Having a piece of art on your body for the rest of your life is one of the biggest commitments you can make. Whether a tattoo has a deeper meaning, or just looks cool, it is always a reflection of who a person is, where they’ve been, and where their heart is. To better understand the art of tattooing, I talked to some folx about their experience with tattoos.

Note: Edits have been made for length and clarity. All photos by Lucy Wald.

A conversation with Santa Cruz tattoo artist, Patrick Blackstorm:

What makes tattooing different?

The spiritual application. The closeness and the intimacy that most people don’t even experience is what makes it special. Generally, you don’t get that close to people. You don’t put your hands on people, especially in that way. Everyone’s skin is totally different. I’ve started to notice that there’s a little part of that canvas that is kind of predetermined. It’s gonna come out the way it’s supposed to come out, no matter what I do. It’s inside whoever I’m working with.  

I’ve watched over the years collecting tattoos that I didn’t think would have any bearing but later down the road, I’ll see things happen that are connected to a picture that’s been on my body. Almost like I foretold it.

Can I see those tattoos you’re talking about?

Decades after I got my back piece, I was really drunk, and attacked someone and grabbed him. I grabbed him just like [the man tattooed on my back], and that’s what made me get sober.

Black & gray back piece of a 1997 Nightmare Theater comic book cover, tattooed by Mike Godfrey.

I wanted to start writing more positive shit on my body. That’s where the “anythings possible” and “access all potential power” tattoos started to come from. […] It’s a part of my story.

Pat’s son, Winter, and his birthday are tattooed on Pat’s chest with a heart. Pat’s second son, Solar, tattooed on his neck along with a flower and “Anythings possible” around it. Tattoos by Nick Vargas (heart), Miki Macias (neck).

That’s the beauty of tattoos. Just like our lives, the terrible, the nasty, and the beautiful are all combined and now permanently on our body, it’s a radical acceptance of self.

Tattoos on Anonymous:

“Growing up machismo was very much a thing in Hispanic culture. Wanting to be the strongest, toughest, and not show any emotions […] but it makes you a very hard, disconnected, emotionally absent person. If you don’t see that, you become a perpetrator of the same behavior.”

“It’s [the] behavior that robs people of their innocence and their purity.” Tattoo by Derek Pratt.

“When I was little and I would go see my dad, […] we’d watch TV and eat cereal. He’d always give me too much milk, and I’d always spill, every time. He would just lose his shit. [I] internalized that abuse as a kid. You find yourself talking to and treating yourself the way your parents would. That was one of the first memories I started to unpack. Through that, I learned how to love myself.”

“So that’s actually why I have milk… but that feels too intimate to just tell people, so I just say I’m [lactose] intolerant.” Tattoo done at home by his friend Leah.

Representing death floating casting magic out over a city, their tattoo is a tribute to the book series Dune and a saying in it called The Litany of Fear. “When I die I want to be there, present. I want to walk into my death well.” Tattoo by Derek Pratt.

Brandon’s Tattoos:

Artwork drawn by Brandon’s friend Britany as a memorial for a friend nicknamed Pitt. Tattooed by Nick Vargas.

“It’s for my friend we called ‘Pitt’. [My friends and I] were all latchkey kids, and Pitt always made sure we were okay. If you didn’t have a place to go, she would try to help. She did that for me a lot when I was a kid because I had a lot of emotional mental health shit that I didn’t really understand. She was able to sit and talk to me. She was always very sweet to me. Later on, she got into a really bad relationship with this guy that everybody knew was a piece of shit. He ended up murdering her. When that happened, there was no real way for me to leave [Santa Cruz] to go visit. I was given the honor of being an honorary pallbearer and I would have really appreciated being there. That was really hard to work through, being so far away. […] the idea of an angel sobbing really stuck with me.”

Blackwork by Pat Blackstorm.

“For years and years, I let people just tattoo me, stick poke style. My ex wife tattooed [on my leg], and I let other people tattoo me that I didn’t care for so much. Eventually I was like, ‘Blackstorm, let’s fucking fill this in.’ Let’s get rid of all that energy. Let’s pay homage to that depression. Eventually we’re gonna get some words in there around the top and it’ll say “no one suffers alone” because the idea is this abyss and no matter how far you go and no matter how far you get into it, how alone you feel, the truth is you’re not. I’ve watched suffering, I’ve watched grief. I know nobody goes through it alone. […] The craziest thing is that it didn’t weep.”

“…the smallest mercies can have a profound effect” by Pat Blackstorm. “My friend’s stepdad [Robbie] was like a father figure and said this in a letter he sent to me. ‘Keep practicing jiu jitsu for your mind, your body and your soul. There’s a lot of people out there that can use your guidance, the smallest mercies can have a profound effect.’ I had that letter hanging up above my doorway forever. It became this mantra in my head, because I was living proof of that.”

Ink carries power, knowledge, and a story. It gives power to the person who owns it.

“I feel like the biggest thing about tattoos that really sold me was that no one can take it from you […] You can’t take what I know, you can’t take my knowledge, you can’t take my wisdom, and you can’t take the ink out of my skin. And if you can’t take this from me then, fuck, man, you can’t take shit from me.” — Brandon