James' Story: A Lighter Shade of Ink

Photos by Alicia Cory from ShoTcha Photography

I’d never met James, but there I was that Tuesday evening at Sacred Heart watching as he tattooed a lily onto my friend’s shoulder. Earlier that day, the person I’d planned on interviewing had to cancel last minute. The idea struck me on the drive to the studio that it might be fun to interview a tattoo artist.

So, after I settled in, I turned on the recorder, explained The Worthy People Project, and asked James’ if he’d be up for an interview. He was. And, my friend getting the tattoo was okay with it, too, by the way.

Before we get into it just know this post involves, shall we say, colorful word choices. I’ve blocked out the full words for the linguistically sensitive though you’ll know exactly what was said. I mean, c’mon, we’re all adults here. It’s my aim to keep the interviewees words in tact. And, that includes all the words.

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Needlework

“So, James, why do you scratch art into people's skin?” I asked.

“I've drawn my whole life and the first tattoo I ever saw was my uncle’s tattoo of our family crest. I was like, oh man that is so cool. My uncle was talking about the lineage of the Wentworths and how they came from royalty and I thought it was this really cool visual representation of the history of our family. I guess it's always stuck with me.”

I don’t think either of us caught that pun, so no pun intended. And, I forgot to ask if, in fact, James is a descendant of the Wentworths. That’d be pretty great.

James continued, “Then, in high school, I would draw on myself and my friends started asking me to draw on them. So, instead of studying in study hall I’d draw on people.”

After high school, James realized college just wasn’t for him. It involved too much debt and who could decide on a major, so he went a different route.

“I started looking around for a tattoo apprenticeship and found one,” he said while moving the buzzing tattoo needle across my friend’s skin, “but had to pay a slew of money. I worked for her for like an entire summer and she taught me how to tattoo. She was a really great artist, but she was super flaky as I’m sure artists can be. One day I came into the shop and she had packed up everything and was gone.”

My friend and I offered an empathetic whine. “Yeah,” he agreed, “so I was out $3,000 and had nothing to show for it since she hadn’t recorded any of my hours.”

I never did find out who “she” was, but I guess it doesn’t really matter at this point other than the fact that she’d moved to Fairbault to be with the love of her life and left James stranded with no proof that he’d tattooed for an entire year.

“So anyway, I was out looking for another place to get my tattoo license and came across a bunch of shops but each one needed $3,000 up front.”

He’d been burned once and the idea of handing over another $3,000 with no guarantee made him uneasy. He wasn’t about to get burned again, so he washed his hands of the tattoo industry.

“Then, I went into construction for like eight years and learned a good work ethic and how to show up on time and do my work and all that stuff.” He paused to wipe away excess ink with a blue paper towel before continuing. “After that, I went to work at Eric’s (the bike shop). That job taught me customer service. It’s a great, great place to work. And, I love bikes. I’ve always been a cyclist.” He looked down at his mid-section. “I know I don’t look like it.” He laughed.

But then, James and his fiancée, Kat, discovered they were expecting a little one. Despite his love for Eric’s, he felt he needed a bit more earning power.

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“So, I started working at a box factory and made these little boxes right here.” James turned to point at the small “ANSUL” box on his shelf.

A laugh escaped my mouth, because can there really be that much more money in the box industry?

“There's a lot of money in the corrugated box industry,” James informed us, “but it is like the most mind-numbing work ever. It is pull-a-lever-push-a-button, pull-a-lever-push-a-button, and I felt my art, my artistic drive, take a plummet.”

To counteract this artistic nosedive, he decided to gain some inspiration by getting some tattoos.

“I found Sacred Heart and over the course of a year Matt (the owner of the shop) tattooed my whole right arm. I’d draw something up and I’d bring it in and after seeing the designs I’d bring in, Matt asked if I’d ever thought about tattooing. I told him the whole shebang and he said he could finish out my apprenticeship for $3,000. Well, that was kind of the line that broke the camel’s back. I told him I’d love to but made up an excuse to turn him down.”

But, when James got home and told his ever supportive and loving fiancée, Kat, what Matt had suggested she told him to get back there and take him up on the offer. And, being the smart guy that he is, James realized Kat was right and he went back to Matt and asked if he could apprentice.

After finishing a series of five of prescreening assignments, Matt gave him a contract for an apprenticeship, and, yes, it would cost $3,000, but James only had to pay a portion up front and the rest he could work off as he brought in money.

“So, I started working at the shop and about two weeks into my apprenticeship they eliminated my night shift at the box factory.”

That meant James could focus on tattooing at night while Kat went to school during the day to become a nurse and they’d trade off taking caring for their daughter and avoid daycare fees. “It didn’t even pay for me to work during the day because daycare is as much as, you know, a mortgage payment.”

“And,” James continued, “since I’d tattooed people in my first apprenticeship, it only took me about three months until Matt said I was ready to tattoo myself.”

Yep. You read that right, folks. James had to tattoo himself.

“I tattooed one of my legs and Matt looked at it and said I was ready. Then, I started tattooing people and not even a year later I had everything paid off and had my license.”

Now, onto some questions

“Right now, the mega millions lotto is at 1.6 million,” I began, “would you want to win the Mega Millions?” Maybe it’s a dumb question, but I’m not sure I’d want to win.

“I mean who wouldn’t?" he replied. “I feel like, oh man, is there anyone who would say no?” I was starting to think it was a dumb question to ask. “But, I don’t think I would know what the f*** to do with 1.6 billion dollars. I'd probably buy a hobby farm, but I’d also probably buy 17 other people hobby farms and go broke. I’d be like Oprah, ‘You get a hobby farm, and you get a hobby farm, and you get a hobby farm.’”

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“Who in your life makes you laugh and why?” I was going down my list of pre-determined questions.

“My daughter makes me laugh so much. She’s just a stinker.”

Shortly before I’d asked this question, James’ daughter had come into the shop with her mom. She was dressed in a dragon costume which James informed us she wears often.

“What are you watching on Netflix?” Really, I asked this question because I’m nearing the end of a series, and I was fishing for a recommendation.

The Haunting of Hill House. It is creepy. It’s not like boo scare you, but it’s an insane labyrinth of a series. You have to watch it over and over. It’s so good.”

Yeah. I’m probably not gonna watch that one. I couldn’t even get through the trailer.

“What car do you drive?”

“Well, we have kind of a family car. It's a 2005 Subaru Impreza Wagon.” My friend and I were both a bit surprised by that vehicle choice given his burly tattoo artist status. “I know, I know, its super safe and super reliable.” Laughter bubbled out of him, again. “In high school, I gave my world history teacher so much s*** because he drove a minivan and he kept telling me that someday I was going to get a minivan. I was like whatever I’m not getting a minivan. Now that I have a kid, I'm like f*** I could really use a minivan. Or a moving truck.”

Mirror Talk

“So if you had to stare at yourself in the mirror what outward trade would you like the best?”

“You mean like physical trait?” He clarified.

“Yeah.”

“Well, I usually like to stare at people's eyes, so I’d probably say my eyes and or my lustrous beard.” There was a bit of sarcastic resplendence upon mention of his beard.

“Half the time it's the one thing that I do find myself looking at in the mirror.” He laughed as continued. “I’m like ‘Is it good looking?’ ‘Should I keep it?’ ‘Should I shave it?’ ‘Should I trim it?’ ‘I should probably trim it.’” We were all laughing at this point. Actually, we spent most of the night that way.

And, I wish you could hear James’ laugh. It’s so very jolly and full of life. To get an idea go ahead and scroll to the top of this post and just look at James’ photo for a second and then come back here. No, seriously. I’ll wait…

Can’t you just see the laughter in his eyes? But, I digress. Back to the story.

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“Has your daughter ever seen you clean-shaven?” My friend asked him.

“No,” James replied. “She’d probably freak out. Actually, I know she would. One of the main reasons I haven't shaved it is because the first the very first thing that she did when I held her was she reached up and grabbed a big ole handful of it and like held it in her hand.” His voice softened. “I told her I’d always was some fluffy down for her.”

After expressing our various “awwwws” and “how sweets,” I continued with the next question. “If you were to look at yourself in the mirror, what inward quality would you like most about yourself?”

“Oh, that’d be my beard.” He chuckled.

“Uh, inside,” I retorted.

“Oh, man.” He paused as he thought through an answer. The tattoo needle quiet. “I would say that I try to give as much as I get kind of thing.” The needle buzzed back to life. “I try to make sure that everybody is taken care of. That’s something I learned from my dad. He would tell me that if I was ever doing good in life to make sure that the people I care about aren't struggling.”

Tall Ships

“Tell me about your dad. What’s a memory you have of him.” I’d planned to ask this question, anyway, and James had led me right to it.

“So, I have this obsession with tall ships that started when I was young.” He had begun the shading portion of the tattoo and my friend began wincing. Shading hurts a bit, I guess.

“I must have been like five or six years old or something like that,” James continued moving the needle rapidly across my friends shoulder. “We had moved to Maryland and while we lived there they were restoring the USS Constitution. Before they opened it up to the public they had an event for the Marines and their families to take a tour.”

 A tall ship replica in James’ studio space

A tall ship replica in James’ studio space

“And, your dad was a marine?” I assumed so, but it was best to ask.

“Yeah,” he confirmed. “So, we did a tour of Boston Harbor and then we were one of the first people to go out onto the ship.” James put the needle down and grabbed what appeared to be a tube of water and squirted some on a paper towel and wiped the area he’d just completed. “I thought that was just the coolest thing. They talked about the history of it and the old ironsides and how it was an indestructible ship because it was way ahead of his time. That memory has always stuck with me.” He picked the needle up again.

“Was your Grandpa a marine?”

“My grandpa was a marine. My uncle is a recently retired Marine. I believe my great grandpa was in the Marine Corps.”

“So was military life ever something you considered?”

For some strange reason, all I could think about was Lieutenant Dan from Forrest Gump.

“I thought about it, but I never really wanted to...I just remember my dad being gone a lot. You know, it's not the defining characteristic of our relationship, but it was one of them. I understand the sacrifices that he made as a citizen and a marine.”

Who are you…who, who, who, who

“I’m a hip old granny who can hip hop, bebop, dance till you drop, and yo yo, make a wicked cup of coco.” James rapid-fired his response to my question of “who are you,” was impressive.

“That’s from Mrs. Doubtfire.” He explained before moving on to a more serious answer. “I’d say I’m someone who likes a good story. I’m probably in my head way too much: over-thinker, worst critic. If anybody says anything bad I'm usually twenty times harder on myself.” The buzzing of the needle filled the quiet space as James pondered the question.

“I would probably classify myself as a dreamer. I guess that's pretty cliché.”

“So, you’re a self-critical dreamer?” I asked. “Because those two things seem like a contradiction.”

“Oh, I know because a lot of times I’m all up in the clouds and then tell myself I gotta come back down.

“I do know that I wanna change throughout life. I don’t want to get stuck in one thing or one definition. And, I like to admit that I'm wrong if I can. At least that means I'm learning something, right? One of my favorite things to do is talk to people with a different point of view or like a different ideology than what I have because what the f**** is the point of talking to everybody that has the same construct? Then, you're just talking to yourself. The best way to get a good perspective out of life is to have a variety of answers, right? So I guess I'm a questioner. I like questions.”

“So, you’re perfect for this sort of random interview?”

“I know! You came in and was all like can I ask you questions? And, I was like f*** yeah, I might even give you some b***s**** answer.”

When James was satisfied with his work, my friend got up from the chair and took a look in the mirror. It was perfectly lovely she determined just what she wanted. Enough so that she decided against adding more to it.

In the end, I don’t think James gave me any of those, uh, types of BS answers. I have a pretty good meter for that. What James did reveal was that he has a warm heart and, oh my goodness, that laugh. And, even though I’d planned a much different agenda for that Tuesday, I’m glad it turned out the way it did. Asterisks and all.

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