PLATTEVILLE, Wis. — June 16, 2014, is a date that will forever be ingrained in the mind of Carrie Gates.
It was on that warm summer night that a storm came over southwest Wisconsin, one that would end up leaving a mark on her in more ways than one.
Carrie’s husband, Josh Gates, is a storm chaser. That night, the then-recently wed couple observed the storm build digitally on his storm-chasing equipment before he left to go locate it with a friend.
“I remember we had our big screen up, watching it on the big screen like, ‘Oh, this is gonna be a doozie,’” she recalled. “I remember that word.”
The storm that came through spawned two tornadoes that struck Platteville. One of the twisters picked up Carrie and the home she and Josh were living in and depositing them up the road, both broken and almost completely destroyed.
What came next for Carrie was the beginning of a long and ongoing road to recovery.
With eight broken ribs, two brain bleeds, a broken neck and back, and two collapsed lungs, one of which was also punctured, she endured months of doctor’s appointments and physical therapy. More recently, she also has received counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder from the event.
However, after physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually being put to the test, Carrie says she wouldn’t trade the traumatic experience.
“I understand why it had to happen,” she said, explaining that a visual representation of her resilience keeps her motivated to continue moving forward.
A tattoo of a twister now stretches along her right side — the image so detailed that it evokes the rush of the rotating wind and the train-like howl of its movement — and in its path, the outline of a woman, standing fearlessly in its wake, arms outstretched ready to take it on.
“To me when I look at it, it’s emotional because she’s like, ‘I’m here. You can’t win,’” Carrie said.
The piece was completed in February 2017 and remains a daily reminder of her growth and resilience.
“When it was complete and I could stand up and look at it, I just felt so strong,” she said. “Mentally and emotionally strong for the first time in my life. I’d never had that before. I just felt like, ‘I got this.’”
She added, “It does remind me of what I’ve gone through and what I’ve accomplished. It was and still is part of the healing process.
“Tattoos are a way to never forget, but in a beautiful way.”
Carrie is one of many in the tri-state area and beyond who have been able to find healing by getting tattooed.
The meanings behind the tattoos are as unique and complex as the people they adorn.
FROM VICTIM TO VICTORY
A sunflower takes on new meaning when described by Ramie Stenzel, specifically the ones that are tattooed on her forearms.
For the author and Peosta, Iowa, native, each part of the flower has significance and its image has been the focal point of her healing.
“I’ve always loved sunflowers,” she said. “To me, the sunflower is a symbol of strength.
“Basically the stalk is my body, and the leaves are my husband and my three boys. And then the head of the sunflower — the petals — are all the people that have come into my life to help make me who I am today.
“And then all of the seeds in the middle are the people who I will touch as a result of what I’ve been through. And my roots, my roots go deep, and (they represent) my faith in God.”
Over the course of six years, Stenzel’s lower arms became more and more colorful as she courageously confronted the darkness of her past. Stenzel said much of the first few years of her life were spent in the presence of strangers and illegal substances until she was put into foster care before her father was able to gain custody.
But she said her father was verbally, emotionally and physically abusive.
Freedom from her childhood “is written on both of my arms,” she said.
Though she never sought formal counseling or therapy, Stenzel said God brought the right people into her life to journey with her in overcoming what had been her reality.
One of her tattoos is of a little girl releasing a balloon. The image is colored in a way that makes it look as if it was done with watercolor paints.
“I had to heal that pain of that little girl I held inside,” she said, reflecting on that tattoo. “And (I had to) feel her pain and calm her fears, and then I had to let her go and be the adult that I am today.”
Some of Stenzel’s other tattoos include a hummingbird — a dedication to her biological mother who used to hold her and hum in difficult moments — and a heart symbol surrounded by a sunflower reflecting her “foster kid pride” and her love for one specific foster family. She also shares a matching tattoo with her husband, Chris Stenzel, commemorating their marriage, and a sugar skull symbolizing how “God can bring that back to life and make something beautiful out of something that looks so dead.
“After each phase of healing, there seemed to be something significant that stuck in my mind, and that ended up becoming my tattoo,” she said.
The tattooing process was something therapeutic for Stenzel.
“To me, getting them was like a pleasure-pain,” she said. “Because as they were doing it, that was the last time I was physically going to feel the pain of that.
“You feel the pain of getting the tattoo, and then after it’s done, you see the beauty in it and you just enjoy the beauty after that and forget the pain was even there.”
The location of her tattoos is just as intentional as their meaning. Stenzel wanted them to be visible and for people to inquire about their significance.
“I’m very proud of my tattoos,” she said. “I have them all so that they are open to be seen.”
She added later, “They give me a chance to tell pieces of my story when I need to.”
In early June, Stenzel released her autobiography, “From Victim to Victory,” which also details her journey of healing, and when she looks at her tattoos, a sense of peace, gratitude and pride is there.
“I don’t feel like I’m chained or held to my past,” she said. “I’ve taken victory over that, and my tattoos remind me of that.”
KIND OF LIKE A BARTENDER
For a person who is getting tattooed, especially when it is reflecting part of his or her journey to healing, the tattoo artist’s job is given even greater weight.
As always, not only will this image be permanently etched on the client, but it is through the artist’s creativity that an image of positivity comes to fruition.
What a client has in mind for the final product varies, regardless of the personal significance, Alec Bauer, owner of First Light Tattoo & Gallery in Dubuque, said. Some come through the door with a design in mind while others are open to greater artistic license.
“It’s always good to have somebody who knows what they want but is still willing to give me a little bit of artistic freedom,” he said.
Depending on the specifics of the tattoo, including size, visual depth and amount of color variation, it can take a long time to finish a piece. Bauer said that can lead to deep conversation.
“Not only do they come to heal themselves, but you’d be surprised at the stuff that people tell you in the middle of a tattoo session,” he said. “They open up with stuff they won’t even tell their family.
“It’s crazy how you almost become like a bartender in a way (or) like a therapist. It’s a very intimate thing when you’re together for hours on end. You get to learn a lot about people.”
Fellow tattoo artists Rudy and Christina Cruz, owners of Timeless Art Tattoo Studio in Hanover, Ill., echoed Bauer’s sentiments.
Some clients joke about coming to visit “Dr. Rudy,” he said.
“Having to spend so much time with somebody, they do open up,” he said. “Especially if it’s a part of the healing process, then they definitely open up more.”
Christina added, “Sometimes your job is doing more than the act of tattooing — it’s like being a therapist or a friend, just listening to what a client has to say.”
For some, healing can come from modifying an existing tattoo, Rudy said, and he has done many in the course of his 13-year career.
“A lot of times, it’s us covering up old tattoos,” he said, adding later, “It’s like a rebirth almost, symbolizing a new beginning and getting rid of old stuff.
“I feel honored that people trust me to let me put something on them for life and help them heal.”
When it comes to statistics on tattooing, data is limited.
Though tattooing and other forms of body modification have been around for millennia, tattoos have become increasingly common in recent years. In 2017, the Pew Research Center estimated that 38% of people age 18 to 29 have at least one tattoo.
What research is available shows an increase not only in people getting tattooed, but also the number of tattoo artist licenses issued and body art establishments being opened.
The Illinois Department of Public Health reports that there are 921 body art establishments registered in the state as of 2019.
That represents a 71% increase over the total in 2015.
In Iowa, there were 882 licensed artists in 2018, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health. There were 327 permanent and four mobile tattoo establishments that year as well.
There are 1,246 tattoo artists with active licenses in Wisconsin, according to the Department of Safety and Professional Services.
A 2015 Harris Poll of 2,225 adults surveyed online found that 29% had at least one tattoo, a number that is up from 21% in 2012.
The survey reported that tattoos were more prevalent among adults aged 30 to 39 — 55% of whom said they had at least one tattoo. The second-most-common group was 24- to 29-year-olds at 42%.
The survey showed that the percentage of women who had tattoos more than doubled from 2003 to 2015, jumping from 15% to 31%. Comparatively, 27% of men reported having tattoos in 2015.
While Heather Davis was awaiting one of her two heart transplants, her best friends decided to get her a small, silver heart-shaped necklace.
The necklace, which was actually a locket, had etched “our hearts are always with you” on it. When it was opened, it revealed a four-leaf clover shape.
Little did Tina Berning, of Hazel Green, Wis., and Julie Haugen and Lora Neyens, both of Dubuque, know at the time that the necklace would end up inspiring a permanent image on all three of the women.
The motivation for getting a four-leaf clover tattoo came after Davis’ death in February 2018. She had battled multiple types of cancer over her adult life along with undergoing three separate organ transplants and a broken bone or two every so often also in that time.
The women had been friends for close to 30 years, Neyens explained, adding that she “never had a great desire to get a tattoo.” But after Davis’ death, “a tattoo now had meaning.”
“I’m proud when people get to see it,” she said. “It was the right move.”
The group discussed getting tattooed together before, but due to Davis’ illness and inability to get one, Haugen said, the idea was “put aside for a while.”
Tattoos came back to mind when going through some of Davis’ belongings after her death, Berning added.
“That’s when we found the locket,” she said. “And that was really like ‘We get it. We’re supposed to get them.’”
Each woman’s design is slightly different, something the group said is meant to represent their own individuality while remaining a unit.
“For me the tattoo is two-fold,” Berning said. “To me, the tattoo, yes, is about Heather because she’s just as much a leaf as the rest of us, but it’s just to show that it’s hard to find a friendship like this, and we have that.
“And she’s still our friend, even though she’s not sitting in here with us. She’s still our friend, and she will always be a part of my life.”
Haugen echoed Berning’s remarks, adding that the one-in-a-million personality and strength of Davis is also evoked in their tattoos.
“There’s no comparison to Heather,” she said. “There’s no other person in the world I think who went through what she went through, so I guess I feel like it’s unique like her.”
Neyens added, “It’s a symbol to me of Heather, but (also) of all four of us, and I am so proud of our friendship and our relationship. It’s something I don’t think I could live without at this point.”
For the trio, their tattoos are another way to keep Heather’s memory alive by serving as a conversation piece to introduce others to her.
“It’s fun to talk about her,” Neyens said. “I look forward to the opportunity when something comes up and I have an opportunity to tell someone about her.”
“Heather’s girls” said they don’t plan to add to their tattoos, though their ink will last forever as they expect their friendship will.
“We’re stuck with each other,” Neyens said jokingly. “We tease that we know too much about each other to stop being friends, so there’s just no other option.”