It started innocently enough. I wanted to commemorate what I considered no small achievement: reading all 12 volumes of the History of Middle-earth in one year. I made the pledge and started the trek in January of 2011, and managed to turn the last page in mid-December of that year. (I wrote about the experience here and here)
So what could I do to mark this considerable milestone?
I’d had every opportunity in my younger days to become one of the Inked. Lived with several bands, traveled around with all sorts of characters in a circus-like caravan for years before pretending to settle down and got a “real job”.
But never once did I feel the urge to get a tattoo. Big, small, cool or silly, it never crossed my mind as anything I would ever want to do. “How permanent!” “Do I really want everyone to see and judge me?” “Wouldn’t it affect my job or the impression customers and co-workers would get?” All of that crossed my mind, but not in any sort of huge, conflicting way. I just never wanted one.
So why, when searching for an appropriately Big Sign statement to mark the conclusion of my most recent Tolkienian Journey, was that one of the first things that came to mind?
Mayhap, as some have speculated (myself included), it’s a sort of midlife crisis, only instead of a Porsche I got some ink. (By the way – if this truly is the midpoint of my life, 50% gone and 50% still to come, I’ll take it, say thankee-sai.)
Others have said, simply, “I think he’s lost his mind…”
I haven’t overanalyzed it too much, which is admittedly unlike me in most respects, but have come to terms with the fact that – guess what? – people change their minds sometimes.
So I kept it simple, opting for a medium-sized version of JRRT’s Sigil, thinking it would probably hurt less, take less time, and cost less than a bigger, more intricate piece. All true.
Everyone I spoke to who’d already experienced the needle said, “You’re gonna want another one. Maybe even before the first one’s done.”
“Nah. This’ll be all I need.”
They were right.
About a month after the Sigil healed up I got another much bigger one on the opposite arm. It’s non-Tolkien but represents something just as important, just as much a part of me: Music. I designed the concept and my artist embellished it perfectly. Loved it. Still do.
But that still wasn’t enough.
A few months after that I decided I needed to build on the first one and add lots of my favorite imagery from Tolkien’s works. Every book I’d read would be fair game, from The Hobbit to Hurin to The History. But where to start for inspiration and ideas?
I checked out The Internets, of course. Duh.
Here’s where (I thought, anyway) it got interesting.
All of what I found looked extremely cool, highlighting all the stuff that made me love the stories to begin with. There were lots of quotes (“Not all who wander…” is rightly a favorite, it seems), plenty of Elvish script, and many versions of The White Tree. But a lot of what I found was Dark – not everything, but most of the big, colored pieces would definitely have made Sauron (or maybe his Mouth) smile.
I’m the first to admit that the Ringwraiths (especially mounted on the dreaded Fell Beasts, winging their way into battle), Balrogs, the lidless eye, all of the orcs, goblins and myriad other evil denizens of Middle-earth look cool, especially in action, in color, and as interpreted by various artists.
Unlike my own middle-aged motivations, I did analyze this phenomenon briefly, and came to the following conclusion.
Evil, especially in stories, movies, comics, and other artistic media, almost always looks cool. Some would argue, rightly, than when seen in its True Form it can be as hideous as the acts it facilitates or commits itself. (Witness the Emperor in Star Wars, who – let’s face it – never looked all that cool to begin with but who got worse looking as his cowl drew back more and more. That’s what pure evil does to one, apparently.)
In my early adolescence nearly all I listened to was very hard rock. It started, similarly to the way Bieber and Gaga and countless homogenized new-school hip hoppers act as a gateway drug for today’s impressionable future pop consumers, with Kiss. I liked the costumes, the makeup, the onstage antics – blood and fire-breathing? Was I at a Ren Fair by mistake? And most of all the wicked cool album covers.
When I outgrew the theatrics and moved on to a greater appreciation of the music itself, it still needed to be loud guitars, pounding drums, and long, epic stories. If there were battles in the songs themselves, so much the better.
Sabbath, Zeppelin, and eventually Rush – the longest-lasting obsession thus far – met all those criteria, and their album art and concert themes were usually as grandiose and over the top as anything I’d ever seen.
There was almost always an overlay of evil in the music and the associated artwork. Sometimes overt – Sabbath and its legion of wannabes, and I’ll never forget the first time I saw Eddie the ‘ead on an Iron Maiden cover – steadily more subtle as the bands and I grew up together. Zeppelin’s “No Quarter” is oozing with a menace never seen, lurking just over the horizon – maybe they won’t be home tonight, after all. 2112, Rush’s opus that first showed me how art and philosophy and thoughts a little deeper than I’d ever heard before could exist in Rock, depicts the ultimate evil empire. The difference with all of their tunes, though, is that there is almost always a protagonist fighting against that malevolent force. (But not always winning. “We have assumed control…” anyone?)
Which brings me back to my choices.
I did not want anything representing evil, or even hinting at it, on my body for the rest of my life. (Which is not to say that those bearing these awesome examples are bad or evil people, or that they like evil things, or support evil in the upcoming elections, or anything like that… That’s just what they like, and it’s their choice. It’s just not the message I want to send.)
So no One Ring, no Sauron, no evil minions or flying monstrosities for me.
I knew I wanted imagery representing all of the Free Peoples of Middle-earth, so I started there. I drew some rough sketches for each of the four “panels” that would make up the half-sleeve covering my upper right arm from shoulder to elbow, then took them into my artist for a consult. Shane Sudduth from Inksomnia went way above and beyond the call in working with me, taking my drawings and incorporating his ideas and experience to bring the final work to life in ways I didn’t even know enough to hope for. I’d taken voluminous amounts of research to share with him, including some backstory and tons of printed and drawn pictures, usually several versions of each element so we could decide together how it would lay out.
Shane said he’d never had any of his clients provide that much background, which made my inner nerd beam, and said he probably wouldn’t have to do much more himself. He asked that I come back in about 2 weeks and we’d take a look at the initial design then.
To my surprised delight, when I returned to the shop and went back into Shane’s space he opened with, “Dude, I have never done this much research for a tattoo in my life – half-sleeve, full-sleeve, whatever. I watched all three extended versions again, took notes and screen grabs, and read for hours online. I was here until 2 AM a few nights ago. I think this is gonna be awesome.”
He’d added some major and some not-so-major elements to my in initial designs and each was a vast improvement on those original ideas. Blown away, I was eager to get started, so we did the outline that first day.
Six sessions and around 18 hours later, here’s how it came out:
We managed to keep all of my original design ideas – each of the main Free Peoples are in some way represented – and there are elements from The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, Children of Hurin, The Lord of the Rings, and The History, along with some Elvish script (including each of my daughters’ names in Tengwar script). Can you spot all the references?
I probably won’t get any more tattoos for a while, if ever. The length of time, the cost, and the perpetually healing state of my arm had me itching to get it finished, and when we finally did I ended up with a work of art that I could not be more pleased with. Each time I see it I like it a little more.
So why do people get tattoos? Probably for as many reasons as there are people, and as there are different types of tattoos. I’ve seen super cool ones, and some that were not so cool – to me. Some that were beautifully designed and executed, and many that were not. Some fantastic quotes, and some that seemed kind of stupid – again, to me. (Shane is of the opinion that if a picture is worth a thousand words, why not get a picture instead of a thousand words? But I know there are exceptions to that rule).
The armchair psychologist in me says this:
Tattoos are external manifestations of internal thoughts, feelings, archetypes, themes, tropes, loves- whatever- sometimes conscious, sometimes not, sometimes positive, sometimes not. I believe each says something about its bearer. Sometimes that something is as shallow as the needle pricks when it embeds the ink, sometimes as deep as the blood it draws from way down inside. Some are as purely artistic as anything ever brushed onto canvas or chipped into marble or carved onto vinyl, some are purely cartoonish, funny or nonsensical. But, for me, and especially lately, they’re never less than interesting.
And if I’m going to have something on my body for the rest of my days, however many that may be, it had better be something as important to me, as big a part of my life, as are the works of J.R.R. Tolkien.
Alatar is the latest writer to join TheOneRing.net staff. A Tolkienite from way back, Alatar first read the Trilogy when he was 15, and has done so about once a year since – it’s now over 25 times, and each pass brings some new insight and even greater appreciation. All things Tolkien continue to fascinate him, from The Silmarillion to the Children of Hurin to all 12 volumes of The History of Middle-earth to Tolkien’s letters. He’s very careful to keep his footing when stepping out his front door, but that doesn’t always guarantee that adventures won’t ensue. The views of our writers are not necessarily those of TheOneRing.net.