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  • Writer's pictureP.J. Powell

Scarred for life: creating a drawing for my friend’s tattoo

This is the final drawing I did for my friend’s tattoo.

When I asked my friend Erin what she wanted for her birthday, she asked me if I would design a tattoo for her. Amidst feelings of flattery, a fine thread of fear began sprouting in my heart. It would be the second tattoo drawing I had done for her (and I’ve drawn my own), but, as Facebook likes to remind me, it’s been about four years since I’ve drawn anything. I said yes, THEN asked her what she wanted: “A tree of life with a DNA-helix trunk.” Sure. No prob. *bites nails*

Step one: procrastinate.  Step two: repeat. She emailed me some tattoos that use her concept and told me what she did and didn’t like about them.  I looked at those, judged them, and saved some pictures of banyon trees. Because, you know. Ego. I want my drawing to be the gesture of a real tree, to feel like a tree, to –

We talked on her birthday and she’d made the tattoo appointment for six days later.  Step three: just draw the damn tree.  Which really means ransack the basement for your tracing paper, because God forbid you draw some part you like and have to redraw it on the next version of the tree.

Using references.  I look at them online, print some that I like, and use them for inspiration. This is analogous to reading other people’s writing to prepare yourself to tell your own stories.

Just like with novels, there’s a tendency to think that art just happens. That people just know how to do it or they don’t. That’s crap. It’s process and practice in partnership with the wild, creative spirit.  I’m out of practice with drawing, but all these valuable lessons from my art classes came back right away. I knew to use references, to use tracing paper so I could layer different possibilities onto my working drawing and keep what I wanted, to take breaks, to look at the piece from far away, etc.

I draw on the tracing paper first and then I can do different versions without messing up the working drawing. Once I have the parts I like I can put them on the working drawing. Artwise, this is sort of the paper equivalent of the word processor for writing.

I had a blast working on the drawing. When I got into the roots I was torn between loving this gnarly, grabby shape I came up with and giving those roots something to hold. That’s where I got the idea of adding the anatomical heart. Step four: overcomplicate your project, if you can.

Here is the thing – I truly thought that idea was nuts.  And it definitely upped the artistic ante and time commitment considerably.  I came SO CLOSE to not even bringing it up to Erin.

But she loved the idea because she’s a scientist and an anatomy professor. I was still sure it was going to be a disaster of overcomplicated, over-the-top, Hot-Topic-T-Shirt-looking NIGHTMARE. Which mightn’t be beyond loveable but could make a laughable piece of skin art. Not to mention I had no idea whether any part of this drawing was really feasible to tattoo, because, I’m not a tattoo artist in this lifetime. I told her it might inspire homicidal notions in the tattoo artist and that I’d do two versions – with and without the heart.

So I did.  When I sat back and looked at the version with the heart I thought, welp, that’s certainly extreme.  I texted it to her and told her as much, figuring we should probably scrap it. She texted back and said she agreed it was extreme but that she also reacted to it on a visceral level.  Another lesson from my art classes: that is a very, very good sign.  She decided to go for it.  Once I took a break from it and came back for another look, I was sold on it. I’m so glad she went through with it and I think she is, too. Her tattoo artist, John Riendeau, did an amazing job and I’m excited that I got to be part of the project.  I love, love, love creating art for friends. I’m grateful that she made the request.

Here’s the tattoo inked by artist John Riendeau.

Creator lessons

1) TAKE THE RISK. Even if this hadn’t worked out, I would have still gotten to explore two concepts and who knows where else it could have led. 2) YOU’VE GOT A BLIND SPOT WHEN IT COMES TO YOUR WORK.  I doubted myself the whole way, even in the midst of enjoying the work, and I know a lot of other creators who feel the same way. Your inner critic and your inner artist are two different people sharing one brain, working for different ends.  They have a right to their own opinions, but don’t let them interfere with each other too much.

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