— From the pages of FLL Issue #30 • Photos by David Schrott
Part 1 – by Marian Pontz
My first introduction to tattoos was the colorful hula girl on my father’s older brother who had served in World War II in the Pacific Theater. I asked my father about the drawing on my uncle and Dad disdainfully dismissed my question with “something men in the military do.” I never really thought about tattoos again until I was riding on a SEPTA bus down Academy Road, in Northeast Philly. I saw an older woman sitting on the bench but holding on to the metal bar to steady herself. I noticed her accent first then the numbers on her forearm. I didn’t mean to stare but I had only read about those number tattoos. The elderly woman turned and stared back at me and said in her Eastern European accent, “You know what this is?” as she pointed to her arm. I nodded, embarrassed for looking. “Good,” she said. “Don’t ever forget.” A few minutes later, she rose and stepped down the steps and out of my view but not out of my memory. That morning I had fought back the tears that came because of the fear those Nazi numbers represented, my embarrassment for staring, and the sadness she must have carried with her. All of it had enveloped me on that 30-minute bus ride. Tattoos for me have always represented war or degradation of human beings— death. In those two cases (soldier and Holocaust survivor) the survival of, but still—in some form—death.
Emily Ellenton is not death or darkness; she is thirty years of beautiful light and life. I wouldn’t have known that though if not given this assignment to interview her. See, I pride myself on my acceptance of people. I’m not an “ist” of any kind, except I was. I admit it now. I judged people based on their tattoos. I warned my art student son that if he got a tattoo I would not pay for his education. I warned him that one day he was going to need a job and those that hire “are my age, Jordan. We don’t appreciate nor accept tattoos as being professional.” I’m not wrong in my warnings. I have been at dinner parties with people ranging from 30-60, movers and shakers of our county and they too spoke of the unprofessionalism of the tats. Emily accepts this. She readily admits she has been tuned away from two medical programs because “there are just so many open student spaces and there is no way doctors or hospitals would hire you.” But, she has found viable and long-term employment as a pharmacy worker in New Holland and as a part-time waitress at the Federal Taphouse in Lancaster City. “Since the age of 18,” she says, “I have taken care of myself. I am completely financially independent.”
She is bright, articulate, funny, and, as she says, nothing like the stereotypes of being trashy or involved in drugs or gangs. “I had the same boyfriend for nine years, don’t do drugs, and my gang is my mom and sister. My mom is attached to my hip. I could never leave her.”
Almost all of Emily’s tats are original pieces of art. “You won’t find these on anyone else. Most have personal meaning and hold such beauty for me.” As she shared these sentiments I thought of the time I had the pleasure of staring at the Sistine Chapel—Michelangelo’s ceiling of art—all original and all, at the time, controversial. Emily’s body allows her to express her art: body art.
Perhaps that’s what we have to now call it. Gangs and criminals get tattoos; everyone else gets body art. I will never forget my encounter with the lady on the bus (I promised), but I now see Emily as an artist. And, I now see Emily and not just her tattoos.
Part 2 – by Jordan Capizzi
“I think she digs me.” This is what was said to me by the stranger sitting on the stool next to mine about two years ago in a bar in Philadelphia. The she in question was the heavily tattooed girl behind the bar who also, unbeknown to my new friend and temporary drinking buddy, happened to be my girlfriend at the time. Entertained by the conversation between the girl I knew very well and the man I had just met—and imbued with the kind of courage that only gin can bring—I asked the twenty-something sitting beside me what made him so sure that he had won the bartender’s favor. His answer was simple: “Tattooed chicks love me.”
Though my tattooed companion and I have since parted ways, I think of her every time I see a woman with tattoos in the service industry, or, to clarify, every time I see a man with an inflated ego desperately hitting on a woman with tattoos in the service industry. It’s not an uncommon occurrence, and, I might add, one that’s equal parts sad and entertaining to watch. While not many, myself included, would designate the tattooed as a “minority,” there are undeniable social stigmas surrounding people with body art. Someone with a significant amount of tattoos is treated differently, for better or worse, and is put under a different kind of scrutiny than those without.
“I’m comfortable with my body, and I’m happy to have the art that I have,” says Emily Ellenton, a young woman living in Lancaster with a great amount of visible tattoos. “I wouldn’t trade what I have for anything.” Ellenton’s confidence is infectious, and comes through when she discusses the pros and cons of having multiple tattoos. While she has had some trouble finding what most would call a traditional professional job, Ellenton says that her tattoos have brought her opportunities that, in the long run, are better suited to her. “I tried to apply to some medical programs, but they wouldn’t take me,” Ellenton explains. “They wouldn’t teach me because they thought I wouldn’t get a job anyway, and that’s something I’ve come to accept.”
When asked about the social aspect of tattoos, Ellenton describes both the positives and negatives of what she’s experienced. She cares deeply about her relationship with her tattoo artist, and speaks fondly of her and her work. “Ina Vigilato is who I’ve gone to for most of my tattoos, and she’s amazing. Her work is mostly done freehand, and she takes time to get to know you and your body and find what’s right.” Though Ellenton found a friend in her tattoo artist, she also sees how tattoos can be socially exhausting. “I’ve learned how to shut down conversations quickly,” Ellenton says when asked about the type of attention that her tattoos get from men. “I don’t ever want to seem like a mean person, but sometimes I don’t feel like talking to strangers about my tattoos. They’re for me and no one else.”