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Tattoo You: Body Art Is More Than Skin Deep

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I am an admirer of art whether it hangs on a wall or ceiling or graces the pages of a book. Lately, I have become more appreciative of its presence when the human body is the canvas. I have many friends who have become the creative platform for the artistry of skilled craftspeople. As someone who is pain avoidant, my fantasies about indulging have been satisfied with the occasional henna tattoo.

When my son Adam turned 18, he informed me that he had gotten his first one. He showed it to me and reported that it was Chinese calligraphy for power (or strength), not sure which at this moment. I waited for three days, before sharing the thought that to him (and I held up a closed fist) this was power or strength, but to show someone his tattoo, since it was on his right forearm, he needed to extend his hand. He shook his head and replied, "Oh, mom... do you have to ruin everything? Does everything have to be spiritual with you?" I nodded and smiled. A year or so later, he came home with yet another arm embellishment. This time he exhibited the Egyptian Eye of Ra which is said to be symbolic of the sun. Playing dumb, I asked him what it was for and he responded, "Protection." My answer to him, with a teasing lilt in my voice, was, "Spiritual protection?" He rolled his eyes. On April 23rd, Adam turned 29 (hard to imagine that I am old enough to have a son who is nearly 30) and when I asked him what he wanted as a gift, he said that he was planning on getting a third tattoo and asked if I would be willing to chip in, along with his girlfriend Lauren. I agreed. His choice of design is another Egyptian symbol -- a scarab which connects to the concept of eternity. At his birthday celebration, he showed me the rainbow hued image he planned on placing as a bridge between the other two.

In a recent Vivid Life interview on my show called It's All About Relationships, with Noah Levine who himself is a canvas for colorful art, I shared a story about meeting his mother, spiritual teacher Ondrea Levine when she and his father Stephen, who recently passed, were speaking in Princeton, New Jersey many years ago. We were both washing our hands at the bathroom sink. Her sleeves were rolled up and I noticed several tattoos on her forearms. She explained that she had received numerous cancer diagnoses and with each one, she acquired another 'victory tattoo' as way of letting the cancer know it wouldn't defeat her.

Two friends, Yvonne Kaye and Tom Ziemann, both who were guests on my show, also have beautiful artwork on their bodies. Tom's tats were included over time, while Yvonne's are recent additions. At 82, she is rocking them and wants the world to know!

They graciously answered my questions about the experience. Yvonne's answers are first.

Edie: What inspired you to get your first tattoo?

Yvonne: I've always admired tattoos as long as there is a theme, never thinking I would have one myself. When John (her husband) died and was cremated, I purchased a small plaque that is in the garden he loved and we all know that passionate gardeners are a breed apart. They find their solace in the soil. I went to see my doctor and told him about this thought but didn't know where to start. He told me his wife had a tattoo of the last words her father wrote in a birthday card to her before he died. That was an AHA moment for me. I went home, looked through the massive collection of cards from John and found the last one he wrote to me. It said, "You are my love, Yvonney. John. 8.8.88 "which is the date we seriously started our delightful life together, a small infinity symbol with which we always ended our letters and cards -- infinity and beyond is what we usually wrote -- and a small heart (even though he had a big one).

Edie: What are the designs and what do they represent to you?

Yvonne: I believed that would be the only one but I am honoured and privileged to be accepted into a group of First Responders, Veterans with PTSD. I have it from the Second World War during the Blitz on London. When I told them about the tattoo they all shouted - you're going to get a sleeve! 'No I'm not' I said huffily, really believing it but when I got home I thought about it more and realized that one sentence didn't tell the story. Some years ago my son designed my notepaper and on it is a Phoenix. It is my symbol. I rose from the ashes in London as did that city during those frightening years, so the next tattoo was a multi-coloured Phoenix. Of course it added more to the significance this time as John was cremated and in my heart and soul rose from the ashes. More laughter from THE GROUP and the sleeve potentials. As I left the tattoo salon I decided that was it and then hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. Maybe another symbols we both shared. A bumble bee. This was our attitude to life. Aerodynamically a bumble bee can't fly but nobody told it. So I added a bumble bee. I thought that was it until I realized how important a little black feral cat was to John. This cat who was very nervous ate from John's hand so I added a little black cat. I really thought it was over but then a friend sent something on my Facebook page and said, "As soon as I saw this I thought of you'. It was the infinity symbol additionally in the shape of a heart and in it is written -- John. 8.8.88 forever. In other words, I have John's memorial on my arm so it goes everywhere with me and my first responders and veterans love it!!

Edie: How would you measure the pain level on a 1-10 scale? Were some more intense than others?

Yvonne: The pain was far less intense than I thought it to be. I have been told it depends where on the body the work is done. The black cat was probably the most painful because it had to be filled in with a lot of black ink. I would say my experience was from 4 - 6 scale.

Edie: I know that some folks meditate or otherwise distract themselves. Did you do any of that?

Yvonne: I did none of that. I was very relaxed and feel it was because I was creating something that would last until the day I die, that it would not be affected by weather conditions and that it was unique. Every so often if it stung more, I would take myself off to Ireland with one of the favourite cottages at which John and I stayed.

Edie: I have also heard from friends that it is a spiritual experience or ordeal. Did it cross over into that type of paradigm? Some also said that it was transcendent. Holy ink?

Yvonne: I suppose it was spiritual in a way. John was ever present and I did feel his presence very strongly. It was as though his hands were on my shoulders whilst he whispered his approval. The funny thing is that I am not sure he would have approved in life, but then, there wasn't a purpose for it whilst he was living.

Edie: Tattoos are more than skin deep. You mentioned that even though I don't have any visible ones, they are still there beneath the surface. Do you feel like you have some of those as well?

Yvonne: Without doubt. These tattoos have such an impact on my heart and soul. When I doubt myself, question what was, I see the arm and all is well. It was a risk. I am a 'respectable, well liked professional woman' and now that summer is coming I can no longer hide them. What has been amazing to me is the effect they have had on young people with whom I work in the recovery programmes. They yelled, shouted and totally approved of me and my arm. It has crossed all boundaries.

Edie: there are anything else you want to share?

Yvonne: Most people have been delighted and my grandchildren are impressed. What better compliment. I am going home to England shortly for the first time in ten years and the cousin with whom I am staying could care less and her son thinks I should get the stick ons and cover my whole body. Why? Because most of my family will be uncomfortably surprised. Some are very religious and will disapprove which brings me back to Dr., Seuss. "Be who you are, say what you feel because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind. As I said before, I love reading tattoos and in my work many people are covered. However, I don't stop there. I was in Wegman's one day and I saw a young man with a tee shirt on -- I followed him through the produce department and asked him if I could look at his tattoos. They were spectacular. He told me he was in the Navy and that his mother hated them. I said they were a work of art at which point his mother came round the corner and saw me. I told her I thought they were magnificent and she said, "Really?" and softened a bit. At that time, I had no tattoos. As he walked away I noticed he had shorts on and his legs were also covered so I yelled across Wegmans -- "Wait, I haven't read your legs." He stopped and almost fell down laughing and the miracle was -- so did his mother. I have tons of stories. The young woman artists who did the first two asked me if I minded if she told people about me, an 82-year old woman who came in for her first tattoo. I said, "You go, girl. Then my pain management doctor asked the same thing. Hilarious. I took my car in and a mechanic saw the Phoenix. He said they were great stick ons to which I rose to my majestic 5.4inches and said, "THEY ARE REAL!"
~ ~ ~ ~

And now Tom...

Edie: What inspired you to get your first tattoo?

Tom: When I was in the Navy, most of the other Enlisted folks got tattoos as a rite of passage; some to merely fit it, some to prove they could handle the pain. Both of mine were quite small, one on each shoulder and only visible if I wore sleeveless shirts or tank tops. They still hold deep spiritual meaning to me.

Edie: You mentioned having several. What are the designs and what do they represent to you?

Tom: I have a total of four. They can become quite addicting, just ask folks who have more than one. My first Guru Johnny Norman ran a Martial Arts school named; "East West Martial Arts" He promulgated "Eastern Philosophies with a Western Mind". He had profound effect on my life and was responsible for my reason to write my book, The Department of Zenitation. On my right shoulder I have Yin/Yang (East) On my left shoulder I have an Orthodox Cross (West) I have an anchor on my right forearm, my homage to my Navy days and Ganesha on my back, my all-time favorite Hindu Deity.

Edie: How would you measure the pain level on a 1-10 scale? Were some more intense than others?

Tom: The three smaller ones were quite tolerable, all in the 3 range. It truly it depends where on the body one gets them and how many colors are used. My first three were all on my arms. The last one I recently had inked, no doubt a fricking 10!!!! Ganesha is on my back adorning my right shoulder blade. It was a seven-hour excruciating ordeal. It took two sessions and a month to complete and heal. It boasts over eight different colors and is quite ornate and intricate; some folks have mentioned it looks like a photograph. I'm very pleased with how it turned out.

Edie: What got you through it to the other side?

Tom: For millennium, many cultures have had different rites of passage, typically for the males... when they move from boys to men. Many involved tests of bravery, vision quests, tests of strength and endurance and pain rituals.

Some even involved hand to hand fights with wild animals and others to the death. As I mentioned, Ganesha was by far the most miserable pain I've ever dealt with. I found it more painful than my tonsillectomy I had at 40 or my vasectomy. What helped me endure my suffering was focusing on my breath, having great music playing in the background and Saad the great ink artist, (Owner of Pussycat Tattoo in Milwaukie, Oregon) who discussed a myriad of different spiritual ideas. Plus, he was funny at times... humor definitely took my mind off it. During the 4th hour, the pain was becoming intolerably miserable... I looked up at him and said;

"Saad, you're the best artist on the planet... however I am NEVER Getting another tattoo, mark my words" He stopped digging his deadly daggers aka needles into my swollen back, looked directly at me and let out a huge belly laugh. He smiled and said; "Dude, like I've heard that before" All the onlookers also laughed.

Edie: I know that some folks meditate or otherwise distract themselves. Did you do any of that?

Tom: Deep breathing was my savior.

Edie: I have also heard from friends that it is a spiritual experience or ordeal. Did it cross over into that type of paradigm? Some also said that it was transcendent. Holy ink?

Tom: It was a spiritual experience which I will never forget; much like a woman having a baby, lots of pain until the joy of the birth. There were times when I was praying for it to end. At the end of the first session, I felt incredibly woozy, like I had gone 10 rounds in the ring, toe to toe with Mike Tyson. My whole body ached. I was not looking forward to the next session, yet I knew I had to endure it. The pain all washed away with seeing the end product, the gorgeous artwork I will proudly wear for the rest of my life. Even my friends who are not into tattoos marvel how intricate and beautiful Ganesha turned out.

Edie: Tattoos are more than skin deep. You mentioned that even though I don't have any visible ones, they are still there beneath the surface. Do you feel like you have some of those as well?

Tom: Of course... mine hold deep significant meanings for me; each depicts a different part of who I believe I am, what beliefs I carry and thoughts which I hold dear, and what I am most proud of, what I cherish.