Ryan Ashley is like a long cold drink on a hot summer day. Cool, confident and extraordinarily talented, she made history as the first woman to win Ink Master after eight seasons of the tattooing reality TV show competition. That led to her participation in the spin-off show Ink Master: Angels – and despite her prominence in a male-dominated industry and approximately a million social media fans, she seems to have no arrogance in her.
Ryan is not the kind of woman you would expect to find in Israel. Her visit becomes even more extraordinary when you know its purpose – to use her art to help IDF wounded warriors heal.
I am very glad I had the opportunity to watch Ryan at work. A natural born artist, she began her career as a fashion designer and when she fell in love with tattooing, flesh became her canvas.
I, who am incapable of drawing a straight line with a ruler, was flabbergasted when she showed me the tattoos on her leg and said nonchalantly: “The cat I did myself, upside-down.”
Many of her tattoos are drawings she just felt like doing. As others might doodle on paper in their free time, Ryan creates permanent art for herself and others.
Israel is becoming more open to tattooing although once it was an absolute taboo. Tattooing is explicitly forbidden in the Torah (Leviticus 19:28): “do not tattoo yourself”. The verse comes in a section of laws that explain how Jews are supposed to live. This verse refers to two practices common to other nations of the time that are both forbidden to Jews as pagan customs are not to be emulated. Modern day Jewish aversion to tattoos was strengthened by Nazis forcibly tattooing Jews with numbers during the Holocaust.
Today it is becoming more and more socially acceptable to get a tattoo. Sometimes parents and their teenage/twenty something children get tattoos together. Sometimes grandparents get tattoos of the names of their grandchildren.
Healing Ink brings tattoo artists of an international caliber to Israel, to give tattoos to selected survivors of terrorism and war. The session that took place in Haifa’s Museum of Modern Art was dedicated to IDF wounded warriors. At first tattooing and healing might seem like a strange combination but when it’s understood that extreme trauma changes the body and the mind, it makes sense to take back a feeling of control by choosing to tattoo yourself with an empowering symbol or image.
Some of the tattoo recipients choose to cover physical scars with beautiful imagery, turning the ugliness inflicted on them into something they can love. Others choose symbols of strength, freedom and being able to leave the past behind. It is about choice and control over what happens to your own body.
Ryan, like the other tattoo artists in the group, came to Israel to use art to heal, to lessen trauma with kindness. There was no political agenda involved. Most of the artists who came were not Jewish and had no knowledge of Israel. Their interest was not in politics or an agenda but simply in humanity.
We Israelis are rarely given this kind of human consideration.
Haifa’s Museum of Modern Art had arranged a day for this special tattoo event. The artists, recipients and museum visitors became living art. Tomer, the man Ryan tattooed was not talkative. He obviously felt a little uncomfortable at being an “exhibit” but Ryan’s calm confidence created a peaceful bubble in which he too could relax.
Unlike some of the other recipients, he was reluctant to speak of the trauma he experienced. He was willing to say that it was in Operation Cast Lead (Gaza Dec 2008) and that he hoped the dream catcher Ryan was creating would help. Looking at him no physical injury was visible. Possibly all that is left is trauma to the soul.
It is not often that one can feel the caliber of a person just by being in their presence but, despite his few words, Tomer’s quality of character was obvious. When the event was over, I asked him how it felt to have such a special woman come across the ocean, just for him. His eyes sparkled and a huge smile lit up his face. In a typical Israeli understatement, it was his expression that gave meaning to the words: “It’s something! Really something!”
As a people, we more often than not, feel very alone in the world. For those carrying the weight of trauma, this feeling is even more extreme. Now, every time Tomer looks at his leg he will see Ryan’s art and know that someone cared about him enough to fly halfway across the world, to give him a piece of herself, just to make him feel better.
That is very powerful.
Hate is very strong. It steals our lives, ruins families, breaks bodies and bends the psyche, damaging the soul but sometimes, art can overcome.