"There's morris in that tattoo"
December of 1998, my stepdancing partner of 5 years was killed in an accident. I had taught classes with him, played music with him, performed with him, published a book with him, and practiced 2 or 3 times a week with him. When we practiced, we tried to match our body movements to make us look and sound like once dancer. When Terry died, I felt that a huge portion of my life had been ripped away from me. Terry's 8-year-old son asked me to go with him to the funeral home to view the body one last time before it was incinerated. Rowan considered me his second mother, and wanted me there for comfort. I made the arrangements for the wake, and presided over a party that completely filled the pub we had taught classes at. There were people spilled out onto the sidewalk because they couldn't fit into the pub. Terry would have approved, it was the biggest party I could throw.
In the day or two after the wake, I conceived of the idea of marking
myself in some permanent way to memorialize those 5 years with Terry. I first pictured a white spiral on my elbow, but that didn't say enough about Terry. So I drew myself a design with a large three-armed spiral in white and blue, and below it the hat that Terry had worn while we danced. It was a beat up white leather tophat with horns attached to the hatband. I'd made the horns for Terry's birthday three years before. Every english ritual dancer from Vancouver, BC to San Diego recognizes that hat. I drew the hat sitting atop his fool's stick, with the ribbons swirling into knotwork. That's when I knew I had the right design. I decided to place the design on my left arm, starting above the elbow and curling down onto the forearm. I wanted the design to be extremely visible.
I went to Chuck Eldrige at Tattoo Archive in Berkeley with the
design. Chuck has done all my other work, and he's good at dealing with my very fragile and sensitive skin. Since we'd used a little white ink on my leg piece, we both thought the white spiral and hat would turn out okay. Chuck warned me it might turn a beige color, so he suggested mixing a drop of blue in with the white and using blue shading. My skin freaks out at too much work, so we normally work in at least two sessions, one for the outline, and one or more for the shading. But never shading until the outline has healed.
When I went to have the outline done, I took Jody, the musician
who had played for Terry and me when we danced. He brought his button accordion along and played every morris and stepdancing tune he could think of while I was being worked on. Having someone play music during a tattoo is a great way to keep your mind off the weird position you have to hold, and remembering not to twitch when the needle passes over a surface nerve. But this time it was both right and neccessary. Jody played all the tunes that Terry had loved. It seemed to us a fitting tribute to the life of a morris Fool.
Two weeks later, I went and had the triskellion shaded, and some
wave channels placed around it, sweeping out from each spiral. It gave the piece a sense of motion and tied it better to the hat and stick motif below. That took about an hour and a half, and Jody once again played morris tunes while Chuck worked the design into my skin. He even got me to sing with him at one point. About the time Chuck got done with the spirals, he told me this would be a good stopping place. He had another appointment in a half hour, and he didn't want to start the other half of the piece and then make me wait until it was completely healed to do the rest. This way, he could do the rest of the work as soon as I felt comfortable having the skin stretched.
About a week later, I was ready for more work. Chuck was impressed
at how good the white looked already. My thin, white skin does show color off quite well if the skin hasn't been traumatized so much that it starts rejecting the ink. Jody played more morris tunes, and told me that there was now morris in my tattoo. In fact, he told that to just about everyone who commented about the tattoo in his hearing for the next couple weeks. Just about everyone who's heard that comment has agreed. The tattoo is recognizably about Terry without being a portrait, and the symbols I picked are very much about dance and music that Terry loved.
I had the white touched up in May, during morris dancing season.
It's healed quite bright, in a sort of eggshell white. It's definitely not beige. Chuck also touched up the red, orange and yellow ribbons. The blue, green and purple healed perfect and didn't need touch ups. Jody, of course, played more morris tunes during the touch up. Chuck's gotten used to the idea of my bringing a musician in with me when I have work done now. He likes live music, and always thanks Jody for playing.
Having this tattoo done helped me deal with some of my grief. Terry
is gone, but I still carry part of him with me. Part of my reasons for getting the design was that it was a way of affirming to myself that yes, I did intend to pick up and go on with my life. Any time I get a design, I remind myself that it'll be there for the rest of my life. This tattoo was an affirmation that I would have the rest of my life. We didn't hold the wake until almost three weeks after Terry's death, and the main thing that kept me function during that period was the idea that I had to get this done. After the wake was over, I wasn't sure I wanted to live a long life. Getting this tattoo, especially since it took more than one session, was a sign that I was ready to live again.
The strangest thing is that people almost never ask me what my
arm tattoo means. I get asked about my leg tattoo all the time, and it's just an abstract celtic design. People sometimes ask about the piece on the back of my neck, since it's a bunch of celtic spirals. But the one piece that does have meaning, they never ask about. I don't know why. Well, I know why the morris dancers don't ask. They already know the meaning. They remember Terry.
Lee M.Thompson-Herbert firstname.lastname@example.org
submitted by: Anonymous
on: 15 July 1999