Tattoos for life stories that are more than skin deep

Tattoos for life stories that are more than skin deep

June 19th, 2011 by Holly Leber in Life Entertainment

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

Photo by Allison Carter /Times Free Press.


Age: 33

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

Family: Married; one son, Isaiah, 4


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."

Photo by Jake Daniels /Times Free Press.


Age: 32

Job: Owner, Triple 7 Studio

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


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.

Photo by Allison Carter /Times Free Press.


Age: 34

Job: Shift supervisor, Starbucks

Family: Single


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."