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First tattoos fade, but their meanings stay strong

Rob Ashe shows off his first tattoo of a "Watcher" logo on his left wrist. David Samson / The Forum

As a teenager in Larimore, N.D., Shanna Gratton Demke was so moved by the ska-infused music of the California band Sublime, she would hold her phone up to the stereo so her friend more than 300 miles away could listen.

“Dude, you gotta hear this song,” she remembers telling her pal in Williston, N.D.

The music helped forge a long-distance bond between them, and at the age of 19, Gratton Demke decided to memorialize their friendship by getting a tattoo of a Sublime album logo: a heart wrapped in barbed wire with flames shooting outward.

She was a University of North Dakota freshman living in Grand Forks, no longer under the direct eye of her parents. So one weekend, she came to Fargo and walked in the door of a downtown tattoo parlor where an artist emblazoned the logo on her lower back, “slightly above the tramp-stamp area,” she said.

The experience of getting her first tattoo triggered something inside Gratton Demke – a feeling that she couldn’t stop at only one. She had to get another.

“It’s just like potato chips,” she said.

Gratton Demke, who’s now 33 and works for an IT company in Fargo, has since gotten a string of tattoos: a lotus flower and a pair of snowboards on her ribs, a nautical star on the top of each foot and two shocks of wheat on her arm.

“I’ve got kind of ideas scoped out for several more down the road,” she said.

Gratton Demke said her first tattoo is in desperate need of a touch-up. But despite its age, she enjoys how it offers a window onto her 19-year-old state of mind.

“It’s a point in time,” she said. “I don’t regret it at all.”

‘Makes me laugh’

Rob Ashe, 28, also has a number of tattoos, but his first one didn’t lead to another and another. He said that as a teenager, he already knew he wanted a lot of body art.

Growing up, he was a passionate viewer of “Highlander,” a fantasy-action TV series. Some of the show’s characters, known as “Watchers,” had circular tattoos on the inside of their wrists. This led Ashe to get one of his own in the same spot.

“It basically looks like a weird, blue upside-down W with 13 dots around the outside of it,” he said. “It makes me laugh.”

About 10 years have passed since he got the tattoo. He’s had it touched-up, but its edges are still blurred, enough that his friends joke that he has a jailhouse tattoo.

Ashe said that even though it’s a “really crappy tattoo,” it’s become a conversation piece, and he has no plans to have it removed.

“I think things like that are important to keep,” he said.

Ashe, a guitar player and Red Sox fan, said the other tattoos he’s gotten have also been expressions of his interests. This includes a portrait of Jimi Hendrix on his shoulder, and on his arm, a sketch of Carlton Fisk hitting his famous 1975 World Series home run that bounced fair off a foul pole. “That one makes me happy,” he said.

Ashe said he has about 16 tattoos, but that’s just a guess. “They kind of start blending together, and they’re just like whole pieces at some point,” he said.

He sees his tattoos – one on his neck and sleeves on both arms – as a form of body armor that’s helped him in his fight against juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, a condition that’s attacked his joints since he was 16 years old. On his forearm, he has in block letters the words “Stronger than all.” It’s a Pantera lyric that keeps him motivated during tough workouts or guitar practice sessions.

“It’s something that has had a profound impact on me and something that I think was one of the best decisions I ever made,” he said.

‘Having meaning’

Joe Garza was raised in the southern Texas city of San Juan in a tough neighborhood where money was scarce. As he said, “I grew up in a very hard life.”

When the summer heat became unbearable for him and others without air conditioning, they would head to a local park in search of relief. There he learned about homemade tattoos.

Guys from his neighborhood taught him how to improvise a tattoo gun with a pen, a small electric motor and a needle made from a sharpened staple or bobby pin.

Using this sort of contraption, Garza gave himself his first tattoo when he was 15 years old. He inked the figure of a Spanish conquistador on his calf.

The inspiration came after he spent a few months living with his grandparents in Mexico. By asking them lots of questions, he learned about his mixed Spanish and native heritage.

He would eventually build off his conquistador tattoo, adding an Aztec warrior and a snake, the central character of a Mexican proverb about being wary of the people you help.

“My tattoos started having meaning as I went,” he said.

Garza lifts his shirt to reveal a tattoo of his last name across his stomach, an Aztec design that circles his neck, a rooster on his bicep and several other pieces of art.

With his head full of images, Garza kept tattooing as a young man, and what started as a boyhood pastime turned into a career.

In 1988, he moved to Minnesota while still in high school. He later found work as a tattoo artist, and now the 37-year-old is co-owner of the Golden Needle Tattoo Studio in Moorhead.

He estimates he’s done close to 2,000 tattoos in the past two years.

“I learned how to express myself in art,” he said. “I love doing the things that I do every day.”

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