A tattoo is worth 1,000 words
BY JODIE TILLMAN
A tale of woe begins near Greg Wood's left wrist and crawls up his shoulder, an inky parade of images and words from another time in his life.
There's a heart in a kitchen blender, an ashen face frozen in a tortured expression and bitter lyrics about love from a long-forgotten song. Those sad times have faded, but reminders of them are forever affixed to his body.
But a more promising story has begun on the other side of Wood's body. On his right arm, a wizard playing drums, a reference to his love of music and his childhood fascination with drawing wizards. And on his right leg, a portrait of his young son as he appears in a school photograph.
"It opens up this door," said Wood, a White River Junction tattoo artist, referring to getting the first tattoo. "Like, 'Oh, my God, there's so much I can do.' " So Wood and others do it, this documenting their lives on their bodies.
It is a centuries-old urge to create art and write an autobiography all in one, say some local tattooed residents, who pay hundreds of dollars for the body art.
"You always look at that same one and ideas start popping in your head," said Lijah VanDerveer, 25, of Claremont, who has a flying dragon, a female lion, a rose and tribal symbols tattooed on his legs. "When I'm in a bad mood, if I get a tattoo, it puts me in a better mood."
On his neck, the Chinese symbols for "pleasure" and "crazy." Here's how he remembers the crazy part:
"It's for my girlfriend. We met and fell in love instantly," said Van Derveer, the son of a tattoo artist in Claremont. "It was crazy."
Jason Smerdon, a 25-year-old Canaan resident, has 15 tattoos - and 15 stories - on his body.
There's the lion on his leg: "I was, like, 20 when I got it. I was with one of my friends. He got one, too."
And there's the skeleton face wearing a joker's hat: "I thought life was a joke at the time."
"They're addictive," said Smerdon, who works at Wal-Mart. "The pain, the release of adrenalin."
Tattooing is a deeply symbolic, centuries-old tradition around the world, and some tribal communities choose the designs for their young men, to mark the transition from childhood, said Vince Hemingson, a Vancouver-based writer who has studied tattooing and is also co-producer of a National Geographic documentary about tattooing.
But "tattooing in the West is really a matter of personal decoration and personal decoration can mean a lot of things for people," he said. "People will have multiple symbols they wish to adorn themselves with.
"It's like if you're an art collector, you can't just have one piece of art."
Each tattoo will have a story behind it because some people feel the need to share their experiences in a very visible way, he said.
"It's how do you differentiate your self from everybody else?"
Even though celebrities and college students have helped ensure that tattoos are no longer the badges of rebellion they once were, the most heavily illustrated people can still stand out in a crowd - or at work.
"I think he's getting too many," said Smerdon's 20-year-old girl friend, Nikki Royce. She said she worries about whether he will be able ever to get an office job.
"I think you should hide them," said Royce, who lives in White River Junction.
Wood said he counsels people about the reactions they'll get back at work if their tattoos are visible. "There's still a negative stigma to it in terms of employment," he said.
One of the Upper Valley's largest employers, Timken Aerospace, doesn't have a big problem with tattoos - as long as they are not offensive and are mostly covered up when dealing with the public.
Nina Moore, human resources manager at Timken Aerospace, said she has seen more people with tattoos in management and sales positions. If a job applicant came in with visible tattoos on her neck, for instance, it would not be viewed unfavorably, she said. "We look at the whole person," she said.
Royce's subtle tattoo on her back tells a story of its own. She and a friend made a pact to get a tattoo when they were 18. They couldn't agree on what kind and ended up with a moon sliver in a sun.
She crinkles her nose when she talks about it, this black spot visible only when she wears halter-tops.
Lesson learned: Never compromise on a tattoo.
"There's nothing I can do about it," she said, shaking her head. "It's a friendship thing."
At Body Language, a tattoo, piercing and tanning parlor in White River Junction, Tara Greenwood, 20, was shopping for something to cover up a set of initials near her hip. Her story:
The initials are those of a past romantic interest.
"We went from exes to friends," explained Greenwood, of Canaan.
And a friend's initials have no place on a body.
Not everybody who gets tattoos is thinking in narrative terms. Jolene Perkins, a 16-year-old from Hartford, was browsing a catalog of tribal symbols at Body Language.
She was looking for her third tattoo to be on her lower back, visible above low-rider jeans. Wood, one of the tattoo artists at Body Language, said it would cost around $120, depending on whether she used color or not.
Perkins said she wasn't trying to make a statement; she just saw one on another girl. "I think it's neat looking and attractive," said Perkins.
Smerdon on another day was shopping for what would be his 15th tattoo.
It was a spur-of-the-moment decision.
He had come just to tag along with his brother-in-law, Ronnie Lock, who was getting a design on his neck. But Smerdon couldn't resist. How about a "J"?
People have started calling him "J," for Jason.
Flipping through a pattern book of letters, Smerdon, a musician, said that he'd come back another time to get the spider web on his neck to dangle into a microphone. And when his 18-month-old daughter gets a little older, he wants to put her portrait on his back.
"I'm an artist," he said. "It's an investment that stays with you the rest of your life."
He picked out his 15th investment, a calligraphy-style, black J.
Royce brought him a Dr Pepper while they waited for the tattoo artist to prepare Room No. 6, right across from a room of upright tanning beds.
Then it was time. Smerdon took off his ball cap and walked down the hall, past the tattoo sketches of well-endowed women and past a portrait of a suburban couple - actually a satirical rendering of the parents of the parlor's owner, Tom Tardie - wearing multiple piercings.
The artist wiped Smerdon's neck, shaved a few loose hairs and placed a copy of the design on his neck.
He looked in the full-length mirror, nodded and lay on his side on a table. She got her needle gun and black ink ready and tapped the pedal with her brown, wedge-heeled sandal.
"Ready?" she said.
The drone of a dozen slow-moving hornets began, and the needle of black touched his neck, which responded with color of its own: bright pink