Once upon a time i worked in a world-renowned, busy shop in a big city. I had apprenticed there, and was cruising along with my art, having been hired straight out when i didn’t even feel that i was ready, but they said “you’re better than i was when i started, and you only learn by doing, so let’s go!” Beaming with pride, i started with clients.
This i can say about my education in the art; i received a solid and generous tutelage from incredibly artistically and tremendously skilled people. I also received endless support and encouragement from them, even though there were plenty of ways the edges of our various personalities and ways of being ground against each other. I took this to be natural, and didn’t question the rightness or not of my being there, it was the fulfillment of a life’s worth of dreaming, and a privilege besides, to be with such talent, and to be so wholly welcomed into the fold (not the least because my first apprenticeship was a fiasco wherein a great deal of art and money was stolen from me, and i almost threw in the hat at that point).
There was always something that felt ultimately right, yet there was also something that always felt deeply wrong about the whole scenario, though i couldn’t place it. I was not, at that time, too inclined to explore that beyond the point where i was attached to my identity as an up-and-coming tattoo artist in a famous shop, and besides, this was “a thing with people” – all of those are a bit strange, at least for me. I just rested in the rightness of it and accepted the at first subtle, then progressively glaring, problems of the context of the shop and the nature of the industry as par for the course, things for me to learn how to deal with so i could get in deep, get successful, and earn a great living doing an art that i truly love and enjoy.
Within a short period of time, that perspective was demolished by two experiences; only one of which i will speak to at length here.
I sat upstairs in the shop, a long, narrow, tiny space in which there were three stations all in a row, separated by shoulder-height walls. My station was in the middle. I had a young woman in my chair, giving her a piece on her upper back, onto her neck, for which she was sitting admirably, and which i could also see was very painful for her. We had begun alone, but in the course of our time B, the owner, and G, the other owner had arrived, and were gearing up for their days on either side of me. When my cd came to an end (this was before ipods), B, who was a full on gutter punk (minus the gutter) and a world renowned photo realist, popped in some of his favorite tunes, which were obscure German death metal, sounding to me always like the hounds of hell baying in agony for having been thrown into an ancient industrial meat grinder, all recorded with the shitiest equipment imaginable. And he dug it loud. Shortly thereafter, he and G got into some boasting-cum-argument, which they were hurling back and forth at each other from either side of me, each hollering over the horrendous music at a progressively greater volume. I was in the middle of this, quietly doing whatever i could to stay focused and grounded and not lose my shit with the both of them, when i realized that my client had begun to sweat, shake, and cry silently into the face rest, doing her best to toughen up and get through the process without “being a pain” or “wimping out.”
My world stood still.
A great wave rushed through me after a few seconds of utter stillness and internal silence, breathing a knowing into me of the root of the art as an initiatory rite. I felt the sacred essence of the art surge forth and fill me, and that surging offered a glimpse of something so much more beautiful, so much more profound, so much more real, than how I was practicing based on what the industry ideal was, that tears sprang to my eyes. I was breathless and shaking, slightly dizzy, and entranced by an awakening that was not subsiding.
A great teacher of mine once said that any sacred art that couldn’t be destroyed would be commercialized, which would neutralize it beyond recognition, and sap the pulse of the mystery right out of it. It would therefore cease to be a way of diving deeper into the mystery of being and deeper into intimacy with the forces of life, and become a mask, a shell, and/or a parody of it’s essential nature, devoid of the life-giving magic it originally offered to the human experience.
Blinking my eyes, i sat there, my machine frozen in the air, hearing this boastful nonsense, assaulted by the horrible music, and overwhelmed by my impotence to secure the space to support my shivering, sweating, crying client, and something in me snapped. Or snapped to, i could say.
A more right and real way to be in my position and provide for hers had just come alive inside of me. I realized there was no way for me to properly care for her or myself in this setting, nor could the deep magic of the experience flourish there. It was all wrong. All wrong. And i could only continue practicing if i made it right somehow. If i made it sacred again. If i made it safe, for her and for me.
I set down my machine, handed her her shirt, and spoke gently to her that i would like for us to be done for the day, and for her to come back when the shop was closed so that we could complete her piece in peace and quiet. She wiped her tears and thanked me for that offer, after some feeble protests that it was ok, she could handle it. I don’t know if i said or only thought that you shouldn’t have to “handle it.”
that was a threshold day. Even though i was attached to my identity as a cool tattoo artist and my dreams of being wealthy and world famous within ten years, my relationship with the shop and the industry was nigh on killed in that moment of awakening. When i went to my first (and only) convention shortly thereafter and witnessed some of the most deplorable behavior i had ever seen, mixed in with run-of-the-mill self-aggrandizement and petty narcissism, the final blow was landed. I didn’t want anything to do with any of it. In that moment, which was my turning point, the depths of my ancient, sacred agreements with the art had awoken. As daunting as the prospect of maintaining a practice of this nature was and still is, everything in me breathed a sigh of relief: i had awoken to the pathway to right relation with my art.
Shortly thereafter i left the shop and took my practice home with me. There was a spare room in my house which i painted blue and decked out to be beautiful, comforting, and peaceful. this room became my studio, a sanctuary of mine wherein i could be the priestess that the art needed me to be, and the friend that my clients needed me to be. When people came for work, we would have tea and visit before the session to drop in, bringing us into resonance and deeply humanizing the experience, moving it beyond the realm of “business transaction.” Then when we began the session we would sit and pray together, invoking the elements, spirits, nature, and our ancestors and guides, before diving into the physical aspect of the work. We would open the space in a sacred way, and endeavor into the momentous transformation of being tattooed with our prayers spoken, our hearts tuned to the mystery. We would go through the process silent, or talking and sharing ourselves, or singing and praying, then close the circle with prayers at the end. At the end of these sacred meetings my heart was warmed and lifted, feeling as though i had truly given something beautiful and unique to the person, and truly supported them to more fully embody themselves in their earth-walk. This is still how i feel today, and still how i practice today, inevitable ups-and-downs of the experience included. I feel that to practice in this way is to more fully engage with the inherent sacredness of life, providing a context for a deepening of self and a progressed awakening of the inherent magic of a person through the beauty of blood-rites. For me, it’s the only way.
The way that i practice is designed to support the deepest unfolding of a person through their personal mythology in this life. What have you gone through? Where are you now? What is your prayer with this piece? Who are you becoming with this transformation? These are the questions that we explore when we come together, and what i have seen in people’s loves and journeys has been amazing. The ways i have been able to support people into embodying their fullness in life has been extraordinary, growing in depth and magic with every encounter. I am so glad that the art pours itself through me in this way, so honored that i am able to walk with this ancient, sacred spirit in my life.
This is a sacred art, utterly powerful and utterly profound. When we give it our full attention, it gives us it’s full love. In this time, every aspect of our lives is a testament to the deepest values of our soul and an offering to the world we want to create; i invite you to dive this deeply into the possibility of your transformation, to live your mythology, and embody the unique and brilliant singularity that you are in the world.
You are the only you there will ever be! How is your spirit painted?