February 20, 2005

His Art Is His Joy. It Just Didn’t Fit My Plan.


The parking lot at my son’s graduation is a sea of motorcycles: black, yellow, loud, smoke-belching, flame-adorned, sparkling with chrome so bright you have to look away. Far from the dappled shade of any Ivy League campus, this blazing blacktop belongs to the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute in Phoenix, Ariz., a sprawling complex of freshly whitewashed, warehouse-size buildings with red and blue accent lines. Inside are classrooms, labs and mock dealers shops for the students who, like my son, Alex, study to become certified in the assembly and repair of motorcycles.

My husband steers our rented Nissan through the lot, searching for an empty spot among the motorcycles. Hiding behind my sunglasses, I look around at the other parents and friends in their halter tops and jeans, scarf shirts, sleeveless T-shirts and turquoise bracelets. And tattoos, of course, lots of them: roses, serpents, spiders, geometric patterns and sunbursts, explosions of red, blue and green.

We, on the other hand, are just in from Maryland, and I’m wearing a linen pantsuit and white shirt, my husband sports his standard short-sleeve button-down with pressed khakis, and my daughter has on a J. Crew polo shirt and hip-hugger pants. With our sickly winter-white skin, we look as if we’ve just been released from an extended hospital stay. We have no tattoos, not even a cute little ankle flower.

Today is ostensibly a celebration, but I’ve been churning with that familiar stew of hope, love, embarrassment and worry that has generally ruled my relationship with my son for most of his 27 years. Just two months ago, when I thought that with this impending graduation he had finally outgrown his penchant for derailing my dreams for his life, it happened again. The news came in a phone call: “Mom, guess what? I’m going to become a tattoo artist.”

I sat down, stunned. “But what about all your motorcycle training?” I said. “The months of hard work, the classes, the chance for a well-paying job. You’re throwing all that away?”

“I’ve decided that tattooing will be my full-time job,” he said happily. “And my band. Music and art, those are the things I love. Working on bikes, well, that’s what I’ll do when I need to make extra money.”

DISAPPOINTMENT clogged my throat. How could he change his mind again? And then I turned the disappointment inward. Stupid me; I’d actually allowed myself to get excited about this, his motorcycle certification. Granted, a motorcycle mechanic son may not sound like nirvana to some parents. But in our case, I felt it was Alex’s best chance for a “career” and to become self-supporting.

Alex has spent most of his life poking, pushing and prying open commonly accepted norms of behavior in hopes of finding a place for himself. Ever since he was old enough to race his tricycle down the sidewalk with such abandon that neighbors grabbed their children out of his way, Alex has been living life on his own terms. And I, as the single mother I was for much of his childhood, have often been pushed to my limit trying to raise him and, with what energy was left, his younger sister, while working full-time as a public relations executive to support us.

In middle school, Alex clashed with teachers about his black and red hair, flying shirttails and intermittent attendance. He was bright and wild with energy for anything but the classroom. He taught himself to play guitar, bass, saxophone and drums, created noisy basement bands and wrote volumes of music and lyrics. When he wasn’t making music he was drawing – birds, fish, flowers – with fine detail.

At first his art appeared on paper and canvases. Then he branched out to brick walls and bridges, where he and his friends would leave their spray-painted tags for me and others to see as we drove around our staid Maryland suburb. I’d cringe with shame and fear every time Alex pointed out one of his designs, a flourish of paint with a crest, some stars or an asterisk. Alex’s tags were rarely the same, reflecting what he had to say at the time. To me his marks were graffiti, a crime, and I worried he would be arrested.

Still, I hung his drawings in a gallery of my own – my office – and dreamed of the day he would be able to channel his intellect and creativity positively, to become the kind of artist whose canvases would hang in real galleries.

Instead, he started making a canvas of himself. At 17, Alex had the word “unity” tattooed on his upper arm. He never asked my permission, and when I saw it, I told him it made him look like a punk. He told me the tattoo reflected his stand on “race, equality and acceptance”- a touching sentiment, perhaps, but despite his call for acceptance, it was a little hard for me to accept.

Of course, that was only the beginning. Soon he dropped out of high school and moved to the West Coast to live with friends and then to Arizona, where he became addicted to heroin. This was a terrible time. My devilish, spirited son – the same boy who once explained to his kindergarten teacher he couldn’t draw melted snowmen because they didn’t leave a mark – was now lost on the streets of a city 3,000 miles away, sticking needles in his arm, probably sleeping in cardboard boxes. If I saw him on the street, would I even recognize him?

All along I’d been determined to stay connected to Alex by not issuing threats or ultimatums. Despite my open-door approach, there were times when I didn’t hear from him for weeks. But I had faith that he’d find his way out. He acknowledged that drugs were eating him alive and told me he was ready to enter an addiction treatment facility, where he went into recovery. He has remained clean for seven years.

MEANWHILE, Alex’s collection of tattoos spread from his upper arms to his neck, lower arms and back. Given his love for them, I shouldn’t have been surprised that he would want to become a tattoo artist.

Trying to convince me that his plan was legitimate, Alex pleaded with me via e-mail: “The best tattoo artist in Arizona has taken me on as an apprentice!” he wrote. “He says that I have the drawing talent to be great.”

I wanted to ask him to face reality for once, to be able to tell him something, anything that might change his mind. But I kept that clenched inside and instead wrote, “Alex, please help me to understand what it is about tattoo art that you find so appealing.”

“Oh, Mom,” he replied, “your questions make me so happy! Tattoos are unique pieces of art. I love the imagery, the unique and personal way of identifying myself, my beliefs and my values. I love the Native American spirit designs and the Japanese or Chinese characters, the roses, swallows, daggers, flames, names and memorials.”

“Don’t you worry about hepatitis?” I typed.

“I make sure my tattoo artist wears gloves and uses new needles and that the shop is bleach-smelling clean.”

“Do you really think you can earn enough as a tattoo artist to support yourself?”

“Mom, I think I can make it all work!”

I tried to imagine what it was like for the family of Arnold Schoenberg to appreciate his atonal music, which, to many at the time, sounded like air horns and geese honking and drove some hearers to riot. And who in Jackson Pollock’s family could have foreseen that when he dripped his paints across a canvas on the floor he would become a famous abstract expressionist?

The families and guests of the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute graduates enter the air-conditioned auditorium and look for seats. The students are 18 to about 65, know exactly where they want to sit and don’t hesitate to push the neatly arranged chairs out of the way to get there.

Alex, with his dyed black hair, bright blue eyes and Arizona-bronzed skin, sits with us, although he’s up and down every few moments high-fiving fellow students.

I look at Alex. His laughter is easy; his arms and legs, covered with tattoos, move with abandon. He hugs his friends freely. My son – this young man I love so much but who has caused himself and his family such heartbreak over the past 20 years – is absolutely filled with joy.

“Welcome to M.M.I.’s spring graduation,” the school official says. “We are here to honor those who have completed all of our courses and those who have completed the special certification programs for specific motorcycle manufacturers.”

“Graduates,” he continues. “First I would like you to thank the friends and family members who have made it possible for you to be here today.”

Alex and I hug, and I feel the tears pour out. Then he hugs his sister and shakes his stepdad’s hand.

And before long his moment has arrived: Alex is called to the front and the classes he took, his perfect attendance and outstanding grades are noted. As his fellow students whistle and whoop, Alex looks embarrassed but only for a moment. Then he takes his diploma, holds it high over his head and shouts, “Yay, I made it!”

Of course, in the nearly two years since that joyous occasion, Alex hasn’t used his hard-won certification to work as a motorcycle mechanic for a single day. Not even once.

But he was right; he had made it. Not in the way I might have dreamed about. Not as the new Jackson Pollock. But at 28, he is happy and self-supporting, living the life of his dreams. And he sacrifices everything to pursue his art, which you can see on traveling exhibition throughout the Southwest on the backs, legs, arms and chests of his many appreciative canvases.

Cathy Lickteig Makofski is a writer living in Camden, Me.