This Month's Find: Skin-deep Design

A 21-year-old's memories of nature walks alongside her father become a bit more permanent -- with her first tattoo

Finds / A Monthly Feature That Celebrates The Ritual Of Shopping

March 24, 2007|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun reporter

In a few minutes, Stephanie Jackson's appearance will change forever. But first, a few formalities.

She produces a driver's license, proof that she is at least 18.

She signs a release form, agreeing that the Saints & Sinners tattoo studio is "not responsible for unknown ink allergies" and other complications.

She smokes a cigarette outside the Fells Point studio. Jackson's boyfriend, Matt Boram, lingers nearby. So does tattoo artist Dwaine Shannon.

Lilting breezes and sunshine have drawn a parade along Thames Street, but Jackson and Shannon, co-owner of Saints & Sinners, have a long afternoon of inking ahead, so they go inside. It's time to get started.

Jackson, 21, is "a little" nervous, but ready. She's admired tattoos since she was a kid. That she won't go for a hackneyed heart or rose is easy to surmise by Jackson's attention to ornamentation.

With her long copper tresses, black hair band, neck scarf and sparkly green eye shadow by Hard Candy, she's got a 1960s mod look going on.

With her sleeveless teal T-shirt, clingy jeans, skull-patterned belt and dangly skull earrings to match, Jackson crossed that Carnaby Street with a frisson of hard core.

Then there are all of those silver rings on her fingers courtesy of her grandmother, her dad's trip to Guatemala and an antique shop in upstate New York. A bit nicked, the vintage ring isn't perfect, but "that's why I love it," Jackson says.

She put careful thought into the tattoo. "When I was a kid, my dad and I were very close," Jackson says. "We bonded on nature walks." Those bucolic strolls form "one of my most fond memories of childhood."

They are memories, Jackson says, "meaningful enough to make them permanent."

She envisioned a forest of "old man trees" rooted across her right triceps and biceps. "Just like my dad always said that trees are like the `old men of the forest,'" Jackson says. "They watch over everything. They never move."

The subject of Jackson's veneration, her father, Ted Jackson, was disconcerted by her decision to commemorate those once-upon-a-time ramblings. "He's, `Oooooh, Steph, are you sure you want to do that?'" Jackson says.

"I think he'll probably come around," she says. But now, he's under the impression that tattoos are for bikers, "not his cute little girl."

Jackson's mom was another story. She "thought it was cool," Jackson says. "She has one; a tiny little seashell on her ankle."

Jackson described her sylvan fantasy to Shannon. "I wanted it to be dark and eerie looking."

He drew a spooky thicket of bare trees. It's a fairy-tale forest where little children could easily get lost forever. In his illustration, Shannon included a generic bird with wings spread. It perches on the stump of a neatly severed tree. Jackson has decided the bird is a hawk, and therefore an allusion to her father's sightings of "hawks flying in the sky."

"With this tattoo, there's mainly a lot of line work," Shannon says. Then, he'll add a red glow and tonal gradations with a gray wash.

Shannon is an illustrated man, with ink-covered arms, and matching dollar signs imprinted on each side of his forehead at the hairline. His studio, overlooking a kebab shop, is a staged clutter of tattoo designs, convention posters, pop culture symbols and photos of his daughters and wife.

Like a hairdresser who lops off a lock before a patron can waver, Shannon swiftly transfers a temporary stencil of the tattoo onto Jackson's shoulder. This will be his blueprint.

Shannon pulls on black medical gloves, more as a precaution against staining his hands than as a hygienic precaution. He readies the electric tattoo machine with its tiny needles that will stitch lines of ink into Jackson's arm. A high-pitched buzz fills the room, redolent of a trip to the dentist rather than a walk in the woods.

The meter is running at $150 an hour.

Shannon reassures Jackson, who sits upright in a chair, steeling herself for the anticipated pain.

"I'm not hyperventilating, but I'm nervous," Jackson says.

"Stay relaxed and breathe," Shannon says. "The more relaxed you are, the less it hurts."

Shannon works quickly. A fine line of dark ink rises along the outlines of the wise old trees.

Jackson relaxes a bit. "I made it a lot worse in my head," she says. "I [thought], it's gotta hurt to look good."

She grew up in Lutherville and attended Towson High School. Back then, she wore dreadlocks. "I was a pretty bad teenager. I didn't listen to suggestions. But I was never a disrespectful child," she says.

She and her parents got over those rocky patches. "They see I turned out all right," she says.

Jackson lives with her folks and works as a host at An Poitin Stil, an Irish bar in Timonium. She plans to become a hairdresser.

Her forested skin was intended as a conversation piece, she says. "I really didn't think much about what other people would think. It's not for them, it's for me."

As much as it is a tribute to her father, the tattoo is an emblem of her bravery. "I'm conquering something in myself," Jackson says.

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