Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Getting Inked

“What’s the difference between someone with a tattoo and someone without one? The person with a tattoo doesn’t care if you don’t have one.”
There are many taboos surrounding the mysterious art of tattoos, even though traditional tattooing has been an integral part of many of the indigenous cultures of the world since before the beginning of recorded history. Tattoos were used numerous things, among them the depiction of the passage into adulthood, among other things, and to show that a man had become a warrior in their tribe. They also showed that someone was willing to sit through the pain of having the ink applied ... something that many people believe is an unendurable prospect and, for that reason alone, they forswear the idea of ever going into a tattoo parlour themselves and “getting inked”.

The truth of the matter, however, is that getting a tattoo need not be seen as a negative or anti-social act; tattoos can be a wonderful way for people to express something of themselves in an artistic way that could not be said with words. Or, it may just be a pretty butterfly on the back of someone’s shoulder. Either way, a tattoo does not necessarily mean that the person bearing it has joined some extreme biker gang, or has just finished a five-year term in some penitentiary. Let’s face the fact, tattoos have entered the mainstream: they are not only part of the “counter culture”, they have been widely accepted into the mainstream of society in such a way that you now see everyone from Pastors to Pilots, and Actors to Zoologists sporting ink ... and also Composers.

Throughout my life I have rarely considered myself a member of the “counter culture” in any respect. As a composer of contemporary art music the culture that I’ve mostly been associated with is, in many respects counter, but not the type of “counter” that is referred to by those who speak of when “counter culture” is spoken of ... but that’s fine, being out of step with the mainstream has never bothered me either; if it did, I probably would have never become a composer. What made me interested in joining the millions of inked individuals out there was not joining a club or anything like that, however, it was about expressing an idea that I’d been thinking about for almost five years. Yes, you read correctly: I had been thinking about the design of this tattoo ... my first tattoo ... for around five years.

Why? Why would anyone spend that much time thinking about a tattoo?

There are a number of reasons for the amount of time that went into the planning of this project, not the least of which was the vacillation between whether or not I really wanted to get it as a tattoo at all. When the design was settled upon the idea could have also been made into something that could have been put onto a t-shirt ... or a hat ... but, my mind kept going back to the original idea of the tattoo, and that’s where it ended. At first I was afraid of the idea of getting inked; not just of the idea of the pain, but of the whole “scene” ... the idea of walking into a tattoo parlour scared me. The people working in the parlours scared me. They were so ... different than me. Well, that line of thinking didn’t last very long.

First of all, I realized that I was judging people – people whom I’d never met – based on what they had on their skin ... while I was considering getting the same thing for myself! Hypocrite! It was like being a racist – and the realization hurt, physically. While I continued to work on my design I began to consciously walk past tattoo parlours whenever I was out and I went into several to talk to them about their procedures, prices, and other things. Everyone was nice and polite – it proved that my prejudices had been completely unfounded (as all prejudices are).

Getting over the people did not get me over the issue of the pain, and that was definitely something that I was unsure about, and there was one other element that the people at the parlours I’d visited could not answer: would there be any complications for a person with type II Diabetes getting a tattoo? There are risks for people with type I Diabetes (people who take Insulin), but I have the other type – my diabetes is controlled by pills and diet, and the last blood tests I had showed that the control of the disease was in the “non-diabetic” range (in other words, it is very well controlled). So, I spoke to my family doctor about getting the tattoo and she said there shouldn’t be any issues, so long as the needles were new (they would be) and everything was sterile (it would be).

I am always in pain. I’ve had the same migraine for over thirty years (that’s not an exaggeration, it’s a fact) and I have fibromyalgia. A small part of me was thinking that the pain of the tattoo would actually be a refreshing change from the pain that I’m always experiencing. Yes, that’s wishful thinking, but ... well, when you’re in constant pain, you’re allowed the occasional day dream. When the day finally arrived for me to arrive at The Ink Spot, on Bank Street (address at the end of the article), I was fully prepared to be put through agony ... to have my arm turned into a flaming piece of bleeding flesh, all for the joy of having a personalized piece of art that nobody else in the world would have on their body. Instead of that expected pain ... well, I won’t say it didn’t hurt at all because it did, but, when compared to the worst days of my migraine, or a bad day with the fibromyalgia – I’d take the tattoo any day of the week. It was, in all seriousness, never any worse than getting pinched.


The idea that I had for my first tattoo (yes, there will be more ...) began with a pen. Before I began using my laptop to compose, writing music directly into a notation program called Finale, everything that I wrote was done with a fountain pen. There’s something special about the way a fountain pen lays ink down onto the page, you’re not only able to write with ease, but, depending upon the fineness of the pen’s nib, with great precision. The pen that is depicted in the tattoo was made by Pelikan, a German company. I found this pen in a pawn shop several years ago and it has become one of my favourite pens.

The second element of the tattoo flows from the nib of the pen: the staff of music. On the staff, written in the bass clef (only for the placement of the notes – I actually considered the alto clef) and in 4/2 time (that time signature is chosen so the music will appear correctly in one measure). The music that appears on the staff is divided into two sections: the first four notes represents the first motto theme and the second motto theme picks up with the grouping of sixteenth and eighth notes, under the tied whole note, held over from the end of the first theme.

What are these motto themes? The first one is the most recognizable: B-flat; A; C; B-Natural – or: B; A; C; H. In German nomenclature B-flat is spelled as “B” and B-natural is spelled “H”. This theme was used by Johann Sebastian Bach in his “Art of Fugue”. The second motto theme spells: D; E-flat; C; B-flat – or D; Es; C; H. Again, in the German system of note spelling an E-flat is spelled as an “Es” (or “S”). In this case the theme spells out “DSCH” an abbreviated motto used by Dmitri Shostakovich. Shostakovich used this theme in a number of works, not the least of which being his “Piano Trio” Op. 67.

Without question Bach has been one of the greatest influences on my musical life, perhaps even from before I was born: when she was pregnant with me my mother listened to his “Brandenburg Concerti” and I’m certain that this in vivo listening had an influence on my future desire to pursue a career in music. Another of my great musical influences has to be the man who stood up to Stalin, using a pen and musical notes as his only weapon. The music of Dmitri Shostakovich has always found its way into my heart, and I remember well listening to his seventh symphony, the “Leningrad” on my parent’s console stereo in the living room when I was a child. Hearing the sound of the approaching Nazi army as they approached the city would always make me want to fight with the defenders as the music came to its dramatic climax, repelling the massive attack of the invading hordes.

A blackbird may seem incongruous on a musically themed tattoo, but this bird has more meaning than meets the eye. In 1991 my parents gave me an early graduation present – a two-week trip to Austria. The reason for the trip being a year early was that it coincided with the 200th anniversary of the death of Mozart, and it was an opportunity to attend many concerts in both Vienna and Salzburg, the two cities that Mozart spent most of his life. In preparing for my trip I learned a little bit of German, and one of the things I learned was that my name in German means “Blackbird” which I’d never heard before. Often there had been confusion with my name and the beer “Amstel”, which is a Dutch river, but for the first time I knew that “Amsel” meant something on its own ... and that meaning lead me to something even more exciting, something that connected me to another of my great musical influences.

If you were to ask me who the most important person in my musical life has been there would be absolutely no hesitation with my answer: Maestro Steven Gellman, my mentor, the man with whom I studied composition for four years while at the University of Ottawa for both undergraduate and graduate school. It is an honour that, to this day, I can call both Maestro Gellman and his wife, Cheryl, my friends and when we see each other it’s as though time has been suspended. The thing that must be said about Maestro Gellman is that he studied with one of the most amazing composers of the 20th Century, the incredible French composer and pedagogue, Olivier Messiaen.

Now, that still doesn’t explain the connection with the Blackbird, but the connection will become clear very quickly. Messiaen was renowned for his use of birdsong within his music. One of the birds that he used was “Le merle noir” a chamber piece for solo flute and piano, a combination that I have composed for in the past, and which I’ll be composing for in the future as the flute is one of my favourite instruments to write for. Thus the idea of getting the image of the Blackbird as part of the tattoo not only represented my own name, it reflects a connection with my mentor and HIS mentor as well, but it goes even further than that ... though this may be silly for some, cute for others, it’s just the way it is: I decided to name the bird. His name? Johann; a good German name. Thanks to the placement of the tattoo, which you’ll be able to clearly see in the pictures, Johann is able to see everything that my hands are doing – especially when I’m working on the laptop. So, in a way, I have my mentor, his mentor, and Bach looking over what I’m doing ... strangely enough, the idea of that much scrutiny did not cause any sense of intimidation or anxiety – in fact, when the idea struck me to name the bird, it actually inspired me ... it’s almost as if I’m able to visibly see where some of my inspiration is coming from while I’m working.

The penultimate element of the tattoo is the easiest one to explain: the Maple Leaf. No, I am not a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs ... if I was I’d have gotten the leaf in black – a gesture of perpetual mourning. No, the leaf was chosen just because I identify myself as “a Canadian composer” and the symbol of Canada is the maple leaf. The idea of having the leaf slip under the pen was a last minute idea, and I believe it really brings the piece together, giving it a closed feeling that suits it quite well.

Which brings me to the final element: “Maestoso e Serioso” the text above the music. What could that possibly mean? Well, if you are familiar with music, or Italian, these are not difficult terms, but their meaning is not exactly the way they would be interpreted in the normal musical sense. When a musical score has the indication that something should be played “Maestoso” that simply means that the composer wants the piece to sound “Majestically”, or “in a majestic manner”. “Serioso” means just what it sounds like, “to be played in a serious manner”. But that’s not what it means in the case of the tattoo ... that would be too easy. In this case the word “Maestoso” was chosen because that was how I wanted the excerpt in the tattoo to sound, majestically. It is also how I perceive music, in the “grand scheme” of things, to be – a grand, majestic, wonderful field to be involved in that can be greatly fulfilling. The second part is how I feel about my own work and music in general: Majestic AND Serious. It’s not all fun and games, there’s also a great deal of work and dedication that goes into the creation of music, a tremendous amount of time and effort; there is no such thing as a shortcut in music.

So, from the words on the top to the leaf on the end to the individual notes on the staff, everything on this piece has meaning to me, and I hope you enjoyed reading about that meaning and how the design came to be.

Ultimately, when I’d finally settled on the design elements I began shopping around for a tattoo parlour in which to get my ink applied. I was surprised to find that, in one place, the price was quite a bit higher than in another, though the quality of work of the artists was certainly not of a lesser quality. This was something that I hadn’t counted on when I began this journey, I hadn’t considered how hard it might be to find an artist to do the work. Living in Ottawa made things more difficult than if I lived in Montreal or Toronto where there are many more tattoo parlours, but ... all it really meant was that I had to do more homework. After looking at virtually every parlour’s website, looking through the artist’s portfolios, I found myself walking into a store that I’d walked past at least 1,000 times without seeing, at the corner of Bank and Gladstone in Ottawa: The Ink Spot.
This is Pierre Gwod, one of the fine artists at The Ink Spot. To see samples of his work, click here.

When I entered The Ink Spot I met Pierre and, after discussing the ideas for the design and looking at his book of work I knew that I’d found the place where the job would be done: I paid a $50 deposit for my appointment and, when I got home, sent him the elements of the design by email. The rest, as they say, is history. On Monday, April 16 the arm went under the ink gun ... truth be told, I can’t wait to get the next one.

The stencil, this part doesn't hurt ... well, the rest of it didn't really hurt that much either ... but THIS part ... not a bit!
The beginnings of the tattoo.
Vibrant ... bright ... complete!

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