A Dragon on My Back

Tattoos are a personal endeavour. When I sat down at New Tribe, my brain immediately screamed out “Noooo” because it understands the pain that is going to be endured for the next hour and a half. The actual process has always been important to me. Learning how to endure so that your worldly dreams can be achieved is difficult, but the only path to self-realization. Recent psychological studies connect the act of tattooing with personality disorders and mental illness, but then mental illness is often a manifestation of being outside the willingness to submit to the meaninglessness of an average life and to not surrender one’s imagination for pragmatism.

About a month ago I began planning my latest tattoo. In fact, I found this design last year while traveling in Kyoto, Japan, but given the craziness of my schedule the process from idea to completion can take a long time.  My first attempt to reduce the image to its basic components led me to invert the colours in Photoshop and remove the background. While I liked the darkness, upon sending it in to see what the artist thought about the design and where I wanted it, I found out that the design would not work at 4 inches on my arm. Skin is not a static medium like paper or the digital canvas. Back to the lab again…

I trust an artist. In this case, I wanted New Tribe’s Kyle Hollingdrake to do the work. He has done four of my other tattoos, and I have always appreciated the quality of work he does. Plus, I rather enjoy the conversation we have during the process- music, motorcycles and photography – which makes the time pass much faster than it might otherwise.  Instead of being that idiot at DairyQueen who insists on having their sundae customized, I decided to just trust what Kyle asserted and thought about why he was right. After an hour of looking at the design, I also realized how much ink would need to shade the inverted image, and that he was going to be able to make a far superior trace of the original print than what I was giving him before. Back to the parlour: can you do just the dragon if we increase the size from 4″ to 12″ and go to my back?

Maruyama Okyo painted Unyru-zu (translated as Dragon Amid Clouds) in the late 1700s, which can be seen at the Tenryu-ji Temple in Kyoto. When I saw the image I immediately felt a connection to the soul of it; perhaps it was the Zen temple or the green tea ice cream I had just eaten, but I knew that picking up a print would not be wasted Yen. As you can see, the original is very open and airy.

It took 90 minutes to complete the outline. I wish that I could have been able to last through the scales and shading process, but my body began to go into a bit of fear shock and I thought it best to let that section heal before completing the piece. The rest of my night was spent feeling more than a little nauseous at home. Given the simplicity of my other work, this session was a fascinating look into how much blood, sweat and tears goes into a larger tattoo. I had never even imagined that I would need two sessions to complete the tattoo. What was the result of stage one?

I do love the work. Kyle always does such a professional job, and I am pretty sure that it will be healed in a short time. As I look at the photo I took this morning, I am drawn into what actually has gone into the dragon so far. One thing that struck me is that unlike the original dragon, Kyle has given his dragon a less angry facial expression, which appeals to my sense of restraint, for what is the strength of a dragon if it cannot remain calm in the face of our world’s tumultuous moments? The scales will require another long session, but the nature of the lines means that it will feel less like deep cuts into my flesh.

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