“The worst cruelty that can be inflicted on a human being is isolation.”
“The power of storytelling is to free us from isolation, shame, and whatever the situation.”
Death is really the oddest thing. Its inevitable, we all will experience it one day, yet it’s the most common thing to be afraid of. Experiencing the death of a loved one changes us, sometimes causing us to go down dark corridors that we seldom experience. I found myself in that place over the last few years, having a string of deaths happening to the people closest to me. A father to a close friend of mine passed first, then my step father, and then my step brother to suicide. I found myself traveling down into the murky waters that can consume your thoughts, one that can be very difficult to see out of. I would look forward to the nights that I could talk to one close friend of mine, one feeling the same strain of isolation, both of us careening towards something that only one of us would walk away from. We would get lost in this conversation for hours, drink after drink, usually until dawn.
The morning after his passing I was numb. My comrade in this pain was gone, and where was I leading myself? This self imposed isolation I had created as a defense mechanism over the years led me to this junction and it was then that I realized what hell is; loneliness, isolation. All we long for is to know that we are not companionless, that there is someone out there feeling like we do, that comrade that we can see eye to eye with. The past years of shame and guilt build up to the present. Whatever those experiences are, we compound them through the years, like nailing a board to seal off a door, until no light can come in, and we are surrounded by darkness.
My thoughts were focused on these ideas, and as I performed his funeral, I found myself taking down each board I had nailed up. It was a cool autumn day and a small group of us were gathered at his graveside. As I looked around, I saw eyes that were connecting. I told stories about how my life was forever changed by him, and those eyes, the grins and laughter reminded me that I am not alone, we are not alone, he was not alone. With every bit of contact, I felt myself taking down a board, and the light coming through. Hope was there that day.
Today I still tell stories for the same reason, to keep taking down boards and making sure that I don’t put them back up. Isolation will creep back up, and my job now is to share that feeling with others, and make sure that loneliness can’t win. The truth is, in everything we do, we want to know that someone is there, the door is open, and we can make a connection. My client’s are my daily reminder of this, especially with Ryan’s story. After reading the email he sent me in regard to his tattoo experience we were going to write about, I found myself connecting in an unanticipated way, one that needs to be heard.
I first started tattooing Ryan almost a decade ago. Our interaction was nothing too deep, more on the surface, but definitely enjoyable. He was a nice guy, quiet, and I could tell he was going through something that was consuming more of his life than I could have imagined. It wasn’t until later that I learned what Ryan had come out of, making me more proud of the man he is today. Ryan is one of the reasons I love being a tattooer, you get to watch people grow and become someone greater than they could have imagined. Ryan pulled himself out of a dark place, with the help of loved ones surrounding him, and has built a life where he is changing the technology industry that he is a part of. He gives so much hope and inspiration for those that may be in a dark place right now.
In this story, Ryan will mention a man named “Brandon”. Without knowing their connection, I also tattooed “Brandon” a decade ago. He too was a kind man, that was also working his way through the murky waters of isolation, to come out the other side as someone that would save lives. I won’t give too much away, so here is Ryan’s story.
It's funny how a tattoo's meaning can change to the owner over time. When I first decided I wanted Alan Turing tattooed on me, it was just to honor/represented his brilliance, that his mind and discoveries paved the way to make my career possible. I also found it pretty cool that he was responsible for cracking the German enigma cipher during WWII, which is why my American ass isn't writing this in German right now. I read an article on Turing and was fascinated that someone's mind could extrapolate concepts to the capacity that his could. The more I read about Turing, the more I identified with him. I was never talented at anything. Seriously, I sucked at everything I tried. I was always told growing up that my talent was my mind and that I didn't think like everyone else. Fair enough, early on in school I found that I did pick up concepts more quickly than my classmates and that something about me was different.
I quickly discovered around 4th or 5th grade that I'm gay, and that rural Georgia frowns upon such a thing. So I spent the majority of my childhood and teen years feeling trapped and alone. I worried every day that someone was going to find out and expose me to my classmates or even worse, my parents. I spent most of my time trying to avoid people, I guess my thought process was "they can't figure me out if I don't let them close enough to see who I really am". When I first began reading about Turing, I only knew what he'd accomplished, I didn't know he was gay. When I read that he was gay, I finally felt a sense of connection to someone. I had clearly at that point in my life met gay people, seen gay people on tv, etc. But I never identified with any of them because gay people were portrayed on tv as flamboyant and ignorant. This was the first time I was being exposed to an intellectual gay man that made a life changing contribution to a field of study, wasn't flamboyant and was highly respected. By the time I actually had the session with Sean to get the tattoo, the above is everything the piece represented to me. Someone who was intelligent, gay and knew the pain associated with both afflictions. Plus, he was kind of hot so that was a bonus.
The tattoos meaning didn't change much for me for the first year, it was really just a hat tip to someone I'd never met that I feel like affected every living persons life in some capacity, whether anyone else appreciated that or not. After the war ended (due to Alan's ability to crack the cipher) it was discovered that Alan was gay in a time when it was unlawful. He stood trial for "gross indecency" and was found guilty. He was given two options at his sentencing; jail or chemical castration. He couldn't imagine losing time working on expanding his research that he chose chemical castration. I knew this when Sean tattooed me, but I didn't relate it to my life directly at that time. Alan committed suicide shortly after his castration by eating an apple laced with cyanide. I attempted suicide many times in my teens, but I didn't really want to die. I just wanted the noise in my head to shut up, or to finally meet someone that would make the pain go away.
I met "Brandon" we'll call him in the spring of 2006. He was everything I expected him to be. Intelligent, gorgeous and by some fluke of nature he wanted me. While we were together, Brandon encouraged me to pursue a career in some variety of technology. I was only concerned with spending as much time with him as possible, but I took his advice and started my degree in January of 2007. I finished my Master's degree in 2012 in applied computer science, and even though Brandon and I didn't work out I feel like he tied into my passion for technology and my drive to pursue it as my career even without being there to see it all happen. He encouraged me to do great things because he loved me, and I believed that I could accomplish those things because I loved him. Unfortunately, Brandon passed away a couple of weeks ago and in his passing I've found a lot of those old feelings anguish and loss have resurfaced. Brandon was changing lives as an RN, much like Turing was changing lives with his technology. Turings concepts evolved into what is the modern computer which spans all industries, and those concepts made my relationship with Brandon possible.
As I've worn this portrait of Alan for nearly two years he's evolved from just representing a gay man that made my career possible to representing my lack of enthusiasm toward the way homosexuals are treated and represented in society, to representing every intellectual homosexual in the world that knows what it feels like to be different and alone. He represents the possibility of Brandon, and the loss of him. He represents Brandon's husband who has to piece his life back together. He represents my gay roommates brother that lost his life to HIV in the early 90's. He represents the growing awareness of Homosexuals that are victims of hate crimes and discrimination in any capacity. He represents my passion for writing code. He represents gay marriage being legalized. He represents my jaded perception that "no good deed goes unpunished". He represents defeat, isolation, suicide and sacrifice. Most importantly, he represents change, progress and acceptance.
Scroll through the gallery to see more tattoos by Sean Herman on Ryan Rafferty