WYSO

Local Tattoo Artist Embraces The Stories Behind The Ink

Jul 25, 2017

Tattoos have become a major part of our culture, and with over 20,000 tattoo parlors in the U.S. alone, tattooing has become a billion-dollar industry. But it’s the stories behind the ink that interested Community Voices Producer George Drake, Jr. and he went to Dayton to learn about some of them.

If someone gets a tattoo, chances are there’s a story.

Michael Chad Grabeman's tattoo combines Star Wars and Grateful Dead imagery.
Credit George Drake Jr. / WYSO

“It’s basically a combination of the Grateful Dead dancing bears, but they’re turned into Star Wars figures,” says Michael Chad Grabeman as he's being tattooed.  By the end of the session, Michel will have Yoda, Chewbacca, A Storm Trooper, Boba Fett, and Darth Vader dancing around his left leg. He’s a self proclaimed Dead Head, and Star Wars enthusiast. “And I found this thing, where it’s a perfect combination of the two. And, I’m like, “You know, this is something that I really want.”

"Every tattoo that I have has some sort of connection or meaning, for the most part. I don’t have anything that’s a throw away silly thing,” says Chad Wells, the artist doing the tattoo. He’s the owner of Wells & Co. Custom Tattoos in Dayton’s Fire Blocks District, and has hundreds of hours worth of tattoos on his own body.

“I have a full back piece, both arms are heavily tattooed, my hands are tattooed, my neck’s tattooed, my head under all this long hair is tattooed, legs, and calves, and feet, and...everything has a tattoo on it.”

When Chad was a kid he used to draw on his hands and clothes -- his tattoos are essentially an extension of that, a way to set himself apart from others. “When I was a kid, it was like a permanent middle finger to everybody and everything. My tattoos are really pretty positive, but, the fact that I have them says, ‘I’m going to do what I want, and you have zero say in that.’”

However, sometimes a tattoo says too much, or maybe it doesn’t mean what it used to, or, it’s a part of someone that they want to leave behind -- so, they get a new tattoo over the one they want to forget.

“Yeah, cover-ups are… that’s a big thing,” says Chad.  

And not just ex-lovers names, or tattoos that people don’t like anymore -- but tattoos with gang affiliations or racist meanings. One customer of Chad’s had spent time in prison, and during that time, he joined the Aryan Brotherhood and had a giant swastika tattooed on his chest.

“That’s a thing in the prison culture that," says Chad. "We don’t have to deal with that stuff out here. I think that he may’ve had to make the choice to wear those ‘colors,’ as we call it, in prison to survive.”

But, it was no longer a life he wanted to be a part of, so, he had Chad cover it up.

“And he was getting married that next weekend to a lovely, young Jewish girl. [Laughs] Which, I thought, was just wonderful. And, she knew about the tattoo, she knew about his history, and there was nothing I could do. It was so solid black, there was nothing I could do other than just box it off. He has a giant black box on his chest now.”

And some people with difficult pasts use tattoos to help cover-up painful memories.

“It’s comforting to see things that give you hope more so than scars," says Dawn Tarjeft.  She’s been a client of Chad’s for over 10 years. Most often, tattoo artists use computer-printed stencils as guides for tattoos. But for one of her most personal ones, she let Chad draw it entirely by freehand before tattooing. It’s on the right side of her face. She calls it her space flower.

Dawn Tarjeft's space flower tattoo
Credit John Beaufait

"I was in an abusive relationship for a short time, and the guy gave me a head injury. It was traumatic to see a scar every day. So, I had Chad, basically, do a three-hour session. And that’s where that piece comes from.”

Dawn says she didn’t know how much the tattoo had helped her heal until it was done, because after getting it, she says she had her first week of sleep following three years of constant sleepwalking and night terrors.

“And another thing is, a lot of my tattoos are friend-oriented. I have friendship pieces with a ton of people. So, it also represents people that I love. It’s like walking around with a photobook, only much cooler.”

Chad compares tattoos to an art collection. While they won’t appreciate over time, or come family heirlooms, they’re more personal and in a sense, priceless, because when you go -- they go.

“It’s purely yours, it purely exists in the moment that you’re here. This tattoo is an always-changing thing that’s going to not be the same in 10 years as it is now, and when I die it’s gone. So, there’s a built-in scarcity or rarity that I think is cool about tattoos.”

The music used in this piece is from Chad Wells’ band Cricketbows. 

Culture Couch is made possible by a generous grant from the Ohio Arts Council.