John Ray was a name that kept coming to my attention when I told people about my tattoo blog. “That’s such a cool idea,” they would say, “have you interviewed John Ray yet?”
Finally, I had the privilege to sit down with him and hear his story.
“I love tattoos, I always have and I always wanted one, but my mom made me wait until I was eighteen to get my first one. By that time, I knew exactly what I wanted since I had so much time to think about it, and was able to draw it myself. I call it my ‘family flower.’ It’s a growing tattoo, so I keep adding to it. Basically, it’s a stick figure of everyone who has influenced me. The bud is my four sisters and me. I left room so I can add their husbands when they get married. In the center of the petals is my mom, because she holds us all together. Then the stem is my dad. The stem holds up the bud just like my dad holds up our family. “The root system supports the flower, so I included people who have supported me throughout the years, like my two high-school soccer coaches and two of my friends.
“I ask the person what their favorite color is, and that’s what I use to fill the stick figure. I have my niece on here, so as soon as she turned four I asked what her favorite color was. Then it was purple, but now she’s changing her mind to pink because she’s becoming a ‘girly-girl.'” He laughed. “It’s a little too late to change it though.”
John explained that when someone passes away, he adds something to their stick figure that was important to them. “Thankfully I haven’t had to do that many times, but when Jimmy died, I added an ice pick to his hand because he loved to climb.”
I asked what he will do when he gets married. John shrugged, “Maybe I’ll start a new one like on the other side of my leg and grow my own flower. I’m not sure yet, we’ll see.” He said he usually tries to go to the same artist, Jonathan Culver, when he updates his flower.
Next, I asked him to talk about his sleeve. “It’s actually not finished yet,” he answered. “But it’s kind of about my childhood in Idaho. It starts with the steelhead fish. Everyone thinks it’s a salmon but it’s actually a steelhead, which is what I fish when I go fly fishing.” John explained to me how steelheads are like salmon in that they travel upstream to spawn. “The only difference is that salmons make that trip once while steelheads go back and forth multiple times. I just admire their perseverance.”
John explained that his sleeve was divided into the sections of water, earth, wind and fire. So next came earth, a silhouette of an elk amidst the pine trees. “I love my sisters, I can brag about them all day, but sometimes my dad and I needed to escape a house of all girls to take a break. We would flyfish a lot, but he would also take me hunting. Every time he went, he took me along, even though people told him that I was too young. I remember once his friends convinced him that the trip was too much for me so he left me at home. I was heartbroken. When he got back, he just kept saying how I could have done it. Maybe that’s what makes me love it so much, when opportunities are missed, it makes you desire it more, you know?”
Next came the wind section. It’s a tattoo of a mallard duck soaring above the clouds. “There are a lot prettier ducks in Idaho, but the mallard duck is the most common, they’re everywhere. That’s also the duck I would hunt with my dad.”
The last one showed the sun, representing fire. “It was the first tattoo of the sleeve I got, but I’m ready to change it. I want to add some color to it and put a silhouette of Idaho in the middle of it, just to tie it all together.”
“It’s kind of like a narration of my childhood, each picture tells a different story. It’s like a reminder or a chapter of my life. It’s like writing things on your hand,” John laughed. “Just more permanent.”
Lastly, John took off his shoe to show me his final tattoo, a picture of a bicycle wheel with the phrase “We own the streets.”
“My first two years of college I went to a junior college in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. It’s an old Indiana reservation. I played soccer and honestly those two years were the best part of my collegiate career. I lived in a house with three other dudes which was a huge transition, considering I had lived with sisters all my life. We did everything together, if we were doing anything it would be like, ‘I’m doing this, come with me.’ We were the ‘soccer guy house’ and notorious for hosting parties, we even had a schedule for who would stay sober during the night. But those years were the best. We biked everywhere; through the mountains, to school, everywhere. It would be like two in the morning and we would take the up the whole road. Someone would scream, ‘We own the streets!’ and we all would shout in agreement. We could just have fun in each other’s company, you know? So we all go this tattooed, just on different parts of our bodies.”
I looked back over all of John’s tattoos and saw a very clear theme. Home. Home found in family, home found in childhood memories, home found in friendship. John compared his tattoos to chapters, and I couldn’t agree more. Each inked design stood for moments or people in his life that impacted him and shaped him into who he is today. I asked him if he would move back to Idaho. He shrugged, “Definitely out west, if not to Idaho.” He explained how the mountains there are nothing like the mountains here. “They are steeper, taller, bigger. Just covered in pine trees and eight feet of snow.” And to John, that was Home.