Note: The video and photos depict Dingwell working on a tattoo of a nude mermaid.
Making the decision to get a tattoo is a permanent choice. There’s no going back. Once the needle hits your skin, delivering its unerasable, subdermal ink, you’re marked for life. You’ll be taking the indelible design of a rose, skull or a bare-breasted mermaid to your grave.
But in the grand scheme of human art, that’s just the blink of an eye.
“The whole idea that tattoos are permanent, I think, has always been funny to me because they’re so not-permanent,” said Portland tattoo artist Chris Dingwell, dressed in a button down shirt and cat-themed tie. “Tattoos are really, really short lived as far as artwork goes.”
The average tattoo last less than 40 or 50 years, depending on your age when you get inked. The pigment might last longer than that, but you won’t.
“Your client, your tattoo is going to die,” said Dingwell as his current client chuckled somewhat nervously in the chair. “That’s just how it works. Everything I make is going to die.”
As a fellow image-creator, I can relate to that sense of fleeting impermanence. I used to joke that even my best newspaper pictures ended up on the bottom of a birdcage or wrapped around a fish by the end of the week. That was back before the internet. Now, my best pictures don’t even appear in newsprint. They only exist as digital smoke on the internet. They’re only one news cycle away from oblivion.
Though Dingwell has a healthy sense of humility about the ultimately fleeting nature of his work, he still takes his creations seriously. His art background in ceramics and sculpture help him translate two-dimensional tattoo designs onto three-dimensional arms, legs and other skin-covered body parts. His award-winning painting skills lead directly to glittering, one-of-a-kind designs. His shop on Forest Avenue has no books of pre-designed tattoos to choose from. He works directly with each of his clients to make something that will only grace their body — however temporarily.
The first tattoo Dingwell ever got, as an art student, back in the early 90s was the outline of a dead squirrel.
“Of course, a lot of people, when I tell them that, they think that’s really morbid,” said Dingwell, “but the idea of the squirrel, what struck me about it, at the time, was that this squirrel had been killed trying to cross the road but at least he had made the attempt.”
It’s the same with tattoos, with art, with photos, with any kind of creative undertaking. You struggle to conjure something into the wold that wasn’t there before. The effort may not get you anywhere. Your art may not stand for the ages. You may even get run over by a car. But at least, like the squirrel, you aimed for the other side of the road.
“He took that leap of faith,” said Dingwell, “he made the run for it and he did it. And maybe it didn’t do him any good, maybe it did get him killed, but at least he tried.”
This Tattoo Tale is one in an ongoing series of stories behind some Mainer’s most personal, and permanent, artistic statements. See other tales HERE.