published Sunday, June 19th, 2011

Tattoos for life stories that are more than skin deep

Jenny Holcomb displays her tattoos that memorialize her father. The tattoo on the left spells both "destiny" and "choice".
Jenny Holcomb displays her tattoos that memorialize her father. The tattoo on the left spells both "destiny" and "choice".
Photo by Allison Carter.

JENNY HOLCOMBE

Age: 33

Job: Adjunct professor and researcher, psychology department, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Family: Married; one son, Isaiah, 4

A TRIBUTE TO HER FATHER

Jenny knew.

When her mother called, before she said anything, Jenny knew.

“It was this feeling,” she said, of a day two years gone. “It was the strangest thing. I knew.”

All her mother could say was, “It’s bad. It’s bad.”

She ran out of her house, over to her mother’s house next door. In the kitchen lay her father, Jimmy — a Vietnam veteran, a machinist, a math whiz who used to solve problems with her on a chalkboard in her room, her friend, her dad — dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

And Jenny felt peace. For the father whose struggle was over, the father who had stayed, for her, for her mother, for her sister, as long as he could.

“All my mother could say was ‘bless his heart, he just couldn’t take it anymore,’ ” she said. “There was never any thoughts of ‘why’ or ‘I can’t believe he did that.’ I know how bad it had to be, and I wouldn’t have wanted him to go through it any more.”

It was his choice to leave. But for the years he struggled, she said, he made the choice to stay.

“He had a wife, he had two kids to support. I know he struggled with it, sometimes daily. The thoughts that ran through his head, his inner demons were so consuming sometimes. Most suicides are very selfish or misunderstood. He had stayed around that long for us, and I felt like the scales had finally tipped for him. I know he knew how hard it would be for us to lose him, and I know he wouldn’t have put us through that if there was any way that he could have [kept going]. That’s why he had been around as long as he had.”

The struggle had gone on for years.

Jimmy had been fine, she said, after Vietnam and years later, but he joined the Army Reserves and went to Panama. And that’s when things changed.

“Panama looks a whole lot like Vietnam. And he kind of flipped when he was down there. They sent him home to us like that. And he wasn’t Daddy anymore. It was bad.”

In the midst of the hell that came after, her mother turned up pregnant with her younger sister, Jessie.

“That kind of jolted my dad out of wherever he was,” Jenny said. “That, I know, was a focal point for him, me and her. He lived for my mom and my sister and me. We were his life.”

In honor of her father’s memory, she had an ambigram — a pattern that shows one word reading one way and a different word reading the other way — tattooed on her ribs. It says both “Choice” and “Destiny,” words seemingly in contrast to each other, but, Jenny said, her father chose his ultimate destiny. Or perhaps he was destined to make a choice.

“It had been his choice to stay with us as long as he did. I felt like it was a constant choice, one that he had to make sometimes on a daily basis, to not leave. I think that when it came time, he weighed it out in his head as best he could, and it was a choice. There’s something powerful about that. Looking back, I think that’s the destiny piece. I think that’s how Daddy was going to go. If he had been told he had a terminal illness, he would have gone as long and as hard as he could have, and when he couldn’t do it anymore, he would have made the same decision. I think that’s how he was meant to go.”

Jenny has no anger, she said, only “overwhelming admiration” for the father she loves, the father who staved off his demons to be with her for as long as he could.

His memorial services was filled with pictures and with old friends, people who had known him throughout his life.

“Over and over again I heard ‘Jimmy was a good friend to me,’ ” she said. “ I can’t think of a better legacy than that.”


Brent Humphries shows a tattoo on his wrist and hand that he wears in honor of his wife. The daisy is her favorite flower and the skull represents the concept of "Until death do us part."
Brent Humphries shows a tattoo on his wrist and hand that he wears in honor of his wife. The daisy is her favorite flower and the skull represents the concept of "Until death do us part."
Photo by Jake Daniels.

BRENT HUMPHREYS

Age: 32

Job: Owner, Triple 7 Studio

Family: Married, since 1999, to Courtney; two children

A PROMISE TO HIS WIFE

After nearly 13 years of marriage, Brent has learned a lot.

“It’s taught me how to live with somebody. It’s taught me how to not always make things be about you. You really learn somebody. You learn not just the good things, you learn all the nasty things too. Sometimes you don’t really like that person. Sometimes when you’re married, you have to hold on to that one little thread, that commitment, that vow you made. ... Things get hard. Sometimes you don’t want to be around that person. But that’s your wife, that’s your husband, that’s who you made a vow to.”

As the owner of a tattoo studio, Brent has his share of tattoos. But this one was going to be special, a piece dedicated to his wife, Courtney.

They met in 1998, working at Applebee’s. He was 19, she was 21.

“We became really good friends, which turned into a marriage, a baby ... She was very focused on her goals. I wasn’t. I was partying too much, and she helped me get focused. I got a bachelor’s degree out of being married to her.”

They find time for work and play.

“Me and her, we like to have fun together. We feel like we’re in our 30s, but we don’t feel 30. I feel like [we] have grown together.”

The tattoo is on his hand, impossible to hide, combining a skull and a daisy.

The placement is as important as the tattoo itself.

“I wanted a very extreme location,” he said, something visible. The location is not just a commitment to his wife, he said, but to his work. A tattoo on one’s hand can’t be hidden.

The thought for the design first entered his mind when he organized an art show, ’Til Death, for which artists were asked to create a piece representing love and commitment.

It has dual meanings. The daisy is significant to Courtney’s past.

A high school boyfriend who died suddenly used to bring her daisies, Brent said. And knowing it was an important flower to her, he brought it into their life together as well. Daisies were their wedding flower.

“I understand the importance to her,” he said.

He originally hesitated to incorporate the skull, calling their use cliché, but eventually decided to because, he said, if a skull represents death, “when I think of death, I’m reminded of life.” The skull on his tattoo represents the marriage vow line: ’til death do us part.

Ultimately, Brent’s tattoo is a simple love letter to his wife. It’s a way he can say to Courtney, “I’m not going anywhere. At least, that’s what I hope it says.”


Jamie Rowland has a Libra symbol tattoo and one that says “create,” which reminds her to embrace her artistic side.
Jamie Rowland has a Libra symbol tattoo and one that says “create,” which reminds her to embrace her artistic side.
Photo by Allison Carter.

JAMIE ROWLAND

Age: 34

Job: Shift supervisor, Starbucks

Family: Single

A REMINDER TO SEEK OUT ART

Cleaning out her closet recently, Jamie came across an old shirt. It read: “Create.”

It was a reminder.

Jamie holds a degree in photography from Savannah College of Art and Design, but she said she’s let her art fall by the wayside.

“People are always pushing me to do more art, because I’ve kind of stopped doing it,” she said. “Because life gets crazy and busy.”

So she decided to have “create” tattooed on her forearm, a gesture she hopes will inspire her to return to her artistic roots more often.

“Especially when I’m having a day, I need to remember ‘hey, I’m an artist.’ Life goes on and you forget about things, but that’s something you need to keep doing, is creating.”

Art is her escape, her peace, her truest self.

“Nothing else is in my head. If I’m having a crazy day, if a lot of crap’s going on in my life, and I’m doing my photography, I’m not thinking about those other things. It’s kind of like a release. I’m there in that world, and that’s it. Same thing with painting. Nothing else matters. Creating something is doing your own thing. It’s being you.”

Her first time in a darkroom, she said, she fell in love.

“If I could, I would love to live in the darkroom and do black-and-white photography. That would be my dream. I’d want to be in shows and museums.”

Jamie prefers film photography to digital, she said, for the tangible nature of it, the ownership she feels, the opportunity for pure ... creation.

“I love the smell of the chemicals in the darkroom. Some people hate that. I love smelling the chemicals on my hands for days. ... I love film. I used to roll my own film. It’s there, you can touch it. Digital cameras, you take a picture, you put it on the computer. With film, you can roll the film, take the picture, take it out, process it yourself, use your hands, get dirty, get in the chemicals ... that’s mine, nobody does that but me. It’s all mine. I did that. That’s something I can be proud of.”

about Holly Leber ...

Holly Leber is a reporter and columnist for the Life section. She has worked at the Times Free Press since March 2008. Holly covers “everything but the kitchen sink" when it comes to features: the arts, young adults, classical music, art, fitness, home, gardening and food. She writes the popular and sometimes-controversial column Love and Other Indoor Sports. Holly calls both New York City and Saratoga Springs, NY home. She earned a bachelor of arts ...

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rolando said...

Excellent vignettes, Ms Leber. Each shows an aspect of the subject's character.

Particularly poignant is Ms Holcombe's attitude toward her father's struggle and its eventual outcome. The depth of her understanding and empathy is praiseworthy...and too rare.

I wish Mr Humphreys many more years of love, respect, and fun with his wife. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, to compare with it.

I share Ms Rowland's love for black-and-white photography...almost to the point of obsession. I still have -- and use -- my old Hasselblad although finding film is difficult these days. I have a small hoard stashed in my refrigerator. As she seemingly knows already, the darkroom is where photography is turned into art and beauty; e.g., Ansel's work.

June 19, 2011 at 8:31 a.m.
una61 said...

If I ever have a desire to put a picture on my body, I think that I would pick a non-permanent method.

June 19, 2011 at 12:47 p.m.
atomek13 said...

This to people who think tattoos are bad disgusting and think they are going to Hell for doing it and other non sense...this is new generation...if you like them and have them its their choice and should not be criticized...I myself have one hidden but will get more, would love to have the whole sleeved out arms going but as professional in healthcare I chose not to...got lots of piercings tho. ;)

June 19, 2011 at 1:49 p.m.
pgoldberg said...

@cbtole if it takes burning in hell to not spend eternity in the same place you end up, let me make my reservation now.

June 20, 2011 at 8:22 a.m.
HiDef said...

"TO ME skin art is a sign lack of a sense of self! you decorate your self to get noticed! like i know i ain't much BUT i got ALL this art on me so i must be somebody!!"

This coming from the guy with a lady flipping the camera off as his avatar. Yep, no cry for attention there jack. You are superior to us...

If you personally don't like tattoo's, don't get one. Why anybody would care what someone else decides to do to their body is ridiculous. One of my tattoos is 26.2 that I got on the back of my calf after I finished the LA Marathon. It's an accomplishment that 99% of the world will never attain and I'm pretty proud of that fact. Obviously I want other people to see it, just like the people who buy really nice cars or the people with a Jesus fish on their car or the McCallie sticker on their car. It's how people identify themselves in the world these days and theres nothing wrong with it.

June 20, 2011 at 8:46 a.m.
Stewwie said...

[“He had a wife, he had two kids to support. I know he struggled with it, sometimes daily. The thoughts that ran through his head, his inner demons were so consuming sometimes. Most suicides are very selfish or misunderstood. He had stayed around that long for us, and I felt like the scales had finally tipped for him. I know he knew how hard it would be for us to lose him, and I know he wouldn’t have put us through that if there was any way that he could have [kept going]. That’s why he had been around as long as he had.”]

This first story is pretty sick in how it is described by the family and by Ms. Leber. At no point are suicides ever justifiable or "ok." If this man's family had really loved him, they would have sought after professional help instead of just letting him "last as long as he could." Maybe they did, but the article doesn't mention it, and it sounds like they probably didn't. If I were part of this family, I would be ashamed that I didn't do more to help. I definitely wouldn't be praising his decision despite the circumstances.

June 20, 2011 at 9:11 a.m.
noapathy said...

Wow! What I see is an interesting group of people with stories to share behind tattoos they chose to get and yet people still find reasons to come out of the woodwork with their disgusting, judgemental comments. Whatever makes you feel better about your life, I guess. Fascinating! If you have something interesting to say, say it...but if you want to accuse all of these individuals of getting tattoos for attention, you might want to look in the mirror. Posting extremely immature comments just because you can (freedom of speech) paints a very ugly picture of your character and cries for attention. Everyone has their own path and reasons that they made the decisions they have made, they haven't hurt anyone but themselves (voluntarily) so why throw any kind of hateful two cents their way? Whether I agree with these stories, Kudos for having the courage and individuality to share that with us. Things we do not understand often scares us, how obvious that is in these opinion articles.

June 20, 2011 at 4:52 p.m.
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