Four Roosters

Photo by John Kotula.

This is a story about tattoos, a grandfather, two of his grandsons, making art, a road trip, and mortality.

I’m the grandfather. I’m an old guy. I’m in my 80th year, which is a pretentious way of saying I just turned 79. The two grandsons are Sammy and Simon, brothers — 24 and 21 respectively. However, this story takes place three years ago when they were 21 and 18 and I was, you guessed it, 76.

Both the boys separately initiated conversations with me about wanting to get their first tattoos. Both said they wanted to use one of my drawings, probably one of my roosters. This took my breath away. I’m an artist and a consistent theme in my drawings and paintings and prints for many years has been roosters. When Sammy brought up the idea, I said, “I just had this same conversation with Simon.” He said, “Yeah. We’ve been talking about it. We might get matching tattoos if we can agree on the same design.” I sent them four rooster drawings I thought might work, which were not the four roosters referred to in the title of this piece. Well… one of them was… never mind, it’ll get cleared up later. Sammy and Simon picked the same drawing, and we agreed to do it in the summer when I would be visiting them in Portland, Oregon. I said, “I’m paying.” I got no argument there.

In a recent medical study conducted by Kaiser Permanente, 2,500 citizens of Portland were randomly chosen and interviewed by phone, and asked to describe their tattoos. 53% of the people who received a call had tattoos. Every fourth person who acknowledged having been tattooed was offered $50 to attend a screening with a physician’s assistant or a nurse practitioner. In total, 100 screenings were carried out. During a screening, a participant’s tattoos were carefully measured and photographed. Results showed that on average 6.8% of a participant’s body surface was inked. Therefore, extrapolating from this data, with a total population of 583,776, there is approximately, 582 football fields worth of tattooed flesh within the Portland city limits, making it arguably the most tattooed city in the country. (Please note: The study and statistics presented here are fake, but the point is factual.)

In the spring of 2021 my wife and I drove cross-country, arriving in Portland in time to celebrate my birthday on May 14. A rooster accompanied us on this trip. Another way roosters show up in my art-making is in the form of masks. I make elaborately painted paper mâché rooster masks. I then pose myself or other people wearing the masks and photograph them. From the drive, I have photos of my rooster alter ego crossing the Ohio state line, admiring various street art, entering Yellowstone National Park, chatting with museum personnel, etc. However, the best use of the rooster masks was at the tattoo parlor.

The boys had decided to get the roosters tattooed on the outsides of their thighs, maybe six inches above their knees. Sammy wanted his on his right leg and Simon on his left, kind of like mirror images of each other. I decided I had to have a talk with them.

At dinner, the night before our appointment, I said, “Do you realize that by getting this design, where you’re getting it on your body, you’re opening yourself to a lifetime of cock jokes?”
They looked at me blankly. “Huh? What do you mean?”

I said, “People saying things like, ‘When I look up your shorts I can see your cock.’ ”

Their grandmother added, “Or ‘That sure is a cute cock you got there.’ ”

After a thoughtful pause, Simon said, “That’s cool.”

Sammy said, “Yeah. I can live with that.”

I looked at their mother. She just rolled her eyes. End of conversation.

I sent a text to the tattoo artist, “Hey, my grandsons are coming in tomorrow to get rooster tattoos. The design is one of my drawings. I also have some papier-mâché rooster masks I made. How would you feel about staging a photo in which you and my grandson put on the rooster masks and it looks like a rooster tattoo artist giving a rooster tattoo to a rooster client? It would only take about five minutes.” He texted back, “I’m in.” In the resulting photo there are the masked tattoo artist and Simon wearing masks. That’s two roosters. You can see the design on Simon’s thigh and there is a copy of the original drawing taped to a light in the background. That’s four roosters.

So, as promised in the beginning, I covered the tattoos, the grandfather, the grandsons, making art and the road trip, but what about “mortality”? I mentioned I’m in my 80th year, right? As I’m driving down the road, there is way more life in the rear view mirror than there is coming at me through the windshield. By getting these tattoos, Sammy and Simon have bestowed on me some presence in the world long after I leave the living. What a thrilling gift. I’m so honored.