I planned to wait a bit longer before I went into all the reasons behind why I chose to tattoo my entire left arm black but something this morning changed my mind. A friend tagged me on Facebook in a post by Inked Magazine asking for thoughts on blackout tattoos. I pulled up the notification and read some of the previous comments and was somewhat surprised by what I found. There was comment after comment of people just lashing out saying how stupid the people that do that are.
I didn’t take it personally. I did, however, personally enjoy the irony of being called stupid by a number of people who couldn’t string 5 words together to form a proper sentence, or manage to spell stupid correctly. I was shocked that so many tattooed people, who may have been judged based on their own ink, would automatically turn up their noses to someone else’s choice.
Back before I bought my first tattoo machine, a few months before I found an artist willing to take me on as an apprentice, I had drawn out an overall design that I liked and wanted to find out about having it done. After talking to an artist about what I had in mind, I was blown away by how much it was going to cost to get a full set of sleeves, both legs, my back, and torso done. At that point (about 4.5 years ago) I only had 7 tattoos, and none were that large or extensive, so I didn’t really have a good frame of reference for what to expect in the financial department.
Being married with two daughters and the sole source of income for the family, there was no way I was going to be able to allocate that kind of money to getting tattooed. So, being the sort that has always been able to figure out how to do just about anything I put my mind to, I hopped on Amazon and bought a “Tattoo Kit” for less than $100. It claimed to contain everything you needed to tattoo and, aside from the inferior quality of everything included, it did. Except for the knowledge part that is.
The kit arrived, and I watched the low-quality DVD included and decided I was ready to give it a try myself. Not wanting anyone else to be stuck with something shitty looking if it didn’t work so well, I practiced on myself, on my left arm. The first one was terrible. I thought maybe I’d get better with practice, so I tried a couple more. They got a little better, but not much.
Did I give up? Nope, of course not. I kept at it and after a little while I discovered two things. One, that I really enjoyed doing it. And two, that I really needed to learn how to do it from someone that knew what they were doing, because the only thing I was getting consistently was bad results. So, to make a long story short, I went to see an artist that I’d had some work done by in the past and he agreed to take me on as an apprentice after seeing some of my drawings and my dedication to it by continuing to keep going back.
He is a remarkably talented artist and, though I know I’m unlikely to ever be able to match his level of skill or even come close, he taught me everything I know. As I was coming to the end of my apprenticeship, he told me about how you can cover tattoos with solid black and then go back through and put a whole new design in with white on top. He wanted to try it out, plus he didn’t want my attempts at tattooing before I met him to be what people saw as examples of my work.
We talked about doing more traditional coverups over top of them but with the amount of black ink I’d already put in, finding something to cover them all would have been really challenging and time consuming, not to mention expensive. So, I got started blacking them out. I began with my hand so that I could wear long sleeves and not have any more of the first attempts show.
The blackout began on my left ring finger. I had put my wife’s initials there shortly before she decided to inform me that she thought she wanted a divorce, so I covered them with a solid band of black ink. From there I continued up that finger and across the back of my hand. Over the next few months my marriage fell completely apart, and the blackout continued making its way up my arm and around the palm area by my thumb, covering the matching tattoos she and I had gotten together.
As I was entering a darker period of my life, the blackout sleeve began to serve several purposes. It hid the horrible looking tattoos I’d done, the ones that I’d put on myself while still married and reminded me of the relationship. It also gave me some way to deal with the intense emotional pain I was feeling. When the emotions were too painful, and I wasn’t sure how to handle it, I would inflict hours of physical pain on myself by working my way further up my arm with the black.
Then I would have to spend the next couple weeks tending to the area, caring for it, and helping it heal. Eventually, I made it all the way up to my shoulder where the last of the old tattoos and reminders were. With it entirely blacked out (except for the areas I couldn’t reach on my own that didn’t have any tattoos to hide) it became symbolic of the dark place I had let myself fall into and all that I had endured.
I wore it not necessarily like a symbol of strength but rather more like a badge of dishonor, signifying how far I’d fallen into the abyss. I embraced all those negative opinions people displayed towards me and was angry pretty much all the time. I wanted people to judge me based on whatever they thought they saw without knowing the why, so I had a reason to continue to feel angry and victimized by the world.
On my 33rd birthday I reached the bottom of that abyss and knew the only way I could go any deeper was to be 6ft under. This is when I started looking back up. It’s when I started finding my inner strength and started to pull myself back out of the hole I’d dug. Looking up into the light, I realized that I still had a great deal of light within myself, and that I’d survived the darkness. I realized that I could use that experience to help pull other people out of the dark before they had to fall as far as I chose to let myself.
Sometimes the best person to lead you out of the dark is the one that has been there and knows the way back out. I now see my blacked-out arm as a reminder of what I have been through, how I can help other people, and I do view it as a symbol of my strength. Knowing that, though I have been there, the dark is not who I am inside, I’ve added a single white tattoo on top of all the black. It’s a simple line drawing silhouette of a lone white wolf with his head turned skyward, howling and using his voice to call out to others.
I suspect that, except from having someone finish the black on the back of my arm just to clean it all up and complete it, this white wolf will be the last tattoo I get on that arm. Aside from the small bit of bare skin that awaits the last of the black, I feel it’s complete and fitting for who I have been, what I have been through, who I am now, and, most importantly, who I want to be moving forward with my life.
You may still think I’m stupid for the marks that I have chosen to wear on my body and that’s fine, you’re entitled to your opinion. This is my body, and my story, and this is who I am choosing to be. If my past or my appearance count for more than my current actions and the man I am in my heart, than nothing I can say is going to change your mind, and I don’t care to spend my time and energy trying. I have much to offer the world, and there are plenty of other people who can benefit from the gifts that I have to share.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. I hope that the next time you see someone with a tattoo you don’t understand, you wonder why they chose that particular design before you jump to any conclusions about who they really are.