Monday, October 15, 2012

Most Unusual Family History Format

Family History Tattoo-Part I

As a memoir writing instructor, I have the privilege of meeting some amazing people and hearing a variety of stories—some poignant, others hilarious and still others that are downright unusual!

I’m all about preserving our family histories and capturing them in any method that works best for the individuals involved, but one day I met a gentleman who chose to capture his family stories in the most unique way.

I was speaking to a local Kiwanis group, and after my talk, Bob Soukup approached me. He said, “I’ll bet you have never seen this before.” He pointed toward the floor, leaned over and pulled up his pant leg to display a series of tattoos. “My family history is depicted in these tattoos,” he announced. He went on to tell me a little bit about the stories that were portrayed on his flesh, and I believe that I was so astounded at the time it didn’t occur to me to ask for his contact information so I could interview him in the future.
Time flew by, and I occasionally envisioned that tattooed leg. I finally contacted JoAnne Delahaut, the Kiwanis representative who had invited me to speak. I asked her if she could provide Bob’s email address and telephone number for me so I could interview him for my blog, and she graciously gave me the information and also sent me photos of those infamous tattoos. 

I was finally able to enjoy a fascinating telephone interview with Bob. He has retired and moved to Florida, and I asked him to refresh my memory on the exact family history that he was trying to capture in the tattoos. He said, “My mother was born in Kirkwood, Missouri, which is a suburb of St. Louis.  Her parents and about seven of the children, back sometime in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s, migrated from the St. Louis area or Kirkwood to Helena, Montana. I can remember her telling about the trip. Now she had to be a young child because she was born January 6, 1898 in Kirkwood. I can remember hearing her talking about traveling the plains and seeing the plains Indians. She always talked about the face paint that they had and the painted horses that she could remember.  The short story is that it was too cold in Montana, and the family relocated in the early 1900’s to central Nebraska, where through my research, I found where my maternal grandparents’ family lived in the Sargent/Taylor-central Nebraska area.

It had always intrigued me with her telling about how they had migrated out west and then back again, and I began over the years in my work with Florida Central Academy in the Lake County area, operating our Western Division’s school and conference center in Estus Park, Colorado.

I looked at the Drake side, which is my maternal grandparents. They settled out into that area in the west. So I began doing a little bit of research and found Drake, Colorado, a little tiny stage stop on U. S. 34 between Loveland, Colorado and Estus Park through the Thompson Canyon. I was related to a State Senator from Colorado who lived there. The Drakes had settled into Nebraska along with the Metcalfs, my maternal grandmother’s side of the family as well as up into the Helena, Montana area.”

How did you happen to choose tattooing as your canvas for preserving this family history?

I think it is tucked way back in the rowboats of the mind somewhere with my mother narrating the story of seeing the plains Indians with face paint and the painted horses.  It always intrigued me, and I thought it would be a nice tribute to my maternal grandparents  to wear for a lifetime, and that’s really how the tattooing began. Research on all of this was with Bob Lanz, who is the owner of Elite Tattoo in Myrtle Beach, over on Seaboard Street. So between Bob and myself—we are good friends—he said why not go ahead and commemorate your grandparents and let’s do a tattoo in their memory? So that’s how the tattoo came about on my right calf.

Had you ever previously had any other tattoos?

Somewhat, yes. I had quite a bit of work done up at Marks of Distinction in Wilmington, North Carolina. When I began this crazy idea of getting a tattoo, I wanted to make sure that everything was very safe. At the time, tattooing in the state of South Carolina was underground, and I didn’t want to go that route.

I’m a graduate of The Citadel, pre-medical in 1954 plus sports education. I’m one of the first undergraduate double majors graduating from The Citadel. So I contacted several of my classmates who were in medicine in North Carolina, and they advised me to go to Marks of Distinction in Wilmington, as they were highly recommended in the state of North Carolina for doing cosmetic tattooing on burn and cancer victims. They were highly reputable. So that’s how it started, and then with Bob going into the work in Myrtle Beach and tattooing becoming legalized in the state. Bob taught the blood pathogen courses in tattooing and piercing for the Department of Health in Horry County, so I knew that I was going to have somebody who was up and above board, and I knew it was a good safe way of going with Elite Tattoo.

Before you started tattooing the family history, what was your first tattoo?

Up at Marks of Distinction, we began on each shoulder, the upper shoulder, the upper arm, left and right, doing the Mayan Dagger, which represented my degree in pre-medical from The Citadel. Going back in Mayan history, that was some of the earliest medicine because they drilled holes in the skull to let out the evil spirits. The daggers began all that and then it continued with the chain mail surrounding the dagger, which represented my military going back to the 12th or 13th century the chain mailer armor. My military from The Citadel was artillery. So this was artillery going back to medieval times. We developed the two into the upper arm tattoo.

How many sessions were needed to complete the story of your family history?

Probably about four or five. I never really figured how many there were until the work was done. We just took our time with it and allowed each piece to take about a month to heal. I decided to do about one a month as we developed it, so it was probably a course of about six months on the leg alone. That is, doing the outlining work and doing the outlines for the map and each detail as we went. That picture represents my grandparents, and I always say that was my mother as a young child and one of her brothers gathering the fire wood and helping tend the fire, my grandfather tending the horses.

 In the background is the Indian pony. What tribe, it’s so hard to say. It could be the Sioux or the Crow nation. I have no idea, but it is a generic representation of the Native American in the tattoo. Regarding the map itself, I have basically been, over the years working out west, over most of this area either to or from travels between Florida and Colorado. All of my mother’s people still live out west—cousins and so on live up in Sturgis, South Dakota, which is an interesting side of the family on into Rapid City and down into central Nebraska—Sargent/Taylor, Burwell, into Ainsworth area—that’s central/north central Nebraska.

 All of the tattooing is on my right calf.

What about the pain in tattooing?

That’s a difficult question to give an answer to as to the normal individual. I have found out that I have a very high tolerance to pain. I could feel the needle doing the work on it. Basically, it felt about like a cat scratching my leg. What I do have is a tattoo on my upper chest of the Olympic flame commemorating my 1984 certification with the Olympics, and that is the Olympic torch. Now I have to admit that the one on the sternum hurt. I can’t say that it didn’t. We had to do it in small sequences because there’s no fatty tissue or muscle. It’s straight down onto the bone, and that did hurt quite a bit. That was the most painful because it covers the entire sternum area.

What kind of reaction do you get from people when you are wearing a pair of shorts and they see the multi-colored etchings on your leg?

Well, I don’t think I’ve worn long pants here, having retired back to Central Florida for over a year.  I get some quizzical expressions on the faces. They don’t know whether to ask or not. I’m very outspoken and open, and I’m glad to tell them the history. Sometimes people will actually come up and ask what it represents. I tell them the story and they are just as surprised as anybody else. The study and background work in developing this particular tattoo is a tremendous amount of time and energy over many, many years in putting all of this together.

You don't necessarily have to be tattooed in order to capture your family history. Learn how to write about your memories in 7 Easy Steps!  Visit for links to all formats available for this book. Jump-start your memory gathering project with this compact set of tools!

Stay tuned for the conclusion of the interview with Bob Soukup in my next post, which includes actual photos of the amazing tattoos!!

Be blessed and bless others...

Mary Anne