More than a year after the death of my friend and tattoo artist, Gypsy Jill, I find myself really looking for a new artist. It’s taken me this long to come to grips with the idea of putting my body and my story in the hands of a new person.
I’ve realized that I don’t know how interact with a disinterested pro. Jill and I had a beautiful connection. She expressed me so well, in her own visions, that my tattoos feel completely integrated into who I am, who I was, and who I want to be. How does one begin a relationship, from a cold start, that will result in tattoos that do that?
This post is going to be long and detailed on the subject of my tattoo history. Even if not interested in reading the whole story, please consider commenting with names of good tattoo artists in the Baltimore Area. Checking out my photos and story might help keep the referrals on topic, though, so here goes.
Here is my collection so far:
The first piece of work I got was the sun/eye on the back of my neck. It is a symbol of meditation, centering, and cleansing of my mind and energies. I can get very scattered and have a hard time moving forward down a single path, but a simple “brain flush” type of meditation can often get me moving again. Problem is that leaves my tension in my neck, and this piece reminds me both to do the meditation and to take care of the spot it marks. This is not Jill’s work, and it doesn’t show the shading and attention to detail that she is known for. This was done at Slave to the Needle in Wallingford, Seattle, by an artist who is no longer there. It was done in about an hour and a half, in March of 1996. The photo is by James, taken in March of 2010, right after I had my head shaved for St. Baldrick’s.
The second piece I had done has been incorporated into Jill’s backpiece. It’s in the picture farther down, but here’s the story, first. I was suspicious of all drugs as a teenager. Control was very important to me, and it’s clear, looking back, that I did everything I could to avoid losing it. Even drinking was something I did rarely and in secret moderation. I cleaned seeds and rolled joints for friends, but never smoked. At twenty years old, I experienced my first real high – on LSD. It felt like LSD gave me a step sideways, a new position from which I could view my usual reality. Like with language, where you never really understand your own until you learn a new one, LSD helped me figure out how to create and use a stronger “observer effect” in my own life, about my own reality.
So a few trips into this new love, I went with some friends to a screening of…wait for it…From Dusk Til Dawn. Yup. My George Clooney love was born that night, and so was the vision that became a tattoo. A lifetime of energy-talk from my dad made it easy for my acidic brain to transmute the vampires into psychic vampires. Those people who drain the emotional energy of the people around them. And I (coming out of a terrible relationship) made a visual connection between the yin/yang symbol (which I loved so much that I painted it ten feet high in the bedroom of my teens), blood sucking, and relationships as energy transfer that needs to be even to be healthy.
So yeah, little fetal critters, sucking each other’s blood in a womb-like environment. This piece was tattooed by Bandana Mike at a defunct studio in downtown Seattle. Must have been April by then, still 1996. (I was hooked and gave up eating for tattooing.) He got the point and drew it out for me wonderfully. His color palette was simpler than Jill’s, though, so when she incorporated it into her piece, it got a sprucing up with more shading in about five more colors.
My third piece is what catapulted me into a relationship with Jill. I enjoyed the Rocky Horror Picture Show, though I wouldn’t call myself a fan. I’ve never been to a live showing, and I only know 90% of the words…grin. But I thought that the poster picture of the lips, with a hint of teeth pulling on the bottom one…well, sexy, right?
So I talked a local video store clerk into letting me borrow the case rather than just the video tape – oh yeah, it was that long ago – and I brought it with me to a shop-that-will-not-be-named in order to show it to a tattoo-artist-who-shall-not-be-named. I used to name her with impunity, but I’m not bitter and she is better now. She assured me that she could tattoo that sexiness on my hip and made an appointment for the next week. When I came back, she was creepy. Something was wrong. But I didn’t trust that feeling and only later found out that she had, in the week between meeting her and going under the needle, fallen off the wagon and gone back to CRACK. For reals. (I don’t name her because she’s been clean a hell of a long time now and does good work. But still. Ouch.) This was, perhaps, May, 1996.
So I ended up with a buck-toothed, oversized, Dali-esque set of lips on my hipbone. Not. So. Sexy. I didn’t like it. Not one bit.
By the time I met James, I had three tattoos and a powerful yen to get one covered up. I went into tattoo shops in Seattle for years…and there are a whole lot of tattoo shops in Seattle. Every time, I got the same reaction. “Um, do you like black? Maybe a big black star?” And my reaction never varied either. “Um, no.”
Shopping around for tattoo artists became something I did on a whim, when passing a shop I hadn’t visited yet. James and I moved in together in 1997, relocating to the Glencoe Apartments on Capital Hill, on Boylston between Pike and Pine. Those were good times for me. I started working for Toys in Babeland, James and I were closer and closer, and I walked into American Beauty Tattoo.
The man at the counter did the “Um…black?” thing and I did the “Um, no” thing. When I started to turn away, he asked me to wait, said maybe he knew who could help me, and disappeared behind the curtain.
Skirts kicked high with every step and multi-colored extensions swinging wildly, Gypsy Jill swirled into my life. She came out like the dynamo she was and said, “Let’s see what you have.” Baring my hipbone, a glimmer of hope was born. She concentrated on the piece, turning her head this way and that, reaching out with thumb and forefinger as though to pinch it but not touching. “That could be anything. A bird of paradise or a piece of fruit. Let’s talk about what has meaning for you.”
The end. Actually, the beginning. I pondered mightily, deciding on a pomegranate because of its symbolism of fertility. I was at a stage where I needed to affirm that having children and being a fertile human being were not necessarily the same thing. This would be my reminder.
These pictures were taken by Jill as she worked the piece. A triptych display of these photos won Jill a Best Coverup Prize at a National Tattoo Association convention.
In the process of designing and tattooing this coverup, we got into the subject of my body plan. Of course, I had none. Never thought of such a thing. I liked the idea, though, and Jill was inspiring to me. She reluctantly agreed to do a backpiece – reluctant because her last had been an unpleasant and unfinished experience.
The concept of tattoos as simultaneously forever and representative of a moment in time gave me the inspiration to carry a symbol of Seattle. I was at home for the first time in my life, but there was no way I would be content to settle and be a Seattlite for the rest of my life. Casting about for a symbol of, not just Seattle, but the entire Pacific Northwest, I visualized a madrona tree, growing alone on a pebbled peninsula. This image is from a trip James and I made to Brentwood Bay on Vancouver Island. We rented a boat and motored out to the mouth of the bay and deep into the inner reaches. This lonely, gnarled, persistent tree represented my favorite parts of the area.
Speaking of acid, there was another tree, the love for which was born in an acid trip. It grows out of and over the cliff face at Discovery Park in Seattle. It has a crotch in which a group of giggling, tripping kids sat and played, while I had climbed out to a heavy branch. I surveyed gamboling friends and saw them as cubs and myself as a lioness. I went back to that spot over and over, to read or just meditate. When deciding to get a tattoo of a madrona, I went back out there and found a fallen branch, which I brought to Jill along with photos of the whole tree.
She took my ideas, the meaning I wanted to express, and her own artistic sense of style and started sketching. She believed that the trunk of the tree needed more character and gave me a book on Chiparus’ bronze statues. Those beauties meshed so well with how I imagined the tattoo would look, and I fell in love with a gypsy named Shiva. These aspects became parts of my tattoo.
My backpiece took three years to complete. It was begun when I lived on Summit at Republican (still Capital Hill) and the work continued through moving aboard my first boat and setting sail for the San Juan Island and settling for a winter in Blaine, WA. It was done between 1999 and 2001. The final piece looked like this a few years afterward. The photo was not taken by James and I can’t remember the name of the photographer. He was uninterested and irritating, so I guess that’s only right.
(You can barely see the critters, my second tattoo.)
The bottom is unfinished because I’ve gone back and forth on how I wanted to finish it off. I thought about having the roots grow together into a ball, at the center of which would be another eye to balance the one at the top. I also thought about having my new piece…ah yes, I already had a new piece in mind! – continue around and form a base for the tree and the gypsy.
The new piece…well, now an old piece as well. I had placed my home and history behind me, literally, and I wanted to put my travels in front. Gypsy Jill suggested I do so symbolically, keeping with the fruits and vegetables theme from my pomegranate. We worked out the idea of a cornucopia, the horn of plenty, symbol of abundance, spilling my travels across my (abundant) belly. Washington would be symbolized by apples. By the time we began this piece, I was living in California, and the avocado was my best loved part of being there.
Once again, the piece took a long time. I got good at negotiating the Oakland airport, learned that it’s best to board Southwest flights last so that I can choose my own seatmates (or get an empty row), and slept on couches. It was begun early in 2004 and finished on 4/10/2005. I know that because James came with me on that trip and took photos.
And this is where I’ve stopped.
Coming up next – the part I want to show tattoo artists of the future. The next few tattoos will be catching up on my adventures.
The Big Island of Hawaii: I’m thinking a batch of the darker cherries with some leaves as a fill-in or backdrop for the apple – to tie the whole thing together. James suggested that I size the tattoos by importance, so this would not be life-sized – quite a bit smaller.
Then I’ll get a very small pineapple for Oahu.
And a whole bunch of spices for India. I loved the street chai, which is not spiced, but my very favorite versions include some combination of these spices:
A little ear of corn for Virginia:
And, stretching the theme, a blue crab for Maryland:
So yeah. I need an artist. I need to love this artist. And I need to wrap my travels around me as reminders, storytelling devices, and as art.