Inked: The Indelible Draw of Tattoos

I got my first tattoo at 35. My husband took me. It was small. Just the Japanese symbol for courage. Inked in black on my back. Cliche really. But that one tattoo started me on a journey that I doubt will ever truly end. What can I say? I’m enthralled by ink.

That first tattoo has long since been covered. The ink that decorates my skin now is the culmination of many years, many losses, many inspiring moments, and the work of one artist.

Casey Middleton was first my student. I taught her in the late 1990’s at Rutherford High School in Panama City, FL. Then, she was a talented 17-year-old artist and photographer. She painted beautiful acrylic and watercolor on canvas. Her photography was nothing short of mesmerizing. She did photoshoots for my family, painted portraits for me to give as gifts, babysat for us, and was our daughter, Nichole’s first art teacher.

One of my favorite photos taken by Casey. Nichole was 9, Emma, almost 1. She later painted a stunning acrylic of this image that I still cherish.

After graduating from high school, she went on to college and we lost touch for a few years. After graduating with a BA in Art from the University of Central Florida, she returned to Panama City to begin her career. A career that turned out to be remarkably different, but so much more rewarding than the one she’d envisioned.

Skin became her new canvas of choice. Already a multitalented and very gifted artist, becoming an exceptionally talented tattoo artist was already in the stars for her.

I had gotten a scarlet ibis tattoo on my upper back in memory of my father after he passed in 2010. He and I had shared a love of the short story, The Scarlet Ibis, written by novelist, James Hurst. It was a story I cherished because it brought to mind summer evenings with Dad, discussing Doodle and his big brother, and the wonderful, terrible thing that pride can so often be.

Casey saw a picture of the tattoo on social media and reached out to me. Over the course of the next few months, we discussed adding to that one piece. Perhaps creating an entire back piece? Maybe doing just one side? She came up with some sketches and the artwork captivated me.

Waterfalls. A hummingbird for my father-in-law, who had passed in 1999. They were his favorite bird. A nature scene done in watercolor. A dragonfly for Nichole. A tiger and cub for my husband, John, and Emma. The mural kept growing.

We did the right side first, integrating Dad’s Ibis. It took months, but the result was worth the time and the pain.

Then my niece passed away at just 33, from breast cancer. She collected snow owls. Casey came up with a beautiful white owl in flight with the pink breast cancer ribbon clutched in its claws. She interwove Cassie’s motto, “Walk by Faith” into the tree stump on which the bird was seeming to land.

It began with a scarlet Ibis. My back piece was completed in 2014. Although, Casey says she can shade and touch up forever; the perfectionist in her never sleeps.

The left side of my back began to take shape. A cardinal for my mom. Her favorite bird. A tree frog on the stump. My mother-in-law’s favorite collectible. Flowers. Trees. Pretty soon my back was a watercolor masterpiece with so many meaningful symbols woven into the tapestry.

Then came the “Walk by Faith” tattoos we all got in honor of Cassy. It adorns our right foot, matching the one Casey did for Cass before she passed. When my sister-in-law, Monica, passed in 2015, Casey added a horseshoe to my foot in Monica’s memory (her collectible).

When my best friend, Alisa, passed away in 2017, my left forearm became her canvas. Also an artist and writer, who, like me loved purple, or “smokey lavender” as she called it, Casey designed a beautiful piece incorporating her passions and her favorite Winston Churchill quote. In Latin of course.

Top: Siren Sisters, 2017. Bottom, For Alisa, “You make a living by what you get, you make a life by what you give.”

My upper left thigh is all Casey! She designed the piece from images of our girls and their love of the ocean and marine life. Both have been diving and snorkeling with their dad since they were small. Both have swam with dolphins and stingrays. Both love the water! It’s called “Siren Sisters” and it’s one I love.

My upper left arm is dedicated to our daughter, Emma Rose. Warrior, cancer survivor, and artist. The hummingbird clutches an untied lavender ribbon signifying Emma’s winning fight against Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Casey did the piece on the one year anniversary following Em’s last chemo to celebrate her still cancer-free milestone. Three years later she is now almost 21 and healthier than ever!

Left: A tribute to Emma. Right: I love Latin script, so I have a few adorning my skin. The ones on my forearm are constant reminders of how much I enjoyed being a teacher.

Being a lover of words and books, Casey designed my right forearm tattoo around my three favorite Latin quotes about writing, “Words fly away, writing remains.” “Words inspire, examples compel.” “Some words are praised, others are read.” The teacher in me never rests.

My right side bears the quote, “Be fearless in your pursuit of what sets your soul on fire. It’s your journey.” The significance of this piece means so much more than it did when I first had it done. My fearless pursuit now is to maintain the health and sobriety I’ve fought so hard for. For my journey to be an example of hope to others struggling with the same demons that controlled my life for so long. Every day since I surrendered these demons to God’s mercy and keeping is a joyful journey filled with peace.

Left: “Be fearless in your pursuit of what sets your soul on fire. It’s your journey.” Right: “I am part of everything I have read.”

The latest piece by Casey, but I know not the last, reflects my love of reading. I am a voracious reader. Always have been. I’ve lived so many extraordinary lives through the pages of the books I’ve read. The stories remain with me long after that last page is turned. Casey even included purple in the design, as a connection to Alisa. We shared that love of reading our entire friendship.

What’s next? I’ve got a few ideas. And with Casey’s help and talent, I know they’ll come to fruition beautifully.

It’s true what they say about tattoos. Once you start, it’s really hard to stop. For me, I think it’s even harder because of Casey. She knows me. Knows the stories of my life. And she’s so very talented. It’s never a question of will I. It’s always just, what will we do next?

© 2019 Jennifer N. Fenwick

Casey Middleton is a tattoo artist at Panama Fox Tattoo in Panama City. Visit her on FaceBook and Instagram for images of her beautiful work. She does more than just tattoos!