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BRAIN WAVES

Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona Blog

The Memory Makers: More than Skin Deep

By Ellen Fortini 


In his nearly 25 years as a tattoo artist, Paul Feinauer has seen his craft go from fringe culture to mainstream acceptance, with popular trends coming and going. But one style that stands the test of time is the memorial or survivor tattoo. A native of Bay City, Michigan, Paul moved to Daytona Beach 17 years ago and began working in various tattoo shops while honing his skills and developing a strong clientele. Three years ago, he opened the upscale tattoo shop Virtue Studios with his wife and business partner, Natalie, a professional body piercer.

Awareness ribbons and important dates tend to be the most common symbols clients request when choosing to commemorate a loved one or life event.

The Memory Makers: More than Skin Deep

By Ellen Fortini


In his nearly 25 years as a tattoo artist, Paul Feinauer has seen his craft go from fringe culture to mainstream acceptance, with popular trends coming and going. But one style that stands the test of time is the memorial or survivor tattoo. A native of Bay City, Michigan, Paul moved to Daytona Beach 17 years ago and began working in various tattoo shops while honing his skills and developing a strong clientele. Three years ago, he opened the upscale tattoo shop Virtue Studios with his wife and business partner, Natalie, a professional body piercer.

Awareness ribbons and important dates tend to be the most common symbols clients request when choosing to commemorate a loved one or life event.

The Feinauers say there are generally three types of clients: tattoo enthusiasts who get a tattoo because they like it; first timers who put effort into planning something particularly meaningful; and then there are the survivor and memorial tattoo clients, who are looking to celebrate a person or a life event. “We get calls on doing those at least once a week,” confirms Paul.

“I’d say 25 percent of our clients’ requests are awareness ribbons, people who died, and pets, too,” Natalie, a native of Howell, New Jersey, clarifies. “But if we’re talking memorial tattoos in general, then that ups the ante because it includes portraits of people who passed. So, if we’re talking about tattoos that have meaning behind them, I’d say they are probably at least 75 percent of what we do.”

According to the couple, awareness ribbons and important dates tend to be the most common symbols clients request when choosing to commemorate a loved one or life event. “Some people have something specific they want to get,” says Paul. Other people have a general idea of what they want and it’s our job to help them with that.

When a young mother came to Virtue Studios to get a tattoo that represented her children, Natalie asked her to share things that remind her of them. “Well, I call my son my ‘Little Rat,’” said the woman, so a rat combined with a sprig of her daughter’s birth-month flower resulted in a custom, personal tattoo, deep with meaning, to be treasured for a lifetime.

Bringing in a visual reference helps the artist, too. If the subject is Grandma’s teacup, an heirloom jewelry piece, or a favorite landscape, accuracy and detail can mean a cherished, unique tattoo for the recipient. Additionally, the style of the tattoo matters, such as whether it’s a cartoon, realistic, traditional, or black and white, so the artist can develop an appropriate image to convey the emotion of the image.

On the other hand, trendy images and overly specific information can backfire. “I try to sway people away from a traditional ribbon and date,” says Natalie. “Twenty years from now, you want to be able to look at your tattoo and be really excited about it… not think, ‘14 other people got that exact same thing.’ Keep in mind too, that when you tattoo dates, you are inviting strangers who see the tattoo to talk to you about your situation, and most people get memorial tattoos for a private reason and not to discuss it with other people.”

However, Amy Zellmer, an author and full-time brain-injury advocate from St. Paul, Minnesota who publishes Brain Health magazine, welcomes inquiries about her survivor tattoo of a green TBI awareness ribbon embellished with scrolls in a heart shape. “It’s right where I can see it, with my flip-flops on,” she says. A tattoo enthusiast prior to her brain injury, Amy already had a preferred artist who created some of her favorite designs, including a rendition of the prophetic words “This Too Shall Pass” on her forearm.

“I was still in the thick of my recovery when I got my tattoo, and I just wanted it as almost a badge of honor, like ‘I’ve been through this, it’s a part of me,’ because even if I one-hundred percent recover, it will always be a part of me,” Amy says. “I wanted it as a reminder of what I have been through.”

Her traumatic brain injury happened in February 2014 when she fell backwards onto a patch of black ice, hitting her head at an incline. She says she immediately knew something was wrong, but it took a long time to find a doctor who was able to help her, and misunderstandings about TBI within the medical community prevented her from receiving the care she needed in a timely manner.

On the one-year anniversary of the accident, Amy wrote an article for Huffington Post that went viral. A friend had encouraged her to write the story, but Amy admitted she wondered if anyone would read it or even care. Soon, people from around the world were contacting her to say she had put into words what they as fellow survivors had not been able to. “I started to think, ‘OK, maybe I am on to something here,’” she recalls. And so, her foray into the world of advocacy began.

“People all the time will ask about your tattoos,” Amy admits. “I am pretty much an open book, but for some people, it’s very personal and they don’t want to share. If you encounter someone who doesn’t want to talk about it, respect that.” Amy’s decision to get a prominently placed brain injury awareness ribbon wasn’t just for herself— it was also an invitation to others to talk openly about TBI.

“It’s a great conversation starter,” she says. “Everyone knows what a pink ribbon means, but they may not know what green means, so if they ask what it signifies, it’s a great awareness tool to be able to share that it’s for Traumatic Brain Injury.”

Like Amy, for most clients, getting creative means going beyond a name on a banner, or a religious symbol, or trends like EKG readouts and signatures, and good artists are happy to help clients with ideas. But there is one trend Paul says Virtue Studios will not do: mix ashes in ink. He cautions that ashes are a foreign matter and it’s not possible to know exactly what is in the ash, including chemicals. “We want to control the environment here and we know what products we are using, so we don’t want to introduce an uncontrolled element to the controlled environment. It’s a variable we can’t predict,” he explains.

Virtue Studios strives to be an environment where everything from the music to the lighting is conducive to the customer’s comfort. “We even light candles when we have a client getting a memorial piece, so when people come into the shop, they know what is happening and we can maintain that respectful environment,” says Natalie.

Once the tattooing begins, clients receiving a memorial or survivor tattoo often experience a certain emotional release, and many consider it a form of therapy that takes place for several hours in one sitting. “We’re like bartenders. Except we have them a lot longer than they do at the bar, usually,” Paul jokes.

“You can almost see the stress leaving their face when this procedure is being done. Sometimes people get into it and don’t want to be too talkative, and other times people yuk it up like nothing’s even happening,” Paul elaborates. “We accommodate to either person, but we’d rather converse because it leads to a better overall experience for [the client].”

The Feinauers say they won’t specifically ask the reason for a tattoo or piercing but are more than happy to listen if the client wants to share. Paul admits to getting emotional at times, too. “I’ve been in tears when I am working on someone, and it’s not from the tattoo. It’s the fresh memory of what the tattoo is a symbol of. To them, it’s just that powerful. It’s ok to be emotional like that and it’s sometimes hard to keep your composure.”

Paul Feinauer

Paul Feinauer

Natalie Feinauer

Natalie Feinauer

“It’s the same for piercing,” says Natalie. “I always joke that once the door closes to the piercing room, the therapy session has started. People really do spill out a lot of very personal things. One time a client called me 15 minutes before we closed and apologized for the late notice but said she had just put her father in hospice and said ‘I want to feel pretty much anything other than what I am feeling right now. Can you please help me?’”

Natalie credits the late Fakir Musafar, a world-leading body piercer and performance artist, with affirming her understanding of proper piercing ritual, including the emotional release clients experience. “You get to see it over and over,” she says. “We are fortunate people trust us with a very personal, sacred thing and we take it very seriously.”

A former project-management professional, Natalie lost her job in 2011 at the height of the recession and knew she needed a new, more stable career. Paul encouraged her to try piercing as a way for her to be directly involved in the industry and not just as a business owner. Her compassion for people, extreme attention to detail, and willingness to learn has made Natalie a leading expert in piercing.

“At first, I didn’t like the idea of hurting people, but then I realized I could make piercing a positive experience,” she says. “I didn’t want to treat people like cattle: stabbing them, shoving jewlery in them, and throwing them out the door.” She tells the story of the second professional piercing she ever got that felt more like “lunch with a friend” and even ended with her receiving a lollipop. “He made me feel so comfortable, my nerves melted away. I love, love, love seeing people look at themselves differently than when first came through the door,” shares Natalie.

There are times when a client comes in feeling uncomfortable about a certain part of their ear that looks different from the norm, such as a tragus that sticks out or an uncommonly shaped conch. Natalie enjoys being able to curate a look with a proper piercing and jewelry that showcases the unique anatomy rather than it being a source of shame or embarrassment.

For Paul, restoring clients’ trust in his profession, whether they have paid unreasonable prices for inferior work or dealt with unpleasant service elsewhere, bring him great satisfaction. “They may be turned off forever and never want to trust a tattoo artist again,” he says. “But if you can bring them back and give them great work at a reasonable price, that’s inspiring to me, because they are happy that they gave us a chance, and maybe they’ll want to get more stuff done.”

In Amy’s experience, tattoo regret can be more easily avoided by doing some homework in advance. “It’s important to find an artist with a good reputation, especially during COVID-19, to make sure they are following precautions,” she advises. “You can interview [the artist]; don’t just go to the first shop [you find]. It’s important to find someone you trust. Quality makes a difference. And if it’s your first [tattoo] and you don’t have a relationship with an artist, it’s important to find someone who can understand what you want.”

Some questions Amy recommends asking include how long an artist has been tattooing, and whether they can create a unique design or if they rely on templates. She also encourages getting a quote on the price and the time it will take in advance.

“Some survivors of brain injury feel their injury took some of their personal control away from them,” says Brittany Sweeney-Lawson, resource facilitation for the Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona. “Getting a tattoo or a piercing may be a way they choose to reclaim their body and take back control. Amy’s memorial tattoo as a brain injury conversation starter is an example of self-empowerment, and the Feinauers are examples of how to help people assert that power in a safe, comfortable environment.”

Paul and Natalie’s tips for finding a good shop and artist:

  1. Decide what style of tattoo you want: portrait, traditional, color, etc. Browse images online, ask around, and consider the nature of what you are memorializing.
  2. Find an artist who specializes in the style you are looking for and make sure they have clean line work and full saturation of color.
  3. Speak with someone who has had work done by the artist and ask to see healed work without image filters so you can see if the healed skin is swollen or inflamed.
  4. Visit the studio, let them know you are shopping around, and ask to see their work in portfolios. The pandemic may prevent you from being able to enter the shop and flip through a physical book, so ask if they have photo galleries online or on their social media pages.
  5. Ask questions. This indicates the client is aware of the dangers of going to an unreputable shop. A client should never be afraid to ask if a studio reuses their tools and if so, to see the results of their most recent spore test on their autoclave (sterilization machine).
  6. Feel comfortable in the environment of the studio. A client should not feel intimidated or scared when walking in and should not feel pressured to leave a deposit if they are unsure if they want to have the work done at all. But once you’ve committed to an appointment, expect to be asked to leave a deposit to ensure you will return.

 

*Ellen Fortini is a globetrotting writer, editor, and public relations professional. She currently resides in Las Vegas, Nevada.

ABOUT BRAIN INJURY ALLIANCE OF ARIZONA

The Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona (BIAAZ) is the only statewide nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of adults and children with all types of brain injuries through prevention, advocacy, awareness and education. BIAAZ also houses the Arizona Brain Health Resource Center, a collection of educational information and neuro-specific resources for brain injury survivors, caregivers, family members and professionals.

What began in 1983 as a grassroots effort has grown into a strong statewide presence, providing valuable life-long resources and community support for individuals with all types of brain trauma at no charge.

The Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona:

  • Works with Congressional Brain Injury Task Force
  • Houses Arizona Brain Health Resource Center
  • Hosts Statewide Opioid Use Disorder & Cognitive Impairment Workgroup
  • Has Statewide Opioid Use Disorder & Cognitive Impairment Response team with peer support, training, and family wraparound services
  • Facilitates Brain Health Advisory Council
  • Manages statewide Neuro Info-Line: 888-500-9165

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