Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Fit to be dyed

Published in the Modesto Bee on June 29, 2005

Generally speaking, if you say the word “tattoo” to me, my first thought is “De plane! De plane!” — not “something I need on my body.”

My grandfather had the coolest of cool tattoos — the scantily clad hula girl. And since my mom specifically forbade me to get one like it (I was 4), I hadn’t really thought of getting a tattoo after that.

Oh, sure, there was the time when I was 6 that I wanted an anchor on each forearm like Popeye, but other than that, not a whole lot of interest in getting jabbed with needles and permanently marking my skin.

So imagine my surprise when I found myself at 30, sitting calmly at Blasting Zone in Turlock while some cat was dutifully engraving my arm.

No, I wasn’t drunk. It wasn’t a bet, either.

I’d been toying with the notion of getting a tattoo for about a year. I didn’t really have anything in mind. A few ideas that had come and gone were Pac-Man eating a line of dots around my arm and one of the plastic insert jobbies that you used to use to play 45s on your turntable.

But as I have read over and over, tattoo enthusiasts advise against getting a tattoo unless it is something you simply must have. So, not having that feeling about a video-game character or outdated audio accessories (or even a hula girl), I put the idea on hold.

And then Harry came.

My wife, Jen, and I were ecstatic over the arrival of our second son, Harrison.

He was born at the end of March. The kid popped out with more hair than I’d ever seen on a baby. He reminded me a little of Chewbacca, and — much to my wife’s delight, I’m sure — I referred to him as “my little Wookiee.”

Harry had a cornucopia of medical problems, and at only 7 weeks old, he died.

It hurt. Still does. But we look at the brief time we spent with him as a gift; Jen and I joke that Harry is acting as guardian angel to our 2-year-old, Brody. And given Brody’s sense of curiosity and adventure, he certainly could use one.

I know getting a tattoo isn’t going to bring him back, and it’s not as though I need ink on my arm to remember him, but I guess it’s a way for me to do something.

The whole time he was in the hospital, I just felt useless because I couldn’t do anything to fix him. I talked to him, I held him and played music for him, but I couldn’t do anything that would allow us to take him home.

My sister-in-law got a tattoo of Harry’s initials, which I thought was a cool idea. But I wanted something more than that, and I couldn’t think of something that felt right.

My first thought was to get a tattoo of Chewbacca, but from a practicality standpoint, I didn’t know if that would work. Plus, my, uh, guns aren’t that big. It’s true; I have arms like pipe cleaners.

Harry had a genetic condition that one of the doctors told me is sometimes called Superman syndrome.

This is particularly amusing as I’ve been crazy about Superman since I was very little — a superfreak, if you will (the kind you don’t bring home to mother).

So I made up my mind. A Superman shield with Harry’s initials.


Yeah, I know, every moron and his brother has a Superman “S” tattoo, but I don’t care.

I wasn’t doing it to be cool — even though Jon Bon Jovi has one, too — I wanted something that meant something to me.

All I had to do was muster the courage to get it done.

Once I made up my mind, I didn’t really have any second thoughts. The worst thing I could think of was the image of the tattoo artist having convulsive sneezes while inking up my arm, then having to explain it to people.

“Oh, the tattoo? Well, I’m a big Jackson Pollack fan.”

My wife, on the other hand, was becoming increasingly apprehensive about letting a needle jab her repeatedly. Her tattoo, to be fair, was a little more intricate than mine: a monarch butterfly with Harry’s initials.

See, at Harry’s funeral, a monarch butterfly flew in from nowhere and landed on the casket before taking off shortly after. A quick “hi and bye” to be sure, but it seemed appropriate.

Jen decided to get her tattoo just above her ankle, which didn’t surprise me. I knew she wouldn’t get it on her arm; as she likes to say, she has “sensitive

Once we got to the tattoo parlor — and no, we didn’t stick out in the slightest, thanks for asking — we met our respective artists.

We explained what we wanted and filled out the necessary paperwork before getting down to business. This took only a few minutes, but those few minutes stretched into eons for Jen, who kept saying she wasn’t sure if she wanted to do it, especially if they were going to use needles.

Because mine was relatively simple, I got to go first, which I wasn’t expecting. I wanted Jen to go first, primarily because if I shot through the stratosphere the second the needle hit my skin, it would be a little harder to convince her that it didn’t
hurt at all.

Jay, my tattoo artist, asked me if I was nervous.

“A little. Not as much as she is,” I said, hefting a thumb in my wife’s direction. Yeah, I sold her out. What do you want? I was nervous.

“OK, you’re gonna feel just a little pressure,” he said.

Now, as you’re probably already thinking, people generally hear this line in only one other situation.

Paying your mechanic.

Or is it sitting in the dentist’s chair? I get them confused sometimes.

I was surprised to find that it really was just a little pressure.

It hurt a little bit, but not nearly as bad as I thought it would. Jen said afterward that I didn’t even flinch when the needle hit.

“Yeah,” I said, “I didn’t want you to think it hurt that much.”

“Did it?”

“I had a needle in my arm. What do you think?”


Jen was an absolute trooper with her tattoo, which, by the way, looks really cool. Jopa, her tattoo artist, said he’s inked first-timers who screamed. She didn’t. I lent her my support and offered my hand for her to squeeze.

Which reminds me — I’d like to thank my brother for helping me type this.


I’m really proud of her; she did a good job. Of course, she had the support of her husband and her sister, who didn’t make fun (well, didn’t make much fun) of the faces she was making. Hey, we bought her a smoothie; that should count for something.

So, would I get another tattoo?

Something for my other son, perhaps?

I don’t know. Brody and I spend a lot of time drawing and singing. I have a feeling that we’ll bond that way.

Jen might get another one.

Right about the time I’m picked as People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive. Or Sexiest Woman, for that matter.

But I’m glad I got it. I mean, I’ll always remember Harry, but this way, other people will get to know him.

“Cool tattoo. Superman, right?”

“Yeah, I got it for my son, Harry. Let me tell you about him. First of all, he had a ton of hair … ”

Jeffrey Sparkman is a content coordinator and blogger for modbee.com. Read more of his thoughts and those of other local writers at www.modbee.com/blogs.


  1. Hi...
    I read your column in the Bee today...It was very good...When my little baby girl died in 82, tattoos were not popular with the general population like they are now...I think its wonderful that you and your wife got these tattoos in memory of your little one...I guess I could still get one in her memory...She was only 2 mths old when she died...You said it still hurts...And it will forever...Just not as much...My daughter would of been 23 yrs old this past June 9...It still hurts, but I have 2 other children and a grandchild now...Time takes care of alot....Thanks again for a great column...

  2. Mike S.3:49 PM

    I belive Superman would approve.
    God be with you and your family.

  3. Hi Jeff.

    Congratulations on the launch of modbee.com/blogs!

    I was thrilled when Genvieve C. asked me if she could link my blog to modbee.com's new blog page. I'm glad to have discovered other bloggers in the area as well.

    I started "The Prada Mama Chronicles" when I was pregnant with my daughter, Reanna, who just turned one last month. It is heartbreaking to hear stories about babies like Harry, and I would like to extend my condolences to you and Jen.

    God bless you and your family.

    Renee Sereno

  4. Thanks, everyone. Your comments are much appreciated by our whole family.

  5. Hi Jeff and Jen...

    What a great blog and what an awesome way to remember Harry. We loved the pictures of the tattoo's, also. You all are in our thoughts and prayers.

    Derrick, Sunshine and Brenna Grace

  6. You have a great gift, Jeff - you made me cry - then you made me laugh - then you made me cry again. It's a good thing it wasn't a super long entry - I might have needed a mood stabilizer soon - lol.

    I'm so glad that you guys look at Harry as a gift - that's the way that I see him too. I loved the pictures that Jen shared with us - and I feel so privileged to get to know him that way.

    Your "tats" (ha!) are awesome - and what a great way to honor your son. You can tell Jen that when I got my butterfly tattoo that I didn't cry - but I sweated and squirmed and whimpered like a true hero too! That must have been an awesome smoothie to make up for that kind of pain!

    Em sends Brody lots of kisses - and I have added y'all to my blogroll - I will definitely be checking back for new entries!


  7. It was an awesome smoothie. It had coconut in it.

  8. Woah, another thing I never tought would happen. Good ol' big Jeff getting a tattoo. There is no better reason to get a tattoo, than to remember a lost loved one. I am still trying to thing of a tattoo design for me and my brother to get for my dad. Congrats on your new ink.

  9. Beautiful Post. I'm thinking of getting one to remember my mom.