Lived Experience/Memoir / Time-specific

Art Saves

Yesterday afternoon, I received tattooing across my fingers that I have wanted for over a year. This event, which would normally be both cathartic and euphoric, occurred on the heels of a rather sobering reminder of what this tattoo means to me. Below is a picture I took with my webcam today, shortly after unwrapping my fingers and washing the blood, plasma, and ink off of my skin.

The principle behind the inspiration for this work has been with me for my entire life. In a profound sense, it began when my life began. I have been trying to express myself through visual arts since before I can recall. I loved to let my imagination run away with a pencil in my hand, and when I didn’t have paper, I drew and wrote all over my walls. Ultimately, this just made my parents angry, who told me to finally wash it off ten years later, but it just wouldn’t fade. I also graduated from building with LEGO as a child to building electronics and working with wood and plastic in shop class as a 12-year-old. Anything I could put on paper–a pencil, wax crayons, watercolour paints–I used, to make art and express a small part of myself when I didn’t have words. And in a home where children are seen but not heard, because they live in constant fear of their parents, words were hard to come by.

We moved when I was 12. The first courses I chose to jump into in my new school were an art class and a drama class. My peers made fun of me, and my art teacher literally put me down and sabotaged my work, but I kept trying. Art was the only thing I could use to share myself with the world, and at 13, I used money I earned at a flower shop (where I picked up additional creative skills when I wasn’t being given work to do) to buy my first camera. I started taking pictures of everything around me, and even tried my hand at poetry when I was so moved by a single frame of the beautiful sunset on my street. This was, of course, met with disapproval and humiliation by my own family members. But they still couldn’t silence my creative voice.

I started to learn German in high school, and I found European metal and subversive American industrial metal artists to listen to in my teens–a new outlet. As a person who never related to pop music, unpacking the meaning behind each song, one line at a time in the case of American metal and one word at a time in the case of German metal, made me feel less alone. Metal gave me the direction to gravitate towards other people who listen to metal, and we had something to talk about–at last! Metal gave me a new set of lenses to look at the world I live immersed in, gave me a new set of language to speak about that world, and gave me an outlet to experience the emotions I had to spend all of my time repressing in order to survive that same world (and the silence it demanded of me).

When I was verbally abused by my classmates, my parents, and people I thought were my friends, I had metal to listen to. When I became homeless, metal was what kept me grounded. When I struggled to maintain a grip on reality, metal reminded me of where I came from, and gave me a map to reach out again. When I could no longer handle being in the same room with someone who was triggering all of my past abuse, I could turn on a Rammstein CD and drown my anger out by experiencing something more constructive–a catharsis. Metal became the only thing I could rely on, and one of very few things I could look forward to. It taught me the difference between having an opinion and having something to say. It gave me a voice.

That voice led me to live with a European couple, by complete chance, about seven years ago. When the husband learned about my taste in music, he handed me an album and told me I would really like this artist. He told me she is unlike a lot of metal musicians–she bares her soul to her audience, and writes about her personal experiences as a survivor of a lifetime of abuse and oppression. Her name is Otep, and I still listen to her now. The album that man put in my hands was Sevas Tra, which spelled backwards, reads “Art Saves.”

Otep’s Sevas Tra album changed my entire relationship to metal. Because of her lyrics, I didn’t just feel like I had found someone who really understands me–I felt empowered. I started writing more than I had ever written before, and instead of just writing relatively trivial rants and tirades against people who treated me like shit, I started writing to say something. I also started drawing again, felt my mind filling with poetry I could barely assemble, and poured the emotions I felt from listening to her music into modelling and photography. It is from her lyrics that the following quote comes from, which inspired another tattoo of mine:

My first act of treason was picking up a pen.
My first act of love was finding myself again.

I will never be as poetic with words as Otep is, but I have discovered digital photography and blogging. I even began teaching myself to play violin a year ago, and that gave me the outlet I needed, to begin expressing my grief for all the losses I have survived–Saige being yet another important loss in recent history, as I continue to move forward through many of the same experiences I have yet to fully engage with for the first time.

My art keeps me alive.

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