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People remember loved ones with personalized tattoos

Sunday, March 17, 2013
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Mark Lansing Jr. of Niskayuna remembers his Rottweiler Grendel with two paw mark tattoos — the spots where his departed pet used to jump up on his chest in greeting.
Photographer: Marc Schultz
Mark Lansing Jr. of Niskayuna remembers his Rottweiler Grendel with two paw mark tattoos — the spots where his departed pet used to jump up on his chest in greeting.

Grendel was just tiny, a 6-pound puppy, when she met Mark Lansing Jr. in 1999.

The two became pals. Because Rottweilers grow quickly, it wasn’t long before Lansing was taking his friend by the front paws, standing her up and giving her an eye-to-eye look. A dance or a hug would follow.

Grendel would rest her paws on Lansing’s chest. And while Grendel is gone now, Lansing has reminders of the ritual — he has tattoos of Grendel’s paws inked on his skin.

People don’t need flaming skulls or bleeding hearts in reds and yellows if they have stories behind their colors. Lansing, and a small sampling of others in the Capital Region, can explain why designer reds, greens and blues are perfect fits for their bodies.

So can Jay Laviolette, a tattoo artist with Pure Ink Fury in Rotterdam. Laviolette did the Grendel-Lansing artwork.

No more ready-made choices

“People are getting their kids’ hand- and footprints,” he said. “When their babies are delivered and cleaned up, along with paperwork, they ink the hands and feet and a lot of people transfer that to a tattoo.”

Laviolette believes the era of people choosing ready-made art from examples on a tattoo shop’s wall are over. “We don’t have any of that in our shop,” he said. “People have realized a tattoo can be a little more personal.”

One of Ann Palmer’s most personal tattoos is an elephant. “My mom used to collect elephants,” Palmer said of Lorraine Mahoney, who passed away in 2009. “She believed they were good luck, but only if the trunk was up.”

Palmer, who owns Hypnotic Ink in Schenectady, wears a blue elephant on her left arm. The trunk is up.

Lansing, 36, who lives in Niskayuna, was also looking for something personal. “She was a sweet dog,” he said of Grendel, named after one of the antagonists in the Anglo-Saxon poem “Beowulf.” “She was an alpha dog; we kind of let her get away with a little too much. But she was sweet with kids, a gentle dog, and she used to love to watch TV.”

When the 130-pound dog was 10, she became ill. Lansing called a veterinarian and arranged to meet the man at home; he knew there was a chance that Grendel would be leaving him.

The dog passed away. Lansing, general manager of Scotia’s popular Jumpin’ Jack’s restaurant, said there was an ink pad in the house. He decided to ink Grendel’s paws, and transferred them to paper, then to tattoo. People can only see the work if Lansing is at the pool or the beach. Most of the time, his front tattoos are covered.

“Not many people have asked,” he said. “I think since they’re becoming more and more mainstream, you’re so used to seeing people with tattoos, unless it really grabs you or it’s really striking, they won’t ask.”

Lansing has commissioned other pieces, the compass rose and Aries the ram — his birth sign — for his arms. Nothing, he believes, is really a conversation starter.

“I don’t think any of mine are that unusual,” he said.

Autograph on arm

Robert “Mark” Renson II, co-owner and chef at the Ambition bistro in Schenectady, has kind of an unusual tattoo. He has singer Cyndi Lauper’s autograph permanently inked in blackish-green on his right biceps. It’s dedication — Renson has been a Cyndi fan since she hit the pop scene in 1983.

“I have always connected with her personality, with her songs and her statement of ‘Just enjoy life and be who you are,’ ” said Renson, 42, showing off the signature near a Lauper mural on an Ambition side wall. “Thirty years later, I got the tattoo. I figured, ‘You know what? She’s made me smile and she’s inspired me all these years. Why not?’ When I look at it, it makes me smile and it fills me with gratitude.”

Renson originally wanted an original for his arm.

“I’ve met her three times now,” he said. “The last time, it was her book signing down in New York. I asked her, ‘Would you sign my arm?’ And she said, in her New York accent, ‘I don’t do skin.’ So she signed the book and then I went to Tattoos by Lisa in Rotterdam . . . and she transferred the signature from the book onto my arm. People, once they hear the story, think it’s cool.”

Renson collects autographs, and he’s lucky that in his line of work celebrities will occasionally come to him. With Proctors down the street, people will leave the theater and visit for a snack. “Cyndi has never been here: she’s been to Proctors,” Renson said. “She was supposed to come here, but the thing just didn’t work out.”

And while some people sit for head and face tattoos on their arms and shoulders, Renson never wanted to go that way.

“I think the signature is more personal than her face would be,” he said. “I don’t know if I need the face of Cyndi Lauper on my body.”

He might consider another signature, for his left arm.

“I’ve met Dolly Parton already, but the signature I have from her is more of a scribble,” he said. “I would like to get a better one. I would put Dolly Parton on me, I would put Madonna on me and I would have put Donna Summer on me, but she passed away last year. Those are my four ladies.”

Laura Herrin, a line cook at the Charlton Tavern, also has ladies behind her tattoos. Andrea Francis was her mother’s best friend, and when Andrea died of breast cancer in 2010, Herrin decided to remember her with flowers and color. Both components are part of elaborate tattoos on her back.

“There’s a breast cancer ribbon in the top flower. It has her name in it — “Andi” — because she was really like my other mom, she kind of helped raise me,” said Herrin, 20, who lives in Clifton Park. “And the middle flower, the yellow one, has my grandmother’s initials in it because she passed away a year and a half ago. It was just something that kind of helped me deal with it. It’s something that will kind of keep me remembering both of them.”

Not always visible

Like Mark Lansing’s ink, not many people can see Herrin’s tattoos. Even she can’t see the tributes to friends and family lost. “In the summer, people notice it a lot more and they comment on it, because apparently I don’t look like a person who would be covered in tattoos. I don’t like the fact that I can’t see it, but it’s in a cool spot, because everybody thinks it’s beautiful.”

She believes it’s important that any tattoo have a reason, a story behind it.

“I think it makes the tattoos more important, because it’s not just something silly that someone got one day,” Herrin said. “It has meaning to them and every time they see it they’ll think of the person they got it for or why they got it.”

Herrin thinks about her sister, Andrea Marzak, when she looks at another tattoo. The permanent inscription “sorelle” — Italian for “sister” — is on her right foot. Andrea has the same word on her left foot.

“When we put both our feet together, they kind of line up together,” Herrin said.

Joe Hasan of Latham, owner and head instructor at Pil Sung Taekwondo in Guilderland, also has a foot tattoo, the Korean symbols for “Pil Sung,” which translates to “certain victory.” He took the words into competition.

“The phrase ‘certain victory’ is popular in Korean sporting events,” said Hasan, 32, who lives in Latham. “I had already started the tae kwon do program here, so I had the business and I said, ‘Hey, maybe I can write it off.’ I couldn’t — the accountant wouldn’t go for it.”

Hasan was nearing the end of his competition days in both national and international events when he put the ink on his left foot — his primary weapon in the martial art. “I only had one knockout with the right side and I don’t know how many I had with the left,” he said. “That was my side. I figured it would be a nice symbol — ‘certain victory’ on the power side.”

The symbols were also something opponents could see coming — if only for a second. But Hasan said the reminder lost a little punch in 2003. “Most regulating bodies started regulating foot protection,” he said. “It used to be optional, you could tape a pad on if you wanted to, and electronic scoring started coming into the game, which required a sensor on your foot. So nobody after that ever got to see it in competition.”

Hasan said showing off was never the chief reason for the tattoo. “ ‘Certain victory’ is a mind set, it’s a positive attitude,” he said. “You’re not giving up, you’re chasing down a victory no matter what stands in front of you. That was really why I got it.”

Sometimes, plans change. Johanna Fitz Trahan of Poestenkill was thinking about a tree with green buds for the middle of her back. The idea was to honor her mother, Peggy Fitz, who had suffered a heart attack during the early 1990s. She thought a 6-inch tall tree in ink would symbolize the cycle of life.

Trahan’s tattoo artist started the tree, black with branches. I said, ‘Wow, that hurt,’ ” Trahan said. “The tattoo artist said, ‘The coloring is going to hurt more.’ I said, ‘I think we’re done here.’ ”

So now, Trahan’s tree is in perpetual winter. “I’ve grown to like it this way,” she said.

Symbolic images

Family members can be honored in words and portraits. Schenectady’s Anthony Banewicz prefers symbols for his story. Earlier this year, he was at Hypnotic Ink Tattoo and Piercing in Schenectady for a cat’s cradle, grapes, a spoon and a meatball for his back, behind the left shoulder.

“The cat’s cradle represents my son, just as a reminder to spend as much time with him as I can,” said Banewicz, 32, a member of the Army National Guard. “The grapes are a representation for my grandfather. He was from Italy, and we always used to make wine. And in conjunction with that, we would have our spaghetti and meatball dinner with my grandmother every Sunday afternoon. The wooden spoon is a representation for my mother, because she always cooked with a wooden spoon and disciplined me with a wooden spoon.”

Banewicz believes that’s why people get tattoos, to tell their stories.

“Every time I tell it, it reminds me of my family and the reasons behind it,” he said.

 
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