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Seven Stories, One Easel

by Chris Williams 3 years ago in art
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the mental art of tattoos

I am awoken by what sounds like 100 bees flying right next to my ear, as well as an irritatingly painful scratching on my chest. I slowly open my eyes and I see my brother, Douglas kneeling next to me, with his face intensely focused on my torso. I push him away saying something along the lines of, “What the fuck Doug!?” He giggles in his notorious, feminine-like giggle that he only let out when he was somewhere between nervous and humored. I realize he has a full tattoo kit next to him, and a tattoo needle hovering an inch above my bare chest. I slap the needle from his hand and repeat the words I had just said. “Check it out” he says with the enthusiasm a child has as their parents open up their Christmas gift. I run to the bathroom and lift my shirt. I am beyond speechless as I realize there is a tattoo on my chest. A real one, real fucking ink on my real fucking chest. I examine in more and see the beauty it actually withholds. Douglas was never artistic! What is going on!? There is a sailboat pushing its way through rough waters. It is a simple drawn sailboat with just a few geometric shapes to create it. The boat has ‘DMW’ inscribed in it, my brothers initials. The flag on the top of the boat is purple, the color of the overdose awareness ribbon. Around the decal is a quote, “I cannot control the wind, I can only adjust my sails.” That was my brothers favorite quote, he learned it during his 250-day stint in rehab and preached about its hidden meanings for months. I turned to look at him to ask him how the hell he did this to me, but he was gone.

Then I woke up.

My family was exactly one month away from the first anniversary of the worst day of our collective lives. Just one month until we would be forced to remember and recall the day that my brother was found dead of an overdose in his room. My father knew that we were all dealing with this in very different ways, and as he always has, he came up with an idea to try to tie our broken family unit back together. He posed the idea of us all getting memorial tattoos for my brother, Douglas, on the day of the anniversary of his death. It would be my first tattoo, my parents’ second, and my sister, Deanna’s fourth. I immediately knew that I wanted to get what was literally the tattoo of my dreams.

My body is an easel. Throughout the course of my life I can add whatever I want to that easel, given I am old enough.

In New York the legal age to get a tattoo is 18; but I was 17 on the day of the one-year anniversary of Douglas’ death. Even with my father’s consent, as well as the story of the tattoo meaning, not a single tattoo parlor was willing to take the risk of an underage tattoo. So, I took my brothers ID, the one who I was getting this tattoo for, and posed as if I was a 23-year-old named Douglas, my family and I went to the parlor and not a problem was raised. I felt honored and empowered, not to mention a little badass. I figured that was one of the times I was thankful for how much we looked alike. While I was getting the tattoo my mom said, “how are you holding up Chris?” I prayed that my tattoo artist did not put the puzzle pieces together that I gave him an ID of Douglas but was just called Chris. My heart began to race, my palms began to sweat, and my breathing became staggered. He looked at me and got back to work. I was surprised at the feeling of getting a tattoo. I was expecting a sharp pain because tattoos are just a countless amount of pokes from a needle. It felt more like an intense rubbing pain, I felt as if somebody was forcefully rubbing sandpaper on my arm. I hated sitting still but I did not want to distract the artist; so I sat back and thought about my brother smiling down on me. After four hours my left upper-arm looked exactly as it did in the dream I had months ago. I knew that the tattoo artist performed the tattoo, but Douglas designed it in my dreams and that couldn’t hold any more meaning to me than it already did. I was obsessed with looking at myself in the mirror now, the 17-year-old with a real tattoo. Watch out Centereach High School, we’ve got a new hot shot in town.


It still has not fully dawned on me that in one week I am leaving the life that I have always known. I was just seven days away from a completely new, as well as fresh start on life. Goodbye Long Island, hello SUNY Cortland. My dad’s cousin came over to our house for a barbeque on this beautiful Saturday morning in the middle of August. One of the many conversations they had was about tattoos. Inside my head I thought of the bright idea, right in that moment, I should go get a tattoo. I was about to start a new chapter to my life, so why not get a tattoo that represents the 18 years I had lived prior?

I search through my room, looking for the first thing that catches my eye that embodies the vague thought of ‘home’. The first thing in the first drawer that I open is a Christmas card. It is the card that Douglas gave to me on the last Christmas I was blessed to have him with me. The last card I received from him, period. I read it over and looked at his signature, the way he wrote “Love, Doug” was always the same; sloppy, with the ‘g’ of ‘Doug’ underlining the rest of his name. Without hesitation I held on to the card and ran to the tattoo parlor a quarter mile away from me.

When I got to the parlor and I was asked what I was looking for, I said “I am looking to get two tattoos right now.” When asked what kind of tattoos I told him, “I want this exact signature, and then one bigger one. Something to signify my home before I leave for college.” When I was asked what I wanted for my tattoo representing home, I thought of my physical house. The brick red house that has turned to dusty red due to the years of wear-and-tear the Williams family has put on it in the last 21 years. I thought of the family I had loved and lost. The holidays, the fights, and all of the memories I have ever known. I thought of my address, 9 Rosemary Lane. The number 9 was always significant in my family, and Rosemary made me think of roses. So, I quickly blurted out, “I guess nine roses would make the most sense.”

“Are you sure?” Asked the burly old man whose face was covered by his unkept white beard and smelled of cigarettes who was about to inject ink into my body, permanently. “Yep!” I said in a shaky and false confident voice. I was not sure. I was scared that my common sense would kick me in the butt for this spontaneous decision. Again, four hours later I had another tattoo, well technically two new tattoos now. My right upper-arm had 9 roses entangled into each other into a beautiful bouquet, and the “Love, Doug” signature, done to a tee, right next to my sailboat tribute tattoo to him as well. My fears all melted away once I saw the finished result.

Each tattoo I get, every piercing I have, every scar on my body, the cuts, the bruises, and the battle-wounds are all just another stroke with my metaphorical paint brush. This was still just the beginning of my easel.


Fall semester of my sophomore year at SUNY Cortland was upon me. This semester was the one that would determine if I was going to transfer, or stay, following a dreadful Freshman year. I made one lifelong friend during my freshman year though, Sabrina. Sabrina and I were practically brother and sister. We looked out for each other, fought for each other, gossiped together, and loved one another. All these aspects of our friendship came to my mind when she told me that this was going to be her last semester at Cortland, she will be transferring in the spring. I felt as though I would be lost without her.

The last night that she spent in Cortland before the end of the semester, she had asked me to come over when I got out of work at 10:30. I had to wake up early the next morning, but I didn’t care. I came over and she had two bottles of wine, and a Stick N’ Poke Tattoo kit sitting on the floor. “Oh boy,” was all I could think. Needless to say, we killed those bottles of wine, but I don’t remember much after that. I woke up in my own bed with an intense and uncomfortable itch on my left collar bone. I scratched it and immediately flinched in pain. I lethargically dragged my feet to the bathroom and rubbed my hungover eyes. I lifted my shirt and was confused to see what looked like a roman numeral ‘II’ on my collarbone. I rinsed my fingers and attempted to rub it off. I was left with a serious stinging feeling, no ink on my finger, and a wild realization. I immediately called Sabrina and demanded she tell me why I have the roman numeral ‘2’ on my chest. She laughed and explained to me that is not what it was, but that I had begged her to give me an astrological symbol for a Gemini on my chest. I did not remember doing this, but I did give myself props for remembering I was a Gemini while being as drunk as I was. So, I got used to there being a sloppy, Stick N’ Poke tattoo of my astrological sign on my chest. My body is an easel and I am the artist, whether I remember it or not.


With every stroke of my metaphorical brush comes a story, and with every story I reveal who I truly am to myself.

During the end of my spring semester of sophomore year, I knew that I was going to stay in Cortland through graduation. I had joined the Men’s Ultimate Frisbee team and I never looked back. It had become the best decision I have ever made in my life. I found my group, I found my sport, I found my people, and I found my family. I fit right in with them, and them with me. We collectively had the same interests and the same wanderlust mindsets toward this big ominous thing called life. Toward the very end of spring semester, I was partying a whole lot with the guys. One of which, Anthony, and I were talking about the fact we were going to be housemates the following semester. We were talking about the team as a whole and came up with the bright idea to get a tattoo of our team symbol when we return the following semester. The Ultimate Frisbee team here at Cortland has the theme of Pokémon. The name of the team is “Team Rocket” and each player has their own Pokémon given to them that only they get to have the honor of being for as long as Team Rocket lives. Anthony and I decided we should get the Team Rocket ‘R’ symbol to show our dedication.

The following semester came around and two weeks into it I had gotten a reminder on my phone. “Get th R wit Antony, lol” is what I read. In that moment I had remembered the long-forgotten idea that Anthony and I had when we were drunk the semester before. So, that day, we had gone to the tattoo parlor in Cortland, and got our tattoos. We did not expect more than half the team to then follow our lead, but we felt great when they did. I now had the Team Rocket ‘R’ on my right forearm for the rest of my life. This represented the literal blood, sweat, and tears that I have shared with my team on and off the field. This one letter of the alphabet means so much more than just a frisbee team to me, though.


Some of these brush marks may carry negative stories, some positive, intentional or unintentional

Although I had my new life at Cortland now, I would never forget what I had at home. I had nine roses on my arm to prove it. Throughout childhood I had one person, my best friend in the world, Ian. Ian and I have a friendship that people often become envious of. We know the ins and outs of one another, our families are each other’s families. His family wouldn’t bat an eye when I would walk into his house at random hours of the day, He was an honorary Williams, and I and honorary Rogers. The bromance started not long after I met Ian in my seventh grade English class where we would accidentally bump elbows every time that we wrote. I even received a candle with Ian at his little sisters Sweet 16, when she referred to me as her brother, so I should get the candle too. Ian and I had said for a long time that we wanted to get tattoos together, but we did not know what. We were also skeptical about getting matching tattoos. We were confident that we would remain best friends for life, but we are both two people that are very aware of the “what if” that life so constantly has to offer. We had settled that we would get the same tattoo, but drawn in different styles. We both loved the Tree of Life. It is a Celtic symbol that has had many meanings over time. Ian comes from a very Irish family, so he decided he would get that symbol. I believe in the ideas behind the Tree of Life, in which the branches and the roots intertwine with one another. There is no beginning and no end. It had undertones of life and death, the two things that consume a majority of my free thinking. It is a comparable symbol in meaning to the Yin Yang.

So, in the summer leading into Junior year at Cortland, Ian and I got Tree of Life tattoos. His was more gothic, it had less shading, more line work, and a little bit of a depressing vibe to it. Mine was more alive, it had more shading, more leaves, and more personality to it. Ian and I both walked out of the shop that day with the Tree of Life on our right calf. It was a matching tattoo, but it wasn’t at the same time. Just as Ian and I know we are practically the same person, but we obviously, are not. This one had a lot of meaning to me, although it was a different kind of meaning than my other tattoos in an oddly inexplicable way. This tattoo acted as the key to the Rogers family, I knew now that I would have this tie with my best friend for the rest of my life.


My sister, Deanna is my support system. Ian was like family to me, but Deanna is family. She is the single only person that understands me to my absolute core. She knows all my biggest troubles, because she has lived through them right there next to me. We dealt with the ugly separation of our parents, together. We had lost our brother, together. Deanna had lived in Paris, France for four years at this point. I only see her for around two months out of the year when she comes home, and even that is sometimes stretching it. Deanna and I have always been very aware to the scary world of drugs. We knew it because we had seen our brother live and die by the hand of drugs. Even still, Deanna and I would occasionally like to smoke marijuana when we were given the opportunity. It was like, both Deanna and I had spent years in nostalgia over the memories we had when we were younger and had no worries in the world. We yearned to go back to those days, and when her and I would smoke, it would be an hour of fulfilled dreams. We would giggle at nothing, we would run around the house playing games, and we genuinely did not care about anything else life had thrown onto our plates in those moments.

Once you have painted on your easel, you can’t un-paint it, so own your brush marks, own your easel, own the tattoos and the piercings and the scars upon it, own your stories so you can own who you really are; it’s empowering isn’t it?

In the summer leading into my senior year, my sister had surprised me for my 21st birthday. I had never been more surprised, nor happier from a surprise, in my entire life. One night, Deanna and I had thought to both smoke weed, and then play our favorite childhood video game, Mario Party 2 on our Nintendo 64. We had an amazing time, it might have been the drug-induced giggles but we enjoyed each other’s company more in that moment than ever before. Deanna had said at one point during the game, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we got tattoos for our favorite Mario moment, or character, or item, or anything!” We laughed at the idea and said we would probably get a tattoo to represent our lifelong favorite Mario character. We also came to a consensus, “Dad would absolutely never go for this, he would say we are so stupid.” We thought, just for kicks to see his reaction, why not ask him about it? So, my dad, my sister, and I had gone to our favorite restaurant the following night and the idea had been brought up. Deanna and I made bets beforehand as to how exactly he would react, but we figured the answer would be a hard N O in the end. To our absolute surprise, my dad said, “You know what, that sounds freaking awesome. I could also get one with you guys and it would be like, a family tattoo! Let’s do it tomorrow, I’ll pay, consider this your late birthday present.” Deanna and I were shell-shocked. We figured this was another attempt at him trying to pull that broken family unit back together. The following day, the three of us walked out of the same tattoo parlor I had gotten my roses and brother’s signature at, and we all had a new tattoo. My sister had the red Mario hat on her side, my dad had Donkey Kong’s “DK” tie on his thigh, and I had the green and white Yoshi egg on my left forearm. My family proceeded to poke fun at me because the tattoo artist messed up in the outline of the egg. My Yoshi egg looks more like a Yoshi inspired football. I figured if that misshapen egg on my forearm does not represent me in my family unit, I don’t know what does.


About the author

Chris Williams

Don't worry, be happy.

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