I lived in Alabama from 1st to 6th grade. We moved there to be with my dad’s grandparents in their later years. They passed away while we in Alabama and shortly after, we moved back to Florida. My dad who had been running a martial arts studio in Florida of course started one in the town we moved. He had a day job or two (building decks, hanging garage doors, building houses, working at the post office) but fitness and martial arts was always his life.
At this dojo, we met Frog, a hometown hero who earned his nickname from another (well-known) hometown hero, Charles Barkley. In high school school, Barkley was at the community pool with Frog as a small boy looked at the short pudgy boy in arm floats and called him Tadpole. That nickname stuck until he was a teen and graduated to being called Frog.
He had a natural ability for art and a steady hand and found himself a tattoo artist for Danzig, The Misfits and a fixture of the Birmingham Alabama punk rock and heavy metal scene as both a performer, groupie and tattoo artist. Frog came to my dad to learn martial arts but, like many of his students, dad saw the stress and anguish and lost nature of Frog and offered to be more than a martial arts teacher. He was frog’s friend but also spiritual leader. The 6 short years we spent in Alabama were a great part of my childhood. Dad’s gym had 500+ people come through our doors and everyone learned something about themselves. The community called us satanic worshipers because we bowed to a frame photo of his Japanese teacher instead of Jesus Christ. We broke up a child sexual abuse ring at the local baptist church (kids I went to school with and were in our class shared their stories with dad who helped get many children out of these situations), we defended ourselves against drunk rednecks who would come in the doors proclaiming they had to “register their hands as deadly weapons” and once, against a pack of wild dogs who tried to kill me and Dad took one down with a samurai sword. We did scalp a guy…once and totally on accident who didn’t drop fast enough from a sword exercise. I accidentally busted a man’s left ear-drum during training and dad once ripped all of the skin off his face during a drill on carpet and kept training the full 90 minutes before getting medical attention. I miss most of all swimming in strip pits (old mining quarries) and hiking in the woods with Dad barefoot. It was a great place to be a child and the time I got to spend with my grandmother, grandfather and great grandparents was really special.
When we moved back to Florida, Frog took over dad’s studio. He lived in the backroom for a while but he kept clean and never went back to drugs and used what he learned from dad within the metal scene to be a mentor and guide to other youth. He never stopped challenging authority and continued as a world famous tattoo artist.
Before we moved away, Dad got his first and only tattoo from Frog. After a dozen trips to Japan while I was a kid, Dad received from the grandmaster his animal spirit which was a white tiger. Dad chose a Japanese art inspired white tiger with the BU symbol on his arm for war.
As a young kid and teen, I thought I’d always get a tattoo on my 30th birthday. I figured by then I’d have enough life experience to not get something I’d regret.
The only thing I knew for certain as a kid is that Frog would be my tattoo artist. I tried to connect with him when I was 30 and he was traveling. I never sat down in his chair and even though I had a few trips to Alabama in that span on motorcycle trips, it just didn’t work out.
I signed up for a motorcycle event called Barber Vintage Museum which just so happened to take place close by to my dad’s old studio and Frog’s tattoo shop. I reached out 2 weeks before my trip to see if he was in town and I sent him a few concept arts. I also asked Dad if he’d come up for the weekend. He’s never been to one of my motorcycle rallies and honestly, he hasn’t seen Frog since 2000 so 23 years ago of not seeing each other face to face. I felt it was a good time to get my tattoo, spend some quality time with Dad and plan an evening with Frog of all of us hanging out again. I hadn’t seen frog since I was a tadpole myself, we moved away when I was 14 years old and I last saw him when I was 16. I’m 37 now.
The tattoo concept:
My spirit animal, self-assigned and not from a grandmaster in Japan is Paper Tiger. Dad came up with it. I overcame many of the paper tiger characteristics through hard training and self-reliance. When I sparred with an Army Ranger for 2 hours because I refused to give up and he eventually passed out from exhaustion or when I nearly bit George’s toe off after he almost snapped my knee…dad told me I was overcome the animal and had graduated to tiger but I could never shake the paper tiger mindset. It’s an animal attribute that I still have deep inside and find myself falling back on it sometimes.
I’ve wanted a paper tiger tattoo since I was 18.
I also always told myself that if I had children, I’d want a canvas where I could add them to it. It looks like we’ll just be having one child but I chose Japanese kanji that would allow for 3 cubs if that presented itself at some point in my life.
I spent a lot of time thinking about making my child’s facsimile also a paper tiger but I really was drawn to the design.
As for the kanji, my dad follows the warrior way to this day. It’s in his blood. It’s a part of him. I have always followed the way of water. Flexible, movable, soft and immersive but can be hard as concrete if you hit at at enough speed. Water has the power to erode rocks, bridges, land and the strength to carry people away and drown them. But its power is in its flexibility. I chose the kanji for Aikido. From Wikipedia:
The word “aikido” is formed of three kanji:
合 – ai – harmony, unifying
気 – ki – energy, spirit
道 – dō – way, path
I studied many martial arts as a young man and none impacted my approach to life, a pursuit of my center and how I interact with the world than the philosophies and techniques of Aikido.
Mockups I sent to Frog:
I also included a photo of Dad’s tiger to jog his memory. I added this note, “Dad’s tattoo tiger has claws extended and open mouth. This aligns with warrior way and the Bu symbol but I’m looking for a less-threatening protective tiger. I also don’t think I can steal the white tiger and would prefer something more traditional”
Here are some photos from that evening spent with Frog and Dad but first dad carves up a burrito he and I split with a machete:
This is a photo taken right after it was done:
Honestly, the whole experience, despite being done 7 years later than I had planned ended up being completely worth it not because I got what I wanted (with no regrets because I’m 37 and not 18) but more importantly, spending my weekend with dad at a motorcycle rally (my favorite thing) and a whole day with Frog and Dad who I spent 5 nights a week with at the dojo and 2 whole Summers with building decks and just hanging out like old friends. I was there for Dad’s first tattoo and he was there for mine. It wasn’t a close drive for him but everything aligned really well.
Frog was available, dad was up for a drive and quite literally 2 weeks later, Matilda arrived and her place in my heart, life and as art on my arm was completely solidified. Literally in permanent ink. I’m so happy with how this came together.
Thanks Frog and Dad.
PS: sorry for the man-boob photos. I am down 6 more pounds since this photo was taken with about 25 more pounds to go until I reach my goal weight.