My son’s graduation parking lot is a sea of motorcycles: black, yellow, noisy, spitting smoke, adorned with flames, gleaming with chrome so shiny you have to look away.
Far from the dappled shadow of any Ivy League campus, this blazing black roof belongs to the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, a sprawling complex of freshly whitewashed warehouse-sized buildings. with red and blue accent lines. Inside are classrooms, labs, and mock repair shops for students who, like my son, Alex, are studying to become certified in motorcycle assembly and repair.
My husband carefully steers our rental Nissan through the parking lot, looking for an empty spot among all the motorbikes. Hidden behind my dark sunglasses, I look around at other relatives and friends in their halter tops and jeans, scarf shirts, sleeveless T-shirts and turquoise bracelets. And tattoos, of course, lots and lots of them: roses, snakes, spiders, geometric patterns and sunbeams, bright color explosions of red, blue and green.
feel out of place
We, on the other hand, just arrived from Maryland, and I’m wearing a linen pantsuit and white shirt, my husband is wearing his standard short-sleeved button-down shirt with pressed khakis, and my daughter is wearing a J. Crew polo shirt and tight pants. With our sickly white skin, we look like we just got out of a long hospital stay. We have no tattoos, not even a pretty little flower on the ankle.
Today is ostensibly a celebration, but I brewed with that familiar stew of hope, love, embarrassment and worry that has generally ruled my relationship with my son for most of his 29 years, long before his attention deficit disorder (ADHD) diagnosis when he was eight years old. Just two months ago when I thought that with this impending graduation he had finally got over his penchant for derailing my dreams for his life, it happened again. The news came over the phone: “Mom, guess what? I will become a tattoo artist.
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I sat down, amazed. “But what about all your motorcycle training?” I said. “The months of hard work, the courses, the chance to have a well-paying job. Do you throw it all away?
“I decided tattooing would be my full-time job,” he says happily. “And my band, of course. Music and art are the things I love. Working on bikes, well, that’s what I’ll do when I need to earn some extra cash.
Disappointment gripped my throat. How could he ever change his mind? And then I turned the disappointment inward. Stupid me – I had actually allowed myself to get excited about that, his motorcycle certification. Admittedly, a motorcycle mechanic son may not seem like nirvana to some parents. But in our case, I thought it was the best chance for Alex to make a “career” and become independent.
Life on its terms
Alex has spent most of his life delving into, pushing, and opening up commonly accepted norms of behavior in hopes of finding a place for himself. Ever since he was old enough to race his tricycle down the sidewalk, with such abandon that the neighbors pushed their children out of his way, Alex has lived his life as he pleases. And I, as the single mother that I was for much of his childhood, was often pushed to my limits trying to raise him and, with what energy I had left, his sister. younger, while working full-time as a public relations officer to support us.
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In middle school, Alex clashed with teachers over his black and red hair, flying shirttails, and intermittent dating. He was bright and bursting with energy for everything but the classroom. He learned to play guitar, bass, saxophone, and drums, started rowdy bands in basements, and wrote volumes of music and lyrics.
When he wasn’t making music, he was drawing – birds, fish, flowers – in fine detail. I hung his drawings in my office, and dreamed of the day when he would be able to channel his intellect and creativity in a positive way, to become the kind of artist whose paintings would be hung in real galleries.
Instead, he started making a canvas of himself. At 17, Alex got the word “unity” tattooed on his upper arm. He never asked my permission, and when I saw him I told him it made him look like a punk. He said it reflected his stance on ‘race, equality and acceptance’ – a touching sentiment, perhaps, but despite his call for acceptance, it was a bit difficult for me to accept .
Of course, that was just the beginning. Soon Alex dropped out of high school and moved to the West Coast to live with friends, then to Arizona, where he became addicted to heroin. It was a terrible time. My fiery son – the same boy who once explained to his kindergarten teacher that he couldn’t draw melted snowmen because they didn’t leave a mark – was now lost on the streets of a city in 3,000 miles away, sticking needles in his arm, probably sleeping in boxes. If I saw him on the street, would I even recognize him?
From the start, I was determined to stay in touch with Alex by not issuing threats or ultimatums. Despite my open door approach, there have been times when I haven’t heard from him for weeks. But I had faith that he would find his way. He acknowledged that the drugs were eating him alive and told me he was ready to enter a treatment center, where he entered recovery. He stayed sober for seven years.
Meanwhile, Alex’s collection of tattoos has spread from his arms to his neck, forearms and back. Given his love for them, I shouldn’t have been surprised that he wanted to become a tattoo artist.
Trying to convince me that his plan was legit, Alex begged me over email, “The best tattoo artist in Arizona has taken me on as an apprentice!” he wrote. “He says I have the drawing talent to be awesome.”
I wanted to ask him to face reality for once, to be able to tell him something, anything that might change his mind. But I kept that inside and instead wrote, “Alex, please help me understand what it is about the tattoo art you find so appealing.”
“Oh, Mom,” he replied, “your questions make me so happy! Tattoos are unique works of art. I love the imagery, the unique and personal way of identifying myself, my beliefs and my values. I love Native American spirit designs and Japanese or Chinese characters, roses and other flowers, swallows, daggers, flames, names and memorials.
“Aren’t you worried about the hepatitis?” I typed.
“I make sure my tattoo artist wears gloves and uses new needles and the shop always smells clean of bleach.”
“Are you sure you can earn enough as a tattoo artist to support yourself?”
“Mom, I think I can make it all work!”
I tried to imagine what it was like for Arnold Schoenberg’s family to appreciate his atonal music, which to many at the time sounded like horns and goose horns and led some listeners to the riot. And who in Jackson Pollock’s family could have foreseen that by dripping his paintings onto a canvas spread out on the floor, he would become a famous abstract expressionist?
Families and guests of Motorcycle Mechanics Institute graduates enter the air-conditioned auditorium and seek seats. Alex, with his dyed black hair, bright blue eyes, and tanned Arizona skin, sits with us, though he’s up and down every moment to clap his comrades.
I am watching him. His laugh is easy. Her arms and legs, covered in tattoos, move with abandon. He kisses his friends freely. My son — this young man whom I love so much but who has caused so much grief to himself and his family over the past 21 years — is absolutely filled with joy.
And soon his graduation moment has arrived: Alex is called to the front to receive his diploma. His perfect attendance and exceptional grades are noted. As his comrades whistle and yell, Alex looks embarrassed, but only for a moment. Then he takes his diploma, holds it high above his head and shouts: “Yes, I passed!”
Of course, in the nearly two years since that occasion, Alex hasn’t used his hard-earned certification to work as a motorcycle mechanic for a single day. Not even once.
But he was right. He had. Not in the way I could have dreamed. Not like the new Jackson Pollock. But at 29, he is happy and independent, living the life of his dreams. And he sacrifices everything to pursue his art, which you can see in a traveling exhibition throughout the South West on the backs, legs, arms and chest of his many beloved canvases.
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