Finding a Change and a Tattoo that Changed With Me
by Jenice Johnson Williams
I don’t really know what came first — wanting alcohol or needing alcohol.
I think like most of us who probably did things they shouldn’t have as teens, alcohol was really a want. For me, it wasn’t so much a “want” to fit in, but more like a want to try all the flavors and fall into the sensation of just being. I liked that feeling.
At the time I didn’t realize that just meant being uninhibited — feeling freer. Looking back now my want could have easily been read as a need — needing to feel lighter for just a little while. A need to just laugh everything off, to cram down feelings of inadequacy, because all my friends were dating while I was the girl guys usually considered just a friend. A drink worked also as a device to forget an argument with my mom.
Luckily, I saved all the really poor choices with booze for my 20s. The excuses for my drinking were numerous.
Great day at work? Drink.
Bad day at work? Drink.
Cute guy at bar? Buy me a drink. or three or four!
A day didn’t go by without a drink, no matter what. The night I started my Art Is Life tattoo, I was pretty tipsy already and out with a group of friends. Suddenly, I struck a spontaneous idea (but a predictable one).
Get a tattoo.
I have been a writer since I was seven years old, but by this time, photography also began to be an integral part of my life. For me, that is what the tattoo was going to mean originally — that my work was life.
I wanted the words plain; I just wanted it to look like I had sat down and wrote it myself. The tattoo artist seemed cool at the time, even joked with my friends and me. As days went by, and the tattoo began to heal, the ink in the 'S' fell out. I called him and he was a jerk about it.
By the time we arranged a day for him to redo it, he was full-blown abrasive, accusatory, rude and I was in shock, yet I let him fix that letter, painfully. One thing I am not is a shrinking violet, but I didn’t lash out or leave.
It was almost as if I knew I should have known better from the start and was taking the horrible experience as punishment for a poor choice — if not bad timing. From that point on began the bizarre history of this tattoo all the way into my sobriety now of over seven years.
I sometimes call it my prison tat because it’s had a hard life and it looks it!
I grew a little resentful of the art on my skin, never feeling like it looked . . . finished. It's like it had bad karma etched in it. The next artist I went to was a much better experience, but she ultimately didn’t give me what I wanted. She added a magenta flower like I had asked, but it didn’t look the way I pictured it. On top of that, it didn’t heal correctly. The flower was an attempt to distract from the fact that there was a fair amount of space between 'is' and 'life', but turned into yet another problem I was going to need to fix.
Several months later, an artist I worked with years before exceeded my expectations by covering the first flower with a new one and added a few more. This time adding blues and greens. For a while I was content enough with the end result. However, it still never felt finished to me and by the time I was ready to transform this tattoo yet again, I had been sober for three years.
My road to recovery was spiritual, full of prayer, and unconventional. Each milestone year came with a rocky situation that shook my resolve, but I never wavered.
Before you get sober, the lie you start believing is that you aren’t an alcoholic. What reinforces the lie is that all your drinking buddies will tell you that you don’t have a problem.
This is usually because they are basing their opinion on whether or not they themselves think that they have a problem. Another reason is that they are defining alcoholism by how may drinks you’ve had.
Remembering those days, I realized later the amount I drank was the biggest issue of all, because I drank a lot. And often. But I wasn’t a whiskey-bottle-a-day drinker. I thought about booze every waking moment. Drinking covered and obscured all of my spiritual gifts — mainly empathy. I drank not to feel. I drank to become what I thought was a more fun and appealing version of myself.
Everyone seemed to enjoy my antics. (I was a fun drunk.) I was way more confident around men and they reinforced that behavior by appealing to my misguided ego. That, more than anything, defined a clear problem.
To me, the irony of getting a tattoo that says Art Is Life while being drunk is that the meaning it had at the time was an idea that I hadn’t yet bought into:
Everything in life is art
How can you experience that while drinking to numb your feelings?
Every raw emotion or pain — the ugly and the beauty of it — is all art. It was a transformation in myself that was yet to come that would make me fully comprehend the meaning of the art on my skin.
When I was ready to add some closure to my tattoo, I had heard my last tattoo artist had taken his own life. I didn’t know him well, but I remember after hearing the news that I started studying each flower he placed on my arm. They needed closure, too. A friend from out of town was visiting in 2012, and we decided prior to her arrival that we were going to get tattoos.
The artist we chose worked with me on what I wanted, sensing already that vines were needed to connect the dots, so to speak. And being a big fan of owls, I asked if he could add a small one on the vines. He freehanded it, actually, which makes me love it even more in all its quirkiness and imperfections.
To be continued . . .
I don’t think I’m completely done with this tattoo. Not because I feel the chapters around it are done. It’s because I’ve moved on and I want to expand around the foundation — letting it stretch up and down the lower part of my arm like the ebb and flow of music.
After I stopped drinking in 2009, I began dreaming of a place where people like me could be creative and grow without the social pressures of alcohol which often accompanies the art world — pressures like booze given away freely as a perk of coming to see the work.
I wanted it to be a place where even those who are not in recovery could discover and expand their gifts. I began to see this dream become reality when I finally opened a sober creative space almost two years ago.
I called it Art Is Life Studio.
About The Author
Jenice Johnson Williams is writer, photographer and owner of Art Is Life Studio in Richardson, TX. Come explore her site and discover a transformation for yourself.