Life is like lightning: quick, unpredictable, radiant, beautiful and sometimes terrifying. Sometimes we see the clouds coming from miles away, but other times we don’t realize the storm is there until we are standing in the grip of danger inside the tempest. Despite our fears, the crack in the sky almost always leaves us wanting more. There is a science to all of this, but usually the squalls are moving too fast for us to truly understand them.
The flesh is weak and the spirit strong, but the metal is mighty. When metal comes into contact with the flesh, it leaves a permanent mark. When that metal is a needle, it can change more than just the flesh; it can leave a scar on the soul.
I walk into the dark tattoo parlor and hit the lights, hearing the familiar buzz of the halogen ballasts as they flash on. It’s a different darkness and better buzz than my former days of desperation. The smell of green soap and bleach hang in the air, pleasant leftover reminders of last night’s victories. The promise of a new day brimming with creative possibilities stirs my spirit. I am the artist; you are my canvas. For a brief moment in this crazy, fleeting life wrought with uncertainty, we will be infinite. Together, we create some sense of permanence.
Tattoos are addictive. Many people say, “Not me, I’m only going to get one,” or “This is my last tattoo,” only to find themselves back in the chair, covering blank areas and dreaming up new and bigger ways to illustrate their stories and paint their own personal living canvas.
Why is it so? What is in the human condition that compels us to purposely endure pain and then beg for more? I believe the drive for tattoos runs far deeper than the surface of the skin. There’s something primal and savage in every single one of us, screaming from within our souls and driving us to alter ourselves in some way.
I spent many years of my life as an IV drug user. For me, there was something romantic and attractive about the ritual behind using, something often even more enticing than the actual high itself. I was searching for answers to the many questions in my head; and unlike the drugs, the needles didn’t lie. Tattooing is a ritual of trial by fire. We sit through an exhausting experience of pain only to become forever changed; we come out on the other side a stronger, more beautiful person.
I have since come to believe that the art of tattoo shares with recovery many of the same emotional and physical parallels. As an artist in recovery, many of my clients run in these same circles. Many of them have also found a sort of solution in substituting their previous using rituals with tattooing. They are participating in a much healthier “hobby” and have the opportunity to tell others the story of the storms they have braved. The tides are receding; the storm clouds are clearing; at last, they are able to adorn their skies with tattoo pigment and sail on calm waters to safer shores.