At 47, I’m hovering somewhere between early onset of menopause and the rest of my life, spending more time at funeral homes than I’d like as of late, and realizing that retirement is nary two decades away. And realizing that two decades ain’t such a long time.
Bringing that into sharp, and downright painful focus is the passing of my favorite uncle earlier this year to damnable cancer. As his niece, as a writer, and I think, as a human being, I find myself suddenly and predictably desperate to hold onto the stories that are so much a part of my clan’s history, and that rich, intricate and convoluted fabric of family.
For precious moments, those stories of yore bring my loved ones a little closer, and give me the singular opportunity to revel in the undiluted, childish joy they’ve brought me time and again throughout my life. But I also feel a need to honor, in my humble way, the great line of storytellers from which I hail. To remember the gatherings where they were told and retold, by whom, and the embellishments, versions and tweaks that have been added along the way because these stories—something to which everyone has contributed—have become the stone soup of my soul.
Both my uncle and my father (brothers) played off one another at family gatherings like stage professionals, flawless in their timing, their delivery of tales making us all laugh until we cried and our stomachs ached. Where do I begin? Gems such as the time my father and his boyhood friends’ attempt at becoming trappers went sideways comes easily to mind. On one ill-fated day, they snared a skunk, and upon arriving at home with their spoils (which, at this point my uncle would chime in and relate the progression of the smell, in direct correlation with his ride home from work), my grandfather proclaimed with conviction that the only way the skunk hide would be worth the fifty cents my father had visions of earning from it would be to stick two quarters up its ass.
Indeed. Words of wisdom from a man (who I never had the pleasure of meeting), who, if he felt his daughters’ beaus were cozying up in the parlor too late or too long, wouldn’t think twice about strolling through the house in his underwear.
Ah, it’s gems like these that warm me all the way through, and come to mind at odd times, or precisely the right moment – I’m not sure which, for me to regale my daughter with when she needs a lift, or insight.
The storytelling in my family isn’t without its more serious side. In an attempt to record some more of that history, I recently asked my mother to tell me all she could remember about her grandparents, while I recorded it on my phone. Here’s one of my favorites:
In search of a better life, my great grandmother, Susan Jevin (pronounced with a ‘Y’, not a ‘J’, left Czechoslovakia, making the trip to America by herself at the age of sixteen, never to return, and never to see her family again, save for her sister who’d moved to Michigan, years later. Wow. True grit at its grittiest. It honors and humbles me to know that kind of blood runs through my veins. Susan would meet and marry Paul Semes, a skinny but wiry man who, after coming home from working at the local steel mill—he worked in the store room, managing all of the parts, and my grandfather (my dad’s dad) remembered him, said he was your man if you needed to find something, anything)–could, and often did, eat a whole pie, and remained as skinny as the string beans they grew in their garden.
See what I just did? Gave you a story within a story. It seems the stories I hold so dear are more often than not, just that. And to my way of thinking, a gift.
In this same vein of laughter, storytelling and friendship, I’m blessed to have a group of friends, the majority of whom I’ve known over half my life, some all my life. These friends are my family. My people. While we don’t see each other all the time, when we do, we don’t miss a beat, picking up where we left off, telling new stories, recounting old ones, and catching up on all the beginnings, middles and ends we might have missed.
Speaking of beginnings, it occurred to me on a recent trip to the Heinz History Center there are always new stories emerging, all around us. I see this blessed phenomena every day in my daughter, as she prepares for college and embraces her passions, one of which is photography. I found it serendipitous she wanted to see the ‘Eyes of Pittsburgh’ exhibit, featuring the Post Gazette’s photo archives spanning 100 years of the city’s history, while I was working on this blog. Coincidence? Kizmet? Either way, I’ll take it.
As long as man has gathered around fire, stories have been told—to educate and entertain, sustain and soothe, amuse and fascinate. As the self appointed scribe of my clan, I will always treasure the stories of the past. But I’ve also a sneaking suspicion that the best stories are the ones yet to unfold. And often, there’s joy, and a delicious wonder to be had in the not knowing.
For example, to this day, I have no idea how two of my father’s and my uncle’s boyhood friends came to be eloquently, and lovingly referred to as Stump and Pickle. I like to think it might have had something to do with their late night sampling, shall we say, of a neighbor’s apple cider stash.
A storyteller at heart, my innate curiosity runs deep. As an individual passionate about self-expression, all forms of art and creativity, tattoos have fascinated me for years. And as a writer of romance with an inquisitive mind who adores bestowing said indelible designs upon her characters, I set out to explore how the two intertwined.
The history of storytelling and tattooing are both as old as time. Across cultures and countries, races and religions, both send messages, and even unite us as human beings.
Storytelling, I believe, is an ingrained part of our make up as human beings. We have always had a soul deep desire to explain, understand, teach, learn, calm, empower, commemorate and connect. Too, just as storytelling was, and is an art, so was, and is listening. Stories were told, and retold, and as man explored the globe, those same stories were shared, changed, stretched and expanded, and told again. Messages of wisdom, knowledge, values and beliefs from our collective ancestors are reflected in the myths, legends, fairy tales and other lore—fact and fiction—handed down from one generation to the next, and keep us connected to one another, as well as the past, present and future.
Today, every aspect of our lives it seems, is touched by myriad stories in both the traditional sense, in that we share stories verbally, face to face, and in the modern sense, via movies, books, magazines, music, television, social media and the Internet.
I believe just as storytelling satisfies basic human needs and desires, so does tattooing. For thousands of years, men and women have tattooed their bodies for many reasons, including self-expression and as part of their culture’s rituals. Regardless of the reason, they all have one common denominator: they give us the ability to communicate powerful messages to one another, without the need for words.
In an article at Smithsonian.com, author Cate Lineberry describes tattoos: “These permanent designs—sometimes plain, sometimes elaborate, always personal—have served as amulets, status symbols, declarations of love, signs of religious beliefs, adornments and even forms of punishment.”
Indeed! From ancient cave etchings to modern sculpture, history, art and pop culture pay homage to said ‘permanent designs’. And in recent years, the popularity and diversity of body art, which includes tattooing, piercing and painting, has exploded and been wholeheartedly embraced as mainstream, via magazines, social media, conventions, competitions and television shows such as Miami Ink.
Per an article at Huffington Post, it’s estimated that one third of America’s young adults, aged 18-25, have at least one tattoo, per a report done by the Pew Research Center. As such, the tattoo industry is one of the fastest growing retail business in America.
To get a close up, personal view of this ‘tattoo phenomenon’ at one such business and the artist behind it, I recently had the pleasure of meeting with Boney “Joe” Clark, seasoned tattoo artist and owner of Tattoos by Boney Joe in Zelienople, PA. In the business for over thirty years, he generously shared his views on the industry, the art form and some storytelling of his own.
When we met, Joe explained he’d recently returned from a motorcycle trip. “I’m not a conventional traveler,” he said about the trip. “I like to experience it with all of my senses. Smell the air, taste the rain, see and touch the landscape.”
Interestingly, I believe it’s these very things a true artist seeks to capture in his work. And indeed, Joe’s artistry extends to his expertise as a master body piercer, as well as his flair for metal design work.
As a teenager, Joe became interested in tattooing after being at a fair and seeing a guy tattooing people in the back of his van. He’d always loved to draw, and instantly, he thought, “I can do better.” Starting his business on a wing and a prayer, he’s faced his share of trials, including a town that was, at first, slow to embrace a tattoo studio. But in true survivor fashion, he overcame—and not just the challenges of being a business owner. Joe is intensely proud of the fact he’s been drug free since 1988, and the tattoo on his left forearm is a testament to that.
He explained the basic mechanics of getting a tattoo to me, the tools that are used, and the artistry involved. Yes, they use what’s called a stencil of the design that’s transferred to the skin of the person getting the tattoo. But that will only take the artist so far. He or she has to also be able to draw freehand for certain designs, like a face, for example. The artist isn’t really ‘drawing’ the face, at least not at first. They use a ‘map’ to build the face, and their talent enables them to complete it. Every design is unique, and the time and talents needed to complete them depend on their complexity.
For any tattoo, Joe wants details and specifics, so the person receiving it gets exactly what they want. And the more complicated, the more details. He used the example of a butterfly. “What kind?” he posed. “A Monarch? A Malachite? A Pearly Eye? Should the wings be open or closed? Should it tilt to the right or left?” It’s details like these that are necessary to ensure everyone’s on the same page, before any work begins.
The tattoos on Joe’s hands are one example of the fun he’s had with ‘ink’ over the years. He explained that during the Veggie Tale craze in the 90s, two of his artists had a tattoo ‘war’, each trying to ‘out design’ the other. The result? On his right hand, a kind of crazed carrot wields a chain saw, and a deranged eggplant eyes the world cockily on his left. Recently, however, the carrot took on additional meaning to Joe, when he beat kidney cancer two years ago. Since then, he’s once again emerged as a survivor, and as such, added a commemorative ribbon to the design—which the carrot’s chainsaw is now ‘slashing’ through. Joe’s message is clear: “I kicked cancer’s ass.”
In thirty years’ time, Joe has designed thousands of tattoos, and tattooed three to four generations of people, even entire families. What’s his favorite thing to tattoo? “I’ll tattoo anything and love it, if it’s something that person is certain about, and it has deep meaning to them,” he said. “I don’t care if it means anything to anyone else. People may even look at it and have no idea what it is. But as long as the person who got it is happy, that’s what counts.” He told me about the woman who, after receiving her tattoo, was so moved she began to cry. “It was deeply satisfying,” he said.
I felt privileged to hear what was perhaps his favorite story, about an 82-year old woman who came to his shop with her daughter and granddaughter–all to get tattoos. When Joe asked her why she was getting it, he recalled what she said in detail. “She turned to me, and said, ‘You know kid, I was married to the meanest son of a bitch for fifty three years and I just buried him two months ago. I’m having the time of my life.’ ” And after the trio was done? This 82-year ‘young’ woman and company were headed to see male strippers. Bada bing. “She was sharp as a tack,” Joe said with a smile.
There’s no doubt Joe has had some ‘colorful’ experiences as a tattoo artist. But to him, it’s about a lot more than just the end result. He sincerely cares about the people who walk through his door, and their long-term satisfaction. At times, he’s even advised people not to get a tattoo.
Case in point—Joe told me the story about an eighteen-year-old man who came to the shop, bent on getting a tattoo that would pay homage to Michael Jordan. “When I asked him why, he listed Jordan’s many accomplishments,” Joe said. “I told him, fine. If you really want it, come back tomorrow and you’ll be my first appointment of the day. But first I want you to think about something. Remember how great everyone thought O.J. Simpson used to be? Things happen. Do you really want a tattoo like that for the rest of your life? It might not be so cool five years from now. Maybe you’re better off just wearing a Jordan ball cap.”
With that, Joe sent him on his way. Later that same evening, the man called him, and told him he’d gone to another shop where the artist had been eager to give him the tattoo. But the man decided not to get it. Instead, he thought about how Joe had gone out of his way to tell him all that he did, and it really made him stop and think. This guy cared.
And so he does. In 2001, Joe had the unique opportunity to share his expert knowledge of body piercing with the local medical community. After piercing the friend of a teaching nurse from a college in Pittsburgh, she was so impressed with Joe’s studio and his knowledge she suggested they present it directly to the medical community in the form of a seminar on piercing removal and care—a topic, at that time, about which there was little knowledge. In addition, Joe is extremely proud the information was also published in a textbook used by nursing students.
“One of the biggest misconceptions about tattoo shops and artists is they’re like McDonald’s, meaning, they’re all the same. They’re not,” Joe said definitively. “That idea leads people to start price shopping, and you just can’t, nor should you do that for something you’re going to have on your body for the rest of your life. Another misconception is that the tattoo industry is regulated. It isn’t, by and large, in Pennsylvania. That makes choosing a tattoo artist, based on their experience and standards even more critical.” That’s something Joe swears by—he holds himself and his artists to the highest standards in all aspects of the business.
Along with his passion for the business, Joe understands what makes a great tattoo artist: skill, passion and personality.
One of Joe’s artists, ‘Tez’, a.k.a Emery Joseph Kertesz IV and Gentlemen Tattooist, was at the
studio to contribute to our conversation, and offered the following insight: “If you take away any one of those three qualities, you have a good artist, and if you take away two, you have only an artist.”
So, why do people get tattoos? “In my experience,” Joe said, “people want to commemorate someone, or an event in their lives, or something they’re passionate about, like hunting. They also do it just because they think it’s cool. And some get a tattoo because it’s a fad.” Most popular lately? “Dandelions, and as their fluff is blowing away, it’s turning into birds. Also semi-colons, and anything with script or words,” he said. (Click here to read more about Project Semicolon)
The word tattoo is thought to be derived from both the Polynesian word “ta”, meaning “to strike”, and the Tahitian “tatau”, meaning “to mark.” Without a doubt, ‘Boney’ Joe Clark has indeed made his mark, indelibly, as an artist, a business owner and a supporter of the community.
So, what’ve I discovered from my sojourn into the world of tattoos, and how they intertwine with storytelling? I believe that not only is each tattoo a story unto itself, so is each client, and each artist. As each ‘tattoo’ story unfolds, both the client and the artist are telling that story—the client, with his choice of design, his experiences and motivations, and the artist, with his execution of that design, his talent, and his passion.
I’m also honored to have heard, and to relate the stories Joe shared with me—and to add my own ‘threads’ to their existing fabric. After all, I am a storyteller. It’s also my sincere hope that my message is clear: I’ve listened, and I’ve spoken. I’ve learned, and been entertained. I’ve understood, and I’ve connected.
I hope you do too.
PLEASE SHARE: What’s the story behind your tattoo? What inspired you to get it?