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‘Behind The Ink’ – Every Tattoo Tells A Story
Examining body art and the reasons people choose to get inkedby Page Leggett on April 27, 2021
Joseph Johnson came to nonprofit Creating Exposure Through the Arts (CEA) as a 15-year-old. At 27, he’s still involved. And he was the impetus for Behind The Ink, one of the nonprofit’s most enduring programs.
Johnson’s mother died when he was just two years old. He was raised by his sister. In memory of his mom, he had gotten a rose tattoo. One of his CEA classmates noticed it and started taunting him.
“He was telling me how a man shouldn’t have a female-type tattoo such as a rose, and it went from there,” Johnson recalled. “I was trying to tell him it was a symbolic type thing.”
Mark Pendergrass, CEA founder and executive director, was leading class that day. “We all made it a teachable moment,” he said. This was an opportunity to put CEA’s mission — to educate and mentor youth by providing opportunities of exposure to artistic expression — into action.
“I said, ‘Look, that’d be a great story to tell [through photography],’ so we started doing these workshops. We might be at the YMCA for a class, walk into the hallway and see somebody coming out of the gym with a tattoo and say, ‘Hey, can we talk to you?’ And we started taking pictures of people’s tattoos and asking them to tell the stories behind them.”
Johnson’s rose tattoo was the first, or among the first, to be photographed. Now Behind The Ink has become a program, a coffee table book, a documentary film. It’s a whole movement.
Johnson has gone on to get more ink – he has 14 tattoos total – and has become a professional photographer. When his schedule allows, he serves as a mentor at CEA, a nonprofit designed to mentor and empower youth by exposing them to the arts.
“People’s stories about their tattoos are just as unique and powerful as mine,” Johnson said. “You can’t judge a book by its cover. A lot of people have tattoos who you wouldn’t think would have them. You can’t assume that if someone has tattoos, they’re violent or gang-affiliated.”
‘That one thing in common’
Behind The Ink, in all its forms, reveals the stories behind the men and women of all ages, races and socioeconomic backgrounds who have used part of their body as a canvas.
“It’s amazing that something we’ve been doing for 10 years as a curriculum – taking pictures, learning photography, interviewing people – has become a living documentary,” Pendergrass said.
The people in the book and film are “a diverse group,” he said. “We are sharing stories of people who don’t look like each other but have that one thing in common.”
Like Johnson, Kevin “Surf” Mitchell got involved with CEA as a teenager. The program alumnus is now a lead instructor, and he was responsible for the final editing of images for the coffee table book and the exhibition last year at The Light Factory.
Like Johnson, he, too, is a full-time professional photographer – with clients in the entertainment industry all over the country. He credits CEA with starting him on that path. “The program allowed me to see photography in a different way,” he said. “It brought it to the forefront and inspired me to go further with it.”
Mitchell shot some images of tattoos when he was a teenager at CEA. “When I came back as an instructor, I decided to help out and remastered some old images.”
He’s shot new tattoos, as well. And he has been present when subjects shared their stories. Some people overcame depression. Others had considered suicide or survived a suicide attempt – and triumphed over their thoughts. Their ink symbolizes those life experiences. They are memorials. Tattoos can be an outward and visible sign that someone has confronted their innermost demons.
There may be some people who have too much to drink one night and wake up with “Mom” inked across a bicep, but that’s really more of a myth, CEA instructors say. Most people consider body art for a long time before committing.
The evolution of CEA
Behind the Ink is just one of the programs CEA offers middle- and high-school students. A couple of years ago, the organization began offering a class called “It’s Not Just Selfies … It’s Photography and More.”
“Everybody’s always turning that camera around for a selfie,” Pendergrass said. “We encourage kids to learn more about this medium they were using all the time. We began to introduce them to aspects of photography and writing that they weren’t experiencing in school. This enabled us to really introduce them to filmmaking, to how to interview people, how to develop content.”
Pendergrass started the organization with an emphasis on photography, but it has evolved over time to include other art forms.
“We’ve tapped into teaching journalism,” he said. “There’s a writing component now. And we recently got into videography and filmmaking.”
CEA partners with organizations such as ASC, churches, libraries and Parks and Rec to offer programming where it’s needed most – in low-income areas populated by mostly people of color. All their programs are offered at no cost to participants.
The group often brings in special guests to address students. On Saturday May 1, Councilman Braxton Winston will speak, via Zoom, to CEA students about his life, career and experience as a consultant on the Oprah Winfrey OWN network filmed-in-Charlotte drama, Delilah.
Forever part of them … and their story
A tattoo transforms the person who commits to it. It’s forever part of them and their story.
Similarly, CEA transforms lives. I asked Johnson, whose rose tattoo gave birth to Behind The Ink, if he could imagine a life that hadn’t included CEA. “It probably would have been a more troublesome path,” he said. “I was getting in trouble when I was a younger person and needed to get back on a straight path.”
And I asked if thought art had the power to transform a life.
“Yes, it actually does,” he said. “It gives you a way of expressing yourself without having to physically be stressed about everything. Everybody has something going on in their life – troubles and worries – and they just need an outlet to express it. A picture is worth 1,000 words.”
See for yourself.
Catch the Behind The Ink documentary for free at CEA’s Free Virtual Screening Release on Thursday, April 29 at 7 p.m. The movie will auto-start at 7 p.m. sharp. Watch on demand this weekend from Thursday, April 29 at 11 p.m. through Sunday, May 2 at 11 p.m.
To view the film, use this Bingewave.com link to sign in and claim a free ticket prior to the screening. Next week, CEA will host an “After The Screening” Zoom talk with students, staff and participants from the documentary. Those who claimed a ticket will get an invitation to the Zoom chat.
The coffee table book – along with other merch – is available on the website. Proceeds from the sale of these products go toward future programming and projects. Visit http://www.creatingexposure.com/new-products to make a purchase.
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Creating Exposure Through the Arts
Behind The Ink