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Participants talk about the Boulder Tattoo Project

Phil McLean moved to Boulder from Cincinnati 35 years ago and says he "never felt at home" until he arrived there. Since the 64-year-old title abstractor signed up as a sponsor of the Boulder Tattoo Project, he got to select his excerpt from Anne Waldman's "Boulder Zodiac" before...
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Phil McLean

Phil McLean moved to Boulder from Cincinnati 35 years ago and says he "never felt at home" until he arrived there. Since the 64-year-old title abstractor signed up as a sponsor of the Boulder Tattoo Project, he got to select his excerpt from Anne Waldman's "Boulder Zodiac" before the rest of the phrases and words were released to other participants. His choice: "through water."

Why those words? "We are all here through water," McLean explains. "Without water we would not exist." A self-identified Pisces, he also appreciated that "through water" is "easier to say than Piscean Transmigratory."

 Before the flood, "through water" symbolized "an essence of life, an originating power," he says; after the flood, its meaning grew to encompass "the full circle of life, the power of nature." The flood brought all those elements together for him:  "The flood showed me that it becomes full circle, because water isn't only an enabling force, but a destructive force."

Because McLean likes to sail, he had an extra bilge pump in his garage, which he hooked up during the flood. "It's not any bigger than the size of a one-pound coffee can," he notes. "It can sense if it's sitting in water and it can pump water. Supposedly it was pumping 520 gallons." Because of that bilge pump, McLean's home did not sustain much damage and he didn't need to apply for FEMA recovery funds. "The people across the street and two doors down filled a couple of rollout dumpsters and still have people bringing in loads of two-by-fours and drywall," he notes.

"This was a lot of water I had to deal with," he adds. "It kept me busy for several weeks." But then, when it snows three feet you also have to deal with that, he points out. "It's part of life."

This will be his McLean's first tattoo; he says he was motivated to finally get one by "whimsy, humor, community, broadening horizons." But it was the project's connection to the community of Boulder, rather than the tattoo itself, that really appealed to him. He knew the poem was "written by Anne Waldman, and that's pretty cool," he says, but what's really cool is the celebration of "what a wonderful place Boulder is, with all of its different kinds of people — Christians, Buddhists, Muslims. Very diverse people, and we all are here together and have this common love of the mountains."

Cheyenne Carlsson

Nineteen-year-old ballet dancer Cheyenne Carlsson didn't know who Anne Waldman was when she signed up for the Boulder Tattoo Project. She just liked the idea of being "part of something that involves the community that you live in." She knows through experience how powerful this can be: She also has a tattoo representing Idlewild, California, where she went to high school; she and a number of friends all got tattoos their senior year. The process was "kind of sporadic," she remembers. "Each of us made the choice to go out and do this on our own as a remembrance."

Carlsson moved to Boulder last year when she enrolled at the University of Colorado. This will be her fifth tattoo. She has the word "inspire" written on her ribs in memory of her great-grandmother, the "ohm" symbol in the shape of Ganesha on the back of her neck, "l'appeal du vied" on her shoulder and "two circles and an oval in the center" on her hip, "two opposing things coming together to be one." That's the tribute to Idlewild, which she made using India ink.

The words she'll have tattooed on her ankle next week? "Scarcity of water." The flood did not change the meaning of that phrase for Carlsson. "It's a symbol of remembering to be thankful for simple things like water," she explains, "because there are people in the world that struggle to simply have water."

Her feelings for Boulder haven't changed, either. It's an "artistic community that prides itself on being what it is," she says. "It's been a safe place for me to explore who I am as an individual. It has provided comfort and friendships beyond explaining with just words."

Although 25-year-old TL lives in Denver, Boulder "is now where my teaching and student limbs reside," she says. Those limbs are already inhabited by tattoos of "pretty things like flowers, feathers and elephants." Soon they will have another tattoo, the single word "water."

Water was the topic of her thesis at Naropa University. "I'm obsessed with water," she explains. "I am obsessed with language, infrastructure, sound and water." 

She was obsessed with water before the flood, and she remains obsessed with it. But because she lives in Denver, the flood affected her differently than it did some of the other Boulder Tattoo Project participants. "It's like a secondary experience," she admits. "I have relatives who were more directly affected."

TL studied with Anne Waldman at Naropa. In fact, it was Waldman's involvement that attracted her to the project. "What she provides for our community of writers, scholars and thinkers is extremely important regarding what is next for writing and language itself," she says. "She is always moving forward with her voice, her intellect and her body."

And in the process, the poet helps Boulder move forward. "Anne puts time into building community, generated community between our bodies and ourselves," TL explains. "It's an interesting and beautiful way to connect to people anonymously. We are anonymous to one another because [we] don't know each other but are wearing the poem on our skin."

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