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Like most millennials, I’ve got tattoos. Unlike most millennials, however (I’m unique), I’ve been in love with tattoos since fifth grade, when I’d get almost daily ass-whuppings for drawing warped Yin-Yang symbols on my wrist with permanent marker. Instead of taking the hint, I took up a passion, and 20-odd years and 12 tattoos later, there’s a stack of tattoo history books, art books, and sketchbooks in my bedroom to rival anyone’s.
Unable to fully commit to the dream fresh from high school, I spent five years at an art school for writing, forced to drop my illustration double. (Dear Sallie Mae, there’s only three people in my family with good credit, so I don’t really care that you’re Ready To Help Me with College).
In this spirit, after six instances of artists agreeing to apprentice me, and then changing their minds (Oh, yeah, sorry, I decided to move back to Chicago), or changing their terms (OK, so, if we’re gonna do this Imma need three g’s, up front), I found an obscure listing on an apprenticeship forum seeking a female artist (ther r only 2 females here, they want anutha woman 2 make it even <3 :) :D, it read). They wanted someone dedicated, passionate, willing to relocate to California dependent upon her artistic skill.
Jumping for joy is kind of an understatement. Especially for an introvert, scarred by too many instances of aggressive rejection when visiting a shop (We don’t do that shit in here!). To have found an apprenticeship online, not only open to having an apprentice but seeking a female? Too good to be true. Women aren’t exactly a commodity in traditional tattoo spots. The artist who’s done most of my work once told me: "Careful looking for apprenticeships as a chick -- there are tons of guys out there just looking for a fuck toy. Somebody they can play with and never really teach anything. Never pay for it. In any way."
If only he knew. If only I knew.
The shop in California had no website, only a Facebook page run by someone with an obvious ignorance to or abhorrence of grammar. They requested quality photos of my work, mainly photo realism and portraits, but some attempts at flash as well. I was told I was in the running with some girl from the UK, and it seemed promising, so I devoted all of my post-college free time to creating pieces for them (and dodging messages from Jonathan, my Sallie Mae customer service agent, calling for the third time that week).
As I’m sure you’ve guessed, the shop wanted to take me on, agreeing to fully fund my ticket out to California, my room and board, moving my stuff, hell even helping me find some part time work to keep me afloat (apprenticeships are always unpaid internships). A contract was drawn.
Now, let’s pause for a moment. As I’m sure you haven’t guessed, I’m no fool. I’m a young black woman in America, and if the stats have proven anything (other than the power of instinct), it’s that our lives are somewhat...expendable. Which isn’t true, per se, but a truth, for sure. Black women in this country are “murdered by males at a rate of 2.61 per 100,000 in single victim/single offender incidents. For white women, the rate was 0.99 per 100,000."
Granted, these are domestic violence statistics for 2011, but how about this: “Despite representing 12.85 percent of the population, black Americans accounted for nearly 226,000 — or 34 percent — of all missing persons reported in 2012," said an article by Identities Mic, citing FBI figures. "Black women and girls comprised more than 64,000 of the missing reports.” Sixty-four thousand.
So I did my homework before I uprooted my entire life to a place to which I had no ties...or backup.
First, I Skyped with the shop owner, who was to become my boss until the artist who agreed to apprentice me returned from tattooing abroad (We’ll just fly you out and see how you vibe in the shop before he gets here). We drafted a contract (which I had to edit, since he seemed unable to do the grammar so good).
Then, I spoke with the artist himself, to confirm that he would indeed be there as planned, through Facebook messenger (I’m in Denmark, no phone sorry). I checked the artist portfolio, scanning the clarity of lines, originality of design, and read his lengthy posts on the importance of tattooing in his life and how it saved him.
My next step was to scout the shop’s location, where I would be staying, and the crime rates for the city-town. After that, an email to the local representative for the Better Business Bureau to confirm the shop not only existed, but was functioning, accredited, and licensed (nothing worse than a dirty shop).
Sure that the shop was real, actual tattoo artists worked there, and that it wasn’t some elaborate hoax to kidnap me, or worse, I made the gut-wrenching decision to leave my boyfriend behind, and fly two hours, six hours, one hour, on successively smaller planes, until I reached the golden coast.
From there, it seemed pretty good. April sunshine, clear skies, with only the occasional drizzle. The owner hadn’t informed me the house I’d be living in was his own, but I tried not to debate it. The town was as tree-hugger-hippie as it could get, and I didn’t want to offend anyone with my city sensibilities.
I was given menial chores around the house to supplement my nonexistent income, and the artists at the shop slowly warmed up to me. I became “indispensable” to them, organizing stencils for the Friday the 13th rush, scheduling clients whenever artists were out, going on food and coffee runs. Toward the end, they tipped me out to help out (remember, always unpaid) and built me a custom machine.
The shop manager loved me, the artists adored me, and my boss? Well, he wanted me.
In the beginning, there were nice gestures. and let me be clear, I rarely refused, but I never asked. Welcome to my town, here’s a poster. A ride to your state ID appointment. A $200 jacket. Hiking boots.
And it seemed OK, if uncomfortable. Tree-hugger hippie, right?
But then the gestures came with prices. Even hippies can be capitalists.
I just got you a massage with a super-awesome masseuse. Why won’t you watch Boondocks alone with me tonight?
So, you don’t like the little dragon statue I bought you? Then, well, why won’t you go to dinner with me later?
I’m paying for your room and board, your food, when I tell you you’re pretty you shouldn’t be so rude, and should take the fucking compliment.
Uncomfortable is an understatement. Instead of getting rides in the morning to the shop, I started biking four miles daily to avoid getting in his car. Instead of coming home at a reasonable hour, I’d stay as late as possible and then sneak in the back door to my room. When you buy a security bar to prevent your boss from entering your room whenever he feels like it, something is wrong. When you have panic attacks every time he knocks, something is wrong.
Time and again he’d appear at the shop, to interrupt my drawing or chastise me for “hiding in my room.” He’d demand hugs, finger-poking me at every chance, kicking out the back of my knees like a child. Touching my hair. Flying into a rage whenever I said no, stop (You’re so ungrateful). The longer I stayed at the shop during the day, the longer he began to stay, until I imagined him following me in his car and trying to run me over. I stopped riding with my earbuds in.
Something was wrong. So I made plans to escape.
One of the tenets of our contract included him providing a return flight should things not work out. Lucky for me, my artist decided not to show up, unable to procure his wife a visa as well (so far as I know), so I asked to be sent home.
"I’ve wasted enough money on you. I’m not sending you home too, you’re too demanding. You can stay here and work for the money, or figure it out yourself."
I have to pause here and say that family is truly everything. Despite my lying to them and telling them things were all good until they went super bad, they pooled their resources and bought me a ticket home.
So, back in Georgia, ecstatic to be free, reunited with my boyfriend, I felt like maybe I’d escaped the guillotine after all. But, no.
My former boss started sending me horrible messages on Facebook, wishing death on my mommy. Once he was blocked for that, he resorted to using the profiles of his friends to harass me. He accused me of stealing, of lying. He told me he was pursuing charges. When I deleted my profile, his text messages had my phone on permanent vibrate. Same with my email.
For a month or two after, I’d have nightmares about all the nights spent with one eye on my door, too afraid to sleep, trapped. Almost too paralyzed to write, to draw.
The story continues presently, and all I can say is if it weren’t for my family, my boyfriend, my friends, or my art, I’d have lost it by now. I'm typing these words to relieve some of the anxiety that still clenches my gut every time someone knocks on the door.
My neighbors think I’m rude, too.