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1: the tattoos we wear
are we invisible without them?
by candy green gustavson
pop culture

("Are We Invisible Without Them?" is a series of articles based on Candy Green Gustavson's ongoing work as a volunteer in a women's prison. This is the first and related to a course called "Becoming a Mentor" which she teaches to women who reside in a Faith and Character Dorm.)

My daughters, my perfect babies, roam the world freely with tattoos on their bodies. (My sons, also perfect and free to roam, don't have tattoos.) The oldest daughter has major tattoos on each upper arm: two butterflies merge into one, symbolizing her marriage; a gothic cross shows the world her faith. The youngest has them all over, large and small: scattered stars, delicate designs, owls in a tree, water babies for a "sleeve."

I don't really like what they've done. Why did they do it?

I have tried to accept the phenomenon; you can't go a block these days without seeing someone with a tattoo. I have tried to understand the reasons people get tattoos. Are they marking the passage of time? Memorializing a significant, even painful, event? Celebrating a joy? Linking to the past, remembering a heritage? Individuating? Making their body a work of art? Did they feel invisible without them?

All of the above could be answers, it seems, and more, perhaps: the need for ritual and meaning in our lives, our humanity most deeply and succinctly expressed through symbolism, poetry, art. I decided to do a bit of reflecting and take a closer look at tattoos.

Once a person makes the decision to become a tattooed one, it has seemed to me, they became bound, their skin "behind the bars," even imprisoned by these self-inflicted wounds. I haven't liked the idea of "us" (whoever we are) cutting patterns and designs into our skin and filling them in with ink.

But, perhaps, I have begun to think, we all wear invisible tattoos, ones we know about and ones we don't. These may be the invisible bonds, the unseen binds, the hidden prisons we hide ourselves in.

One of the things I do these days is work as a volunteer in a women's prison. "I'm giving you the best I've gotten in my life," I tell these invisible-to-society ladies (some of whom have tattoos). I consider it a priviledge to be part of their lives. I got into this work through being an Americorps/Volunteer in Service to America (VISTA) where one community opportunity led to another, until, after three years of service as a VISTA, here I am in prison!

I work in the Education Department of a medium security facility. It's a special place--air-conditioned, unlike the dorms--where, I am told, the "cream of the crop" gravitate. There, among other services, I am beginning to teach a 10-week course to 16 inmates at a time. These women have been accepted to live in what's called a Faith and Character Dorm and they are "laid in" to come to the Education Department for this course.

Statistics show that recidivism for inmates who have spent time in dorms of this kind is less; in other words, they don't come back to prison as often as those who are only housed, do their duty and serve their time. Because of these successes, the prison has recently opened a second Faith and Character Dorm and I will soon be able to teach women from both settings.

What am I teaching them? As said before: the best I've gotten in my lifetime! This knowledge comes from personal experiences, wisdom given and gained, as well as undergraduate and graduate university courses. I call the course "Becoming a Mentor."

As a Mentor is, classically, a person approved to be a positive, inspiring and influential role model, you might be thinking "How could a prisoner ever become a Mentor?"

In the first lessons we spent time discussing this possible hindrance. We discussed influences in our lives. We discussed those people who have impacted us as role models for good or for ill. We acknowledged that no matter how hard we try, we can't escape the influence of others--even behind bars, even shut away from the mainstream of society, we are being influenced by others.

Tattooed by life, you might say, these prisoners became visible by breaking the laws of society, by commiting criminal acts. They got someone's attention. For some of these prisoners, the marks, the cuts, made by the influentional ones go deep.

A young woman sitting at the back of the classroom shares her story. It's not uncommon: she was sexually abused by relatives from the time she was three. No boundaries were asked. No boundaries were given. When she got to school and realized that her story was not everyone else's story, she became angry and took it out on the world. Makes sense to me.

However, the design left on her life is confusing and appears to have no purpose or meaning. The wounds have been filled with the ink of regret, bitterness and worry and...yes, criminal activity.

Yet boundaries do make the design. Whether good, bad or ugly, designs have boundaries. And so, we spend time talking about prison as the place for those who have hit the boundaries, the walls of society.

The next time I teach the course, I will take this thought further by sharing about Lloyd Martin and my youthwork experience in New Zealand (www.praxis.co.nz). There, Martin taught me to think of society as a circle. Within that circle is another circle, of such a size that it leaves a ring in the middle between the inner circle and the outer circle of boundary.

All right, I will ask the ladies, imagine a tattoo artist creating a tattoo which looks like this!

Imagine, I will ask them, the circle in the middle filled with the color of mainstream society: government, hospitals, schools, places of worship, bussnesses and buildings, cities and towns, streets and highways. This center circle is the place where law-abiding people hope to find decency and order.

Those who feel comfortable in this circle have smiles on their faces because they feel accepted and approved. If they are not smiling, we hope they will look for help, look for people who work in the government, hospitals, schools, places of worship, businesses, cities and towns.

Now look closely at the boundary of the outer circle, I will ask them. You see its designs are made up of the buildings of institutions: prisons, mental hospitals, and other places of isolation from society. You can't go beyond the boundaries of this circle. It's the end of the design. You have hit the wall.

I will ask them to look at the circle in the middle. It's a ring, actually, in the middle of a floating place, a limbo. Here you see tiny, unique designs: some are beautiful, some quite ugly, some very, very quiet, some making music...dancing.

Some are breaking the laws of the inner circle; some are moving too fast, some too slow. Some are quite happy: it is not as crowded here, isolation and loneliness are tolerated. Sometimes you see larger designs, the merging and mingling of smaller designs.

It's interesting that most of the designs seem to reflect the attributes of youth and adolescence.

Now, the designs appear to be moving, some toward the center circle, becoming part of the establishment; some move toward the outer, final circle of boundary, stopped because there is no other place to go and live.

But, it is time for us to learn more about ourselves before we can think of helping someone else.


late bloomer, fontanelle of the baby boomers...full of hope, believing in life-long learning, mentoring, doors opening...mother of four, grandma of one: I cultivate gardens in both hemispheres of earth and brain...

more about candy green gustavson


3: the decorations we wear
are we invisible without them?
by candy green gustavson
topic: pop culture
published: 12.24.09

everything's working together for good
good old dad
by candy green gustavson
topic: pop culture
published: 8.23.10


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