Johanna Walker’s “of topological wrench”

“I’m 50 years old. Once, when I was about 25, a friend was going to get a tattoo. I kinda sorta thought about getting one too, but didn’t get very far past kinda sorta. I couldn’t figure out what tattoo I would get. What could I possibly want tattooed on my body for the rest of my life? So I didn’t get anything. Other than that very small moment when I kinda sorta considered it, I have never had any interest in getting a tattoo. I could never understand why anyone would want to mark up their precious, sacred, holy body with a permanent tattoo. I mean tattoos are permanent. Getting a tattoo is a bigger commitment than marriage. You can get a divorce, but a tattoo you’re stuck with for life. So getting a tattoo was never configured into the design of my life.

Then, a month before my 50th birthday, I saw the invitation to participate in the Boulder Tattoo Project and, suddenly, with no warning, completely out of the blue, as if I was possessed by some alien being that wasn’t me, I responded without hesitation with an immediate and resounding YES. SIGN ME UP! I was about to turn 50 and I figured: It’s just a body. It’s on its way out. It’s a downhill slide from here. I’ve likely lived longer than I have yet to live. Why not get something tattooed on my body for the rest of my life? It’ll be dust in not too many years, so I might as well make the dust slightly more interesting. I was making a list of 50 things I wanted to do in my 50th year and, at the risk of living a mid-life cliche, getting a tattoo seemed like a perfect thing to add to the list.

And besides, I’m an artist. And I often find myself in the camp of ‘Anything for art!’ And community! And collaboration! So many good reasons to get a tattoo!

I was late to get on board, so I had limited options to choose from. After sitting with a few possibilities, I went with ‘of topological wrench.’ I like those words. I had to look up topological. A mobius strip is topological. On my 40th birthday ten years ago, I got a mobius strip in the mail from an anonymous giver. It reads ‘If these visions of Johanna are now all that remains to be seen if these visions…’ I still to this day have no idea who sent it to me. So topological seemed like a fitting word for my 50th birthday.

‘of topological wrench’ is in the line of the poem where Anne Waldman writes about the flatirons, so I put it on my hip, just below my iliac crest, which kind of reminds me of one of the flatirons. After getting the tattoo, I realized I had to tug the corner of my pants down for anyone who wanted to see the tattoo and show them my hip. I confess my skinny quirky hips have never been the part of my body that I love the most. In fact, my hips have, at times, been a little bit hard to love. So, quite by accident, I get to show people my beloved and imperfectly perfect hip over and over again.

Wrench is a good word, too. He wrenched my heart out. I was in wrenching pain. We broke into gut-wrenching laughter. Wrench. Wrench. Wrench. I like the way that word feels in my mouth. Wrench. Of topological wrench. Before this tattoo, I had never once in my life said that combination of words together. Ever. Of topological wrench. Now I say them together a lot. Of topological wrench.

And I’ve got ‘of topological wrench’ permanently tattooed on my sacred, holy hip for the entire rest of my one wild and precious life.”

Joanna Walker

Johanna Walker’s “of topological wrench”


Mark Walls’ “down, Libra”

“The Boulder Tattoo Project has helped me so much in my transition from Wisconsin to Boulder. I moved here to go to CU, after a few years of researching the school, as well as the town of Boulder. The first time I visited was in April of 2013, and immediately upon arrival I fell in love with Boulder in a way that reading Internet articles and student reviews could never have made me. The scenery, the people, the culture and environment, all make for an amazing city brimming with new things to experience, and I’ve never been happier knowing that I can be a part of it. Participating in the Boulder Tattoo Project has allowed me to own a permanent part of Boulder’s history and culture, which makes me feel more at home than ever. When I came back to Boulder after the holidays, it felt like I was coming home, a feeling I never thought I’d experience anywhere other than Hartford, Wisconsin, my home town. I chose my phrase because it has my star-sign, Libra, as one of the two words. It’s also a simple phrase, and when I repeat it in my head, almost like a mantra, it brings me peace and calm. I’m so grateful to have been a part of this project. I’m thankful for the amazing community of Boulder who inspired me to do it and continue to inspire me in so many other ways.”

Mark Walls

Mark Walls’ “down, Libra”

Christine Blend’s “Aspirational Boulder!”

“The first time I heard about the Boulder Tattoo Project was on October 4, 2013. I had just spent 20 days without power and 21 days without a passable road due to the incredible flooding in Lefthand Canyon where I live. During this experience, I got to witness and participate in some very special moments of a community coming together to help each other in a time of great need. I was lucky enough to not only have no damage to my home, but to also to have a generator at my house to power the lights, refrigerator, internet, and well pump. So, for the first few days, many of my neighbors spent the evening with me where they could cook and enjoy a warm meal, take a shower, contact their friends and family, and most importantly, connect with and support each other. I learned a lot about myself over those 20 days and a lot about the strength and kindness of the people in this community. This tattoo and my involvement in this project is a reminder of all I experienced.

I chose the phrase ‘Aspirational Boulder!’ for a few reasons. The word aspiration makes me think of a quote from Karen Ravn that I am fond of: ‘Only as high as I reach can I grow, only as far as I seek can I go, only as deep as I look can I see, only as much as I dream can I be.’ I believe that our aspirations are a big part of what defines us, our great city, and our lives. I like that the phrase includes the name of the city that the poem and this project pay tribute to, and, as an added bonus, that it even contains an exclamation point!”

Christine Blend

Christine Blend’s “aspirational Boulder!”

Christine Blend

Christine Blend’s “aspirational Boulder!” (detail)

Jessica Neal’s “note coming”

or How I Fell In Love With Boulder Again

“They say that life is a journey, full of lessons and mistakes intended to develop your character, and make you stronger and wiser as you go along. One can either decide to accept these lessons as they come, or to resist them and keep making the same mistakes over and over again; some people believe in a next—or after—life in which we can rise to a higher level if we have overcome the challenges that were put before us in the current life. This is the idea that lies at the heart of what ‘note coming’ means to me.

I was born in Boulder at the foot of the mountains and have lived here my entire life, except for one year spent away, living on the Gulf Coast of Texas. In the spring of 2012, at age 26, I had become so bored with Boulder and having spent my entire life feeling caged up inside ‘the bubble, that I devoted every resource I had to escaping, running away to Corpus Christi, a locale that is essentially the polar opposite of what Boulder County is. This was the first of several less-than-wise decisions I made in my personal life around that time, which rather quickly took my plans very far off course and led me into what became a very serious bout of depression that, despite all stubbornness and desire, could not be muscled through or talked out of. A depression that at the time I was not sure I would be able to escape.

By Christmastime of that year I found myself essentially stuck in Corpus Christi, working three low-paying jobs and barely getting by, 1,200 miles away from home and isolated from any sense of the family or community that I had taken for granted back home in Boulder. I would hear updates from home and feel the most overwhelming sense of envy, self-pity and hopelessness. A dear friend who had made the move with me had managed to escape and return to Colorado, although not without having endured several life-changing trials of his own, and we had lost touch. My only blood family was stuck up in a fairly remote mountain area and was in just as dire need of help as I was. I was living in an apartment barely better than a slum, I had lost my vehicle, and I had nothing—and whatever I did have was back in Boulder, unreachable to me. Only then did I begin to truly appreciate everything and everyone I left behind.

With nothing left to lose, on April 1, 2013, I packed as many of my possessions as I could fit (leaving just as much behind) into a U-Haul I was towing behind a truck that a friend had shipped to me from up north, as the vehicle I had brought to Texas had a catastrophic transmission failure a couple months prior. I put my two cats in the truck with me—the young stray I had picked up from the streets of Corpus Christi riding on my lap or in my laundry hamper, because I didn’t have a second carrier to transport her in. Unbeknownst to me at the time, she was three weeks pregnant. The day I left had been a warm day in South Texas. I left at about 4:30 pm after spending the entire day packing and loading, wearing jeans, a tank top and flip-flop sandals. I didn’t want to watch as I made the journey back across the terrain I had crossed almost exactly a year earlier, having been so full of hope and excitement then, and filled with such hurt and despair now. I just wanted to wake up the next morning and be home, and have the chance to start over again. I didn’t know where I would live when I got home. I had only $500 in my bank account, this vehicle, a promise for a week or two of work during a peak time at my longtime employer, Boulder Gardens Florist, and a handful of friends I could trust. It was going to have to be enough somehow.

I drove nonstop the whole night. The sun was just coming up as I crossed the border into Colorado on Highway 287 from Oklahoma at about 8:15 am the following morning. The temperature now was about 18 degrees, as opposed to 80 degrees when I left Corpus Christi. I had been adding layers of clothing at every pit stop since Amarillo. A frozen mist hung in the air; I hadn’t seen any storms on the radar before I left, but I really had no idea what was coming. But a humid freezing-rain storm had glazed the roads with an invisible layer of ice. When I wrecked the truck and U-Haul about twenty minutes after crossing the border, I was one of a dozen more accidents on that stretch of highway, and I was lucky to have avoided colliding with an oncoming semi-truck, and managed to keep my vehicle on the road as well. My U-Haul trailer was overturned on its side and I could only imagine the chaotic state of the possessions that were inside… but suddenly I had no real worries about them. I have been in several scary car accidents now and I have never experienced the ‘life flashing before your eyes’ that some people describe. What has always happened to me, and what happened then, is that my mind becomes suddenly very clear and I am able to easily distill what is truly important in my life and what is just unimportant clutter. These have been the moments of clarity in my life. When I climbed out of my vehicle, unharmed, into the frozen mist, my mind became clear of all those unimportant worries that had been plaguing me all that time. I was unharmed, my cats were unharmed, and I was in Colorado again, within reach of my friends and family. While I waited for the vehicle to be repaired and get back on the road, I warmed next to a wood-burning stove in the small-town auto shop and scheduled dates with my friends, most of whom had no idea that I was even coming home. When I finally checked into my hotel room off of Highway 36 at 9 pm that night, 28 hours after leaving Corpus Christi, I was given a free upgrade on my room. I spent the rest of the evening soaking in the jacuzzi tub in my room while it snowed outside, the Rockies game on and a little bit of (newly legal) wonderful Colorado pot! It was good to be home. I spent most of the Rockies Opening Weekend at Coors Field, courtesy of a friend within the organization. I saw people I hadn’t seen in a year or longer. And despite the fact that we got nearly four feet of snow in the four weeks after my return, Colorado embraced me like a good friend, I got a little help from my friends, and everything became fine and normal once again. Even better than before.

The lesson I learned from all this was not unlike Dorothy’s revelation at the end of the Wizard of Oz—’If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard.’ The secret to happiness, the cure for depression, the path to contentment—they say it comes from within, and it does, but it reaches outward, into the lives and hearts of other people. Depression is isolation; happiness is community. No drugs or medicine, no diet or exercise program, no ‘miracle cure’ can alleviate that lonely suffering better than engaging with the people and experiences that are around you, to foster as many contacts and relationships as you can, to become a part of something bigger than yourself. It is those community experiences and relationships that lift you up and give you purpose. Truly, I knew that all along, but the circumstances in Texas had made me forget for a while. That is why when I first read about the Boulder Tattoo Project, it spoke to me instantly, and I knew that a phrase from this community-inspired poem would be the first piece of permanent ink that I would commit myself to, because it perfectly represents the lessons that I learned from being away from home.

I love the phrase I ended up getting, too: ‘note coming.’ It is in my favorite part of the poem, the part that begins with ‘comfortable in doubt / in curiosity…’ and ends with ‘note coming / hard times / scarcity of water.’  For me those several lines hold more drama than any other part of the poem—they are words of warning. Caution, they say, be aware of what may be coming just around the bend in the road. Always keep your eyes to the future—to protect yourself from coming heartbreak, to keep you moving forward, and to help keep your eyes off all that is now behind you. I could have used a warning like that many times before in my life. And I’ll always remember those experiences and difficult lessons, but I don’t dwell on them any more—I appreciate the wiser woman I have now become and I know that I will always ‘note coming.’ And I will never be less than extremely proud again, to be a Boulder native and to be part of the creative, brilliant, spiritual, diverse, caring, charitable spirit that runs through the heart of this community. Boulder may indeed be a 20-mile bubble surrounded by reality, but it is a beautiful and unique place like no other, filled with many beautiful and unique people, and I will never again forget my pride in being a Colorado girl!

‘There’s no place like home!!!’ Thank you, Boulder, and Boulder Tattoo Project, for helping me remember who I am and what I was put on this Earth to do, and thank you for allowing to tell my story in the hopes that it will somehow inspire someone else.”

Jessica Neal

Jessica Neal’s “note coming”

Chris Shugrue’s “habitat is”

“Habitat is … the prophet says.  I came to the Boulder Tattoo Project late, requesting a phrase after they’d all been taken. A few people, though, who’d received words were no longer available, ghosts now upon that road, so a call went out and words appeared for those waiting. When I saw ‘habitat is,’ I knew. The phrase struck me with possibility: the subject and verb absent of object opened a door into the infinite potential that could come if one wished to complete the sentence or not. Habitat is … my life. Habitat is … my journey. Habitat is …

I have the words of the prophets etched in skin: Rumi on the inside of my right forearm; Anne Waldman now on the inside of my left wrist, just below the palm of my hand:    habitat is … the words a call to remember where my heart lies: with my family, with my writing, with all that open space. Habitat is … Boulder, CO: a place I migrated from ancient eastern mountains to study words at the feet of masters. Habitat is … the bird I found here who saved my life. Habitat is … every word I’ve written, each phrase I’ve left behind for someone else to write. Habitat is … all the roads I’ve roamed, all that has been lost in the flood and found upon mountain peaks. Habitat is … those nights I swayed in the coliseum: dodging lions and wasting time. Habitat is … the birds I kept and the birds I set free.

And habitat is … a new journey begun with the loves of my life: a daughter calls me daddy, a wolf watches over me at night, and my fiancé, the exceptional writer, Elyse Brownell. She also participated in the project and has Waldman’s phrase ‘where poetry thrives’ on the inside of her right forearm. Now when we walk this earth in sun holding hands or lie entwined in each other’s arms at night under full moon, two phrases become one: ‘habitat is . . . where poetry thrives.’ And as we push out of the shadows and step away from ghosts that haunt, I can look down at my left wrist as that reminder—a piece of my heart etched in ink that connects me forever to her: the only one. I read ‘habitat is’ and I know I am home.

And finally:  habitat is … my twin, that other person out there who has the same words drawn in skin. Where are you, ghost twin? And have you found your home? Habitat is … the prophet says.”

Chris Shugrue

Chris Shugrue’s “habitat is”

Allison Frey’s “in intricate iteration”

“I’ve described this project to acquaintances as being part of a living, breathing art installation. I love thinking about each portion of the poem as we move around in our daily lives, each of us connected to the person whose words come before and after, and wonder what particular shape the whole poem is taking at one point in time. I’m also fascinated that we are a temporal project – someday, the first participant will pass away. One day, the last word or phrase will pass on. As Ani DiFranco said, ‘A tattoo is no more permanent than I am.’ This poem, in one form, will cease to be, but will leave behind 200 extraordinary stories and lives.

I chose my particular phrase, ‘in intricate iteration,’ for a few reasons. I love the alliteration—it feels like it’s truly part of a poem, and I enjoy that close connection to the literary text. My words come from the Scorpio section, and I am myself a Scorpio. I also highly identify with the image of the Scorpion ‘reinventing herself’ and growing back her tail ‘in intricate iteration.’ I identify with this image of the Scorpion growing back her tail, over and over again, still herself, but new after damage, hurt, learning, change, and new knowledge, time and time again.

This project means a lot to me—the connection to my new home, the embracing of tattoos as an art form, the love for literature, and the specialness of being part of such a fascinating piece of art. I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to carry these words with me throughout my life.”

Allison Frey

Allison Frey’s “in intricate iteration”