A Human Canvas

A Marine Corps veteran remembers the service he dedicated to his country. An IU graduate student marks moments of transition in her life. And a local tattoo artist keeps himself grounded by building a life out of making tattoos for people.

TTo get a tattoo is to put a permanent mark on one’s body. Whether the decision to go under the needle is made purely on a whim or carefully constructed, tattoos often hold significance for people.

We can make this form of body art to be as simplistic or as intricate as we choose. Maybe we want to mark a defining moment in our lives, or maybe we want to create a permanent reminder on our body that life goes on. But behind every tattoo, there lies a story.

"Marine Corps veteran Chris Creel, 27, was deployed overseas three times during his four years of active duty. He got three tattoos, including the Marine Corps eagle, globe and anchor tattoo, in honor of his service.

A Service of Permanence

He sat up straight on the wooden bar stool, his long fingers twiddling a black ballpoint pen as he spoke about his service. His deep yet distinct voice seemed to reverberate against the walls of the Upstairs Pub. It was late afternoon in January, and the pub tended to be nearly vacant around this time.

During his four years of active duty as Marine, including a voluntary tour to Afghanistan, Cpl. Chris Creel only spent about 40 of those days at home.

Creel, now 27, decided to join the United States Marine Corps in March 2007, uncertain of life after high school graduation. He asked a recruiter to drive two hours to his home in Sanborn Minnesota, despite initially hanging up on others who had contacted him previously.

“He showed up in his dress blues,” Creel said. “And that’s what did me in. Seeing a Marine in his dress blues is like, I don’t know, seeing a unicorn in my opinion.”

By May, he was leaving for boot camp.

In May 2011, he returned to the U.S. and now works as a manager at the Upstairs Pub. The Pub, he believes, is much like the birthplace of the Marine Corps.

During the American Revolution, a committee of the Second Continental Congress frequently met at the Tun Tavern in Philadelphia, where a resolution was eventually approved calling for two battalions of Marines to fight alongside the Navy. The Continental Marines were officially formed on November 10, 1775, in the tavern.

“Marine basically means a fighting force for the land and the sea,” Creel said. “The whole idea was for the Navy to have a landing assault force and a force to fight on their ships.”

The Marine Corps recently celebrated its 240th birthday in November. On this day, Creel decided it was finally time to get his eagle, globe and anchor tattoo, the official emblem of the Marine Corps.

Within his first year of service, however, he already decided he wanted the tattoo.

“Through some hard times I had while I was in, I decided I wanted to wait until I was discharged from the service," he said.

After his eight-year contract with the Marine Corps was up in May 2015, it was simply a matter of time. It now rests on the inside of his right forearm.

The eagle, globe and anchor each signify a different purpose the Marine Corps serves. The eagle represents the United States, with the entire world within reach of its outstretched wings. The globe represents the Marines’ ability to go anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice.

“We can be anywhere in 48 hours, anywhere in the world,” Creel said. “That was always nerve-wracking for me because I didn’t know if I was going to wake up in my racks and have a called service somewhere.”

Lastly, the anchor points to its naval heritage and ability to access any coastline in the world.

“I wake up every day and I know it’s there, but every now and then I kind of catch it out of the corner of my eye,” Creel said. “I look at it and it literally brings a flashback of one thing or another. You know, good things, bad things. But I always smile about it.”

But the emblem was not the first tattoo he got in dedication of his service.

After earning his title as a Marine Raider in 2009, Creel and his best friend got their Raider ink. The Marine Raider training lasted approximately eight weeks and consisted of 20-hour days. Very few Marines, he said, get to go through its intense training.

“It was the most fun I’d ever had being a Marine," he said.

His most recent tattoo, however, remains close to the heart.

Creel served in the Fox Company, dubbed the Blackhearts, of the 2nd Battalion 5th Marine Regimen, the most decorated unit the the Marine Corps. He immediately recognized the capabilities of the Blackhearts.

“We had a lot more specialized training than the average grunt, so I really took the idea of being a Blackheart to heart,” he said.

The emblem, however, had to be earned. It was not something simply handed out. After undergoing a six-month training revolution under the command of Capt. Brian Chontosh,a noted Marine Corps officer and war hero, Creel earned his Blackhearts emblem.

In the final days of training, Capt. Chontosh informed the Marines they must complete a 23-mile hike through steep, mountainous terrain in California to gain the honor of carrying the unit’s insignia.

“It was probably the most physical pain I’ve ever been in for my life,” Creel said. “It was absolutely ungodly, this hike.”

Still, he made it through to the end. The emblem, a human skull, now sits on his upper right arm, just below the shoulder.

While his active duty is up, Creel still sees other Marines who are regulars at the Pub. They often refer to each other as “Devil Dogs.”

The nickname, based on its original phrase, “Teufel Hunden,” was made up by German soldiers to describe Marine fighters in World War I. The Marines earned respect from the Germans, also gaining a reputation for their ferocity and fighting capabilities.

While the “Hounds of Hell” translation is inexact to German language, it continues to serve as a term of endearment from one Marine to another.

“If you met about a hundred people in your day, maybe one or two of them would be a Marine,” Creel said.

When he isn’t managing the Pub, Creel spends his time hanging out with his dog, Marley. She is a mix, half black labrador with one or two white speckled toes and a white strip down her chest.

And she loves reggae music. Creel named her after Bob Marley and began playing reggae music for her when she was a puppy.

“When I’m feeling down or just not so great, she’s there,” he said. “I always tell everyone she’s my best lady.”

While he considered the possibility of training her to be a certified service dog, Creel ultimately rejected the idea, fearing Marley might lose her personality in the process.

“I just couldn’t do that to her,” he said. “Her personality is what I love about her.”

Rock climbing, he said, also helps him adapt back into civilian life. When he began rock climbing at Hoosier Heights, he realized it’s the one thing he wants to do for the rest of his life.

And as far as tattoos go, Creel said he isn’t finished just yet.

“I’ve got a lot more Marine Corps tattoos coming. My whole right arm will be full of them," he said.

Renne Payne, 25, said she got her first tattoo, a small blue crystal, on a whim in July 2015. Since then, she has gotten two more during periods of change in her life. Payne also quickly realized that she never wants to get a tattoo of a human or band, but only of things that exist in nature, like plants and animals.

Marking a Transition

RRenne Payne may not consider herself to be an artist, but her appreciation for artists like French illustrator Moebius, as well as Bloomington’s own art scene, are reflected, or marked, on her body.

“The 25-year-old Greencastle, Indiana, native got her first tattoo this July. And she has gotten two more since.

“A blue crystal rests upon the underside of Payne’s upper left arm. Moebius, the pseudonym for French cartoonist, Jean Giraud, who was known for revolutionizing comic book art, is the source of her inspiration.

“His artwork is some of the most beautiful artwork I’ve ever seen,” she said.

“Payne’s love for Moebius combined with her love for science fiction seemed like a perfect fit for getting the tattoo. In 1974, Moebius collaborated with Chilean avant-garde filmmaker Alejandro Jodorosky for an adaptation of “Dune,” a science fiction novel by Frank Herbert.

“While the film adaptation failed, “Dune” remains to be one of Payne’s favorite science fiction novels.

“It’s just sort of like a very coincidental thing that the two of them worked together and that they also worked on “Dune,” she said. “French comic book illustration and science fiction was sort of fusing into this one thing.”

“She decided to get her first tattoo on a whim. Payne even sketched Moebius’ crystals in preparation. She and a friend went to a tattoo parlor in Cincinnati, where the artist happened to be familiar with Moebius’ and Jodorowsky’s work.

“It’s not actually black ink,” she said. “It’s a prism, so there are actually no lines. It’s just this clear crystal. And then he did the blue, which I really liked. I just really appreciated that the tattoo artist understood what I was going for instead of just tracing something for me.”

“She got her second and third tattoos done by local artists and friends in Bloomington, which she has called home for seven years. To some, Bloomington is a college town where they have no tie to the community, but for Payne, Bloomington has dictated who she has become as a person.

“Bloomington to some people is just someplace you pass through, but Bloomington for me has been an incredibly formative period of my life," she said.

“Payne completed her undergraduate degree at IU in political science, and is now in her first year in the East Asian Studies Master’s Program with a focus in Chinese and Confucian thought.

“Payne got her second tattoo the weekend before beginning graduate school and just got her third tattoo, which is still healing, a few days before second semester began.

“I realized that I end up getting tattoos during periods of transition in my life," she said.

“In August, she got a Neopagan triple moon tattoo on her sternum during the Iris Camp music festival in Bedford, Indiana, where several of her friends were doing tattoos for people.

“The triple moons, a waxing, full and waning, are representative of the various stages in a woman’s life cycle as phases in the moon.

““I’m not really into astrology or anything that’s particularly Pagan necessarily, but I do like that it’s in a very centered, symmetrical location,” she said. “It represents the cycle of my life, essentially.”

“Her most recent tattoo, still healing, sits on the underside of her right arm, just opposite of the crystal.

“A dusty pink daisy, with an eye in its center, representing Payne’s love for the 1960s, was done by an artist friend who does amateur tattoos.

“I really only want tattoos of things that exist in nature, like plants and animals,” she said. “I really don’t ever want a tattoo of a human or a band or anything like that.”

“While she plans to wait until completing her graduate studies to get another tattoo, Payne said she is saving her back for a tattoo representative of her interests in Confucian thought and Chinese classics.

“The “Book of Changes” is an ancient divination text also known as “I Ching,” involving 64 hexagrams, or patterns of six broken and unbroken lines. A hexagram is a figure composed of six stacks of horizontal lines where each line is a Yang, an unbroken, solid line, or a Yin, a broken line with a gap in the center.

“Yang, represented by a dragon, is the capacity to be creative. Oppositely, Yin, represented by a mare, is the capacity to be receptive.

“I would really like to get a really well done tattoo of a dragon and a mare,” Payne said. “It’s not something I should be spending money on right now. I feel like once I finish school it’ll be something I do.”

Jon Rio tattoos returning customer, Jacob Lett. Since July 2015, Rio has spent more than 16 hours working on Lett's tattoos, which now cover his arms, chest and the entirety of his neck.

Evil By The Needle

About the owner

Tattoo artist and co-owner of Evil By The Needle tattoo shop Jon Rio has been permanently drawing on people’s bodies for 13 years.

Rio and his wife, Jamie, founded the tattoo parlor in Bloomington together in 2002. He does the tattoos, and she does the piercings. Together, they created a full custom tattoo and body piercing studio.

Rio tattoos roughly five to six different customers per day, doing all kinds of designs like portraits or realism. He got his first tattoo machine from his father-in-law and began practicing on himself.

Drawing, he says, has been the natural progression of his life and has always been his thing.

“When I sit down and draw, it kind of just happens,” he said. “It’s been the thing that kept me out of trouble my whole life. It kept me in school.”

Not many people can sit for more than three to four hours under the needle. Yet some of Rio’s female clients, however, can handle up to five or six hours at a time.

“We spend a few hours together, they leave and we feel like we’re friends,” he said.

Jon's advice of getting a tattoo

When it comes to getting your first tattoo, Rio has seen the endless mistakes people make when they walk through the parlor door.

“They come in really excited, their adrenaline is going,” he said. “The best thing to do is get sleep, eating something before you come.”

Also, don’t come in hungover from partying the night before, he said. Even your lifestyle can depend on how you take it.

“Don’t drink your breakfast, you’ll bleed everything out," he said.

Otherwise, come in well rested, and use ointment and unscented and dye-free lotion to keep the tattoo clean and moisturized.

Popular Tattoo Requests

Jacob Lett, one of Rio’s frequent customers, got his first tattoo when he was 16. Rio has since covered it up for him.

“It’s a meteor now,” Lett said.

Rio has spent about 16 hours tattooing Lett’s chest, neck and arms since July. Lett will make a sketch, give it to Rio and soon it’s on his body forever. A stern-eyed wolf sits on his upper arm and “Count Your Blessings” is scripted across his chest.

His dragon tattoo, he said, is his favorite.

One particular tattoo many customers have asked for is a semicolon, representing someone who has considered suicide but chose not to go through with it.

Project Semicolon, a social media movement formed in 2013, is dedicated to those struggling with mental health and emphasizes on the importance of suicide prevention.

Rio also remembered a young woman who came in to get an open/closed quotation mark tattoo.

“She said it was a reminder to speak up for herself.”