?

[‘Wild at Heart’] really reflected my state of mind. I wanted a woman morphing into a phoenix because, of course, the phoenix represents this ability to be reborn. I basically wanted the lotus for the same reason…because it’s a flower that comes out of a murky dirty environment, rises above it all and manages to be clean and beautiful. And then I wanted an ‘ohm’ for peace. Because my good friend, Nina, at the time, was going through a really difficult time and she’s very much Hindu and spiritual…it was kind of in honor of her, too. Her and I are very, very different, but as an emotional rock to lean against, she’s just solid…she was there when I really needed her.

HOW DID YOU DECIDE ON THE LOCATION…YOU SAID YOU WERE A LITTLE HESITANT AT FIRST [ABOUT THE LOWER BACK] BECAUSE YOU DIDN’T WANT IT TO BE VIEWED AS A ‘TRAMP STAMP’?

Well, I like the way they look. If you only have a tattoo there, part of the stigma is that it’s a [“tramp stamp’]. And, for me it really wasn’t. Because I’m Irish and I have a temper, I didn’t want anyone to view it as a joke. This meant something to me, so I didn’t want it to look like…I’m 44 years old, suddenly going to get a tattoo, and I end up with a “tramp stamp”. That wasn’t the message that I was sending.

But, [Luis] was ready for all of it, so when I came in, I said “I like that second piece over” and he said “Well, I’m glad you like it because that’s your girl.” And, I’m like…perfect! So that first day I was here, [Luis] said “I want to place both of them on your back today, if I can.” I said ‘Let’s go for it.’. So, the first session was like three hours long. [“And she didn’t move…she didn’t move at all, didn’t complain,” said Luis. “And, then when I started working here, I know this part is very painful and she didn’t ever move. She just took the pain and it went right through her like a river and it came right out.]

HOW DID YOU FIND LUIS [VARGAS]?

I was at the Muse Ink Expo last February. His was the second table that we walked up to. I knew exactly what I was looking for and I knew as soon as I saw it.

WHEN I SAW YOUR PICTURE, YOU BECAME MY INSPIRATION…DID YOU SEE A PICTURE OF ANYONE THAT INSPIRED YOU IN THAT WAY?

The thing that struck me the most was just the amount of work that he had done, the big huge bold flowing pieces, which have to be original. They are not anything that’s transferred…you can tell by the way they move across the body. He really uses the body as a canvas. So, right then and there, I said let’s book for the ‘Wild at Heart’. Because he was getting ready to tattoo somebody he said “When you come in for that, I’ll have the other piece ready for you.” When he put it on, I wanted it to move and flow a little bit more, to kind of wrap a little bit around to the front, but I didn’t want to do too much tribal. So then, once again, my friend Nina was my inspiration. I said let’s do some mehndi art, which is the art form that they usually henna on, which is just temporary.

SO, THE SECOND TIME YOU CAME IN, YOU GOT AROUND YOUR HIPS DONE?

We did all the mehndi art pattern. And, then each time that I would come in he would add something…because he free hands it on. None of this is transferred. He just draws it right on and inks right on the top. Some of it’s been added to a little bit here and there. I wouldn’t mind doing some more dotting and stuff today. [When I said I might do the same some day, Luis looked at me and said…“Yeah, you’re going to keep growing, because no one stops. We don’t end. You’re evolving.”]

SO THE FIRST SESSION, [LUIS] DID BOTH THE ‘WILD AT HEART’ AND THE PHOENIX. THE SECOND TIME YOU CAME IN WAS ALL THE MEHNDI ART. AND, THEN, YOU’VE COME BACK HOW MANY TIMES AFTER THAT?

Today will be my eleventh session.

DOES ONE OF YOUR TATTOOS HAVE THE MOST MEANING TO YOU…A FAVORITE?

The phoenix, definitely. She is the center. Everything else revolves around that.

HAVE YOU EVER REGRETTED GETTING ANY OF YOUR TATTOOS?

Absolutely not. Not at this point in my life, no. There have been a couple of people who have judged, like a doctor who wanted to go out with me, but he said he couldn’t because he couldn’t get past my substantial tattoo. I had a little moment of psych-out there when I was walking by the mirror…a tattoo like mine is major, it’s huge. So, I was looking at it like…I do have a substantial tattoo. [When I was having it done], I really just identified with the art itself and I wasn’t really looking at it the way somebody else would look at it.

IS THIS IT OR DO YOU HAVE PLANS TO GET MORE?

[Luis said…“She can never stop. She’s addicted. She’ll come back even if we have to add a dot. There’s something about it…it’s like a therapy. Like getting a massage, acupuncture.”]

You know, it’s like giving birth…you forget the pain. But, in that moment, you think you’re never going to forget. When [I’m] getting tattooed, I’m like “I can’t imagine doing this again.” But then 30 days go by and you slowly start to forget…you don’t remember until you’re sitting under the needle again.

[Eileen went on to describe what she plans to be her final tattoo…] “I am having ‘Awakenings’ tattooed on my right shoulder in Sanskrit, which is an ancient language that comes from India. The translation into Sanskrit is ‘Bodhi’.”

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