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Tattoo artist Rodney Folsom loads up his needle with ink as he works on a dragon design (see inset at right) for customer Eric Boles. As per health code standards, he pulls the ink from a small, individual cup so he is not tainting his entire ink supply. Folsom spent an hour and a half just doing the outline for one section of what will be a larger tattoo wrapping around Boles’ back and chest and down his arm.

“I would say every tattoo has a story behind it.”

Woodward tattoo artist Rodney Folsom added that is what makes television shows like “Miami Ink” and “LA Ink” so popular.

“That’s how those places and shows stay in business--by selling those stories,” Folsom said.

And after 15 years as a tattoo artist, including the last 3 or so in which he has been operating a shop in Woodward, he has heard his share of stories.

In fact, when asked to crunch the numbers, Folsom said that at an average of about 20 tattoos a week, he’s probably done more than 15,000 tattoos in his career.

A CHANGING GAME

Folsom definitely looks the part of a tattoo artist, with his unconventional beard, pierced lip and arms covered in multiple tattoos, including the requisite heart with the “MOM” banner across it just above his left elbow.

But if you talk with him, you’ll quickly find yourself thinking like one of his customers who “told me, ‘Rodney, you’re too soft hearted to be a tattoo artist.’”

And while that may have been true “20 years ago (when) everything was all biker-owned and biker-run,” Folsom is a prime example of how the game is changing.

Folsom has just as many stories as his customers and is as complex as his artwork.

He will just as quickly reference the TV show “Friends,” or at least the episode where Phoebe gets “a tattoo of the earth as seen from a great, great distance,” as he will talk about the movie “Fight Club,” from where he got his shop name, Paper Street Tattoo Co.

He might even talk to you about the movie “Castaway” while discussing his own tattoos.

“In that movie, ‘Castaway,’ you remember how he was all alone?  I’m never alone, because I’ve got all my tattoos,” Folsom said, specifically pointing out dual tattoos of his dog on his forearms and his “favorite” tattoo, which is a portrait of his then 13-year-old daughter Chyna on the top of his left arm.

IN MEMORY

Wanting to keep a loved one close is one of the most common reasons people get tattoos, Folsom said.

For example, not only does he have his daughter’s portrait tattooed on his arm, but he recently gave his now 20-year-old daughter her first tattoo of “my grandbaby’s name.”

But while there are those, who like his own daughter, get tattoos to celebrate a new life, there are many others who get tattoos to honor a life that has been lost.

“A lot of people do it to remember someone they’ve lost,” Folsom said.

He shared the story of a woman who he worked on for around 80 hours over a 4-month period to tattoo an entire scene over her back of a mother lion with a cub lying under a tree, with a big male lion in the clouds overhead.  He explained the male lion represented the husband she recently lost and how she believes he is still watching over her and their son, as represented by the lioness and cub.

THE HEALING PROCESS

“Some people get tattoos to heal,” Folsom said.

Beyond the death of a loved one, there are all sorts of situations for which people may include getting a tattoo as part of the healing process.

A few years ago, when he was working in Georgia because Oklahoma hadn’t yet legalized tattooing, Folsom said this woman came into the tattoo parlor where he was working and shared a story about how she was getting a tattoo as sort of a way to reclaim her body after being raped.

“You wonder how people can deal with that kind of pain,” he said, noting that for some people the answer is to get a tattoo.

Sometimes it is the pain of getting the tattoo that proves to be the most helpful in the healing process, he said.

“They’re in pain, emotional pain, and they don’t know how to deal with it, but the physical pain of the tattoo can help them find release,” Folsom said.

Tattoos can also be a way for people to find relief from whatever painful situation they may be in, by helping them to share the pain by sharing their story, he said.

“When we get hurt as humans, I think one of the best things to do is to air it out,” he said.  “Each time they tell their story it loses a little bit of weight.  So maybe if they tell it enough times, they can finally be free from that burden.”

A WAY TO HELP PEOPLE

“That’s why I like my job, because we do get to help people,” Folsom said.  “We change people.”

Beyond helping people heal, he said that as a tattoo artist he also gets to help people express themselves.

“A lot of why people get tattoos is about themselves and how they perceive themselves,” Folsom said.

He added that tattoos are also a way for people to express their beliefs.

For example, he said, “the number 1 tattoo we do is the cross.”

Why?  “Because people around here have faith,” he said, noting “and grandma may not be too happy you getting a tattoo but if she sees that it’s a cross, then it’s okay; it makes it a little more acceptable.”

Yet it isn’t just religious beliefs that people express through tattoos.

In explaining how he has “tattooed people from every profession, even lawyers and doctors,” Folsom described tattooing one surgeon in Virginia who “wanted ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ on his chest right over his heart.”

*****

FAQ

“We get all sorts of crazy questions,” Folsom said, noting that one of his favorites is “they ask, ‘do you do real tattoos?’”

But there are some legitimate questions as well, he said, noting a common one is why he charges so much.

“We’re expensive, yeah, because we’re awesome,” Folsom said.

He added that some of the reason behind the cost is also “because it’s like surgery.”  Not only does he have to adhere to strict health codes similar to medical standards in some regards, but also when he is actually inking someone, he has to have focus similar to that of a surgeon.

“All your mental and physical actions are focused all on one little point,” he said.

But the “big question that everybody asks,” though, is ‘what does getting a tattoo feel like?’

If you ask Folsom, he’ll probably respond with his own question: “What does chicken taste like?”

Because although he will admit “there is a bit of a sting to it,” he said the overall feeling of being tattooed is indescribable.

“It’s so impossible to tell people what it feels like, that’s why they have to get one themselves,” he said.

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