Musicians tell their stories through sound, but also on their skin. OffBeat invited six Louisiana musicians to talk about their tattoos, why they got them and how their meanings and appearances have changed over time.
Can you tell me about your family tattoo?
That one was kind of like getting a “Mom” tattoo. But my mom didn’t really like tattoos, so I was like, “But this is a family one, it’s for our family!” [It’s] also for my family that I found through travelling and making art. It’s not always blood family, but it’s a very important concept for me, family. Like, the family that you make by blood, and the family that you make by finding kindred spirits. It’s very important in life. Having that warmth, having that nurturing. [The tattoo] is two wings: One’s more bionic, one’s got some vines wrapped around it. So it’s kind of showing the link between science and nature.
And you’d said that you were the only one in your family with face tattoos?
I come from a subculture where it’s much more prominent. It was to kind of separate myself from the parts of society that I didn’t necessarily agree with. The corporate breed, things like that. If somebody wasn’t going to give me a chance based on the tattoos, then they probably weren’t really worth my time anyway, you know?
Like a filter?
Yeah, that’s it. A filter. Also, I lost my dad for about 20 years, and then when I found him again, I found out that I’m from the Haida nation of aboriginal native Americans in Canada and that tattooing is very heavy in our tribe. So at first I was like, “Well, I’m not like anyone else in my family,” but then I found out that it’s kind of in my DNA.
Shameus Greymountain (Sweet Street Symphony)
Why do you have paw prints on your feet?
Well, I had two dogs, named Lily and Betsy. Lily passed recently, and they both passed right before my birthday—different years. I took pictures of their paws, right after they passed. For Lily’s I had to drive to Austin to get it, because my tattoo artist had moved to Austin and I wanted the same person to do them. Lily was 19 when she died, which is pretty amazing.
You’ve got a mole framed on your back. Why frame a mole?
Well, I like imperfections. And I really like that mole. So I decided to frame it. Great mole story.
What about the dragonfly on your chest?
I think dragonflies are really beautiful. And they’re prehistoric. Back in prehistoric times, dragonflies were huge. They had like three-foot wingspans. Quite a snack for the dinosaurs.
Jon Bertrand (Pine Leaf Boys)
So, tell me about that giant tattoo on your stomach…
It’s Joe and Cléoma Falcon. They’re the couple that made the first Cajun record back in the ‘20s. I think it was recorded in New Orleans. “Allons à Lafayette.” [The tattoo] is a work in progress. I’ve got two sessions on it, and I’m going to try to finish it [soon].
…did it hurt?
Oh, my god. I mean, I’ve gotten tattooed a lot before, and I’ve never had trouble sitting for a tattoo before this one.
Cajun music is obviously a big part of your culture as well as your livelihood. Did you always want to be a musician?
Um… I guess? I was a Francophone studies major. I was supposed to go to grad school, but then I got called to go on tour, and just never showed up for grad school.
How do you choose your tattoos?
I generally pick artists that I like, when I see something that they did that I like. I rarely say “Draw a picture of this…” I usually get something that they have been working on already. I have a couple of people that I keep going back to. Tom Kenney and John Rippey at Classic Electric in Frederick, Maryland, and then Terry Grow at Triple A in Lafayette. Terry’s doing the one on my stomach.
How many tattoos do you have? Do you have favorites?
Thirtyish. I like them all.
Which was your first?
The first one was a little fleur-de-lis—just a black fleur-de-lis on my shoulder. My grandfather had navy tattoos—old navy tattoos, from the Philippines. Getting tattooed was in my mind growing up.
This one looks new…?
I got my Mississippi-Louisiana tattoo last summer. I’d been thinking about it for the past four years. I knew I wanted a magnolia in there because both states share that flower. I often say I’m a Mississippisianian—copyright, don’t try to take it! [laughs]—but I was born in Mississippi and raised in New Orleans.
You said you’d gone back and forth a bit with your dad, a preacher, about your tattoos?
I got my first tattoo at 18: my grandmother’s name, Precious, on my left shoulder. I lost her my freshman year in college, and when I showed my dad, he said, “But the bible says…” But now he doesn’t look at me like, “What did you get now?” He just celebrates me for who I am, which is this beautiful bald and gold woman that God created to spread music and life all over the world.
You’ve said that you consider Billie Holiday to be one of your great heroes. What set her apart?
It was a miracle that she rose out of what she rose out of and had some great success, but also it wound up kind of killing her. She’s sort of a tale of America at that time. But the great thing about her is you just listen to what she did, and it speaks for itself. She doesn’t need anybody defending her.
The tattoo on your shoulder looks like it’s still bleeding?
I had this crazy tattoo done—under the influence, you’d say—that I hated from the day I got it. Unidentified. It was just crazy. I don’t know what it was. It was nuts. I could never explain it to myself or anybody else. So when I got to know Ramon [Estevez, tattoo artist], I said, “Man, can we do something about this?” And he said, “That’s gonna take a helluva lot of ink.”
I thought it would be fun to put the instruments I play. You know, electric bass, guitar, mandolin and trombone.
What’s that on your chest?
On my chest here, I never told you that story? It’s the Witch Test. You can’t read it, huh? You’re not a witch…
After my second divorce, two nights in a row when I moved to Sunset Beach I met two so-called “witches.” And they both were making me crazy. So the next morning I went in, probably still drunk, and talked to a tattoo artist and said, “Hey, you got like a Wiccan dictionary?” And he said, “Oh yeah.” And I said, “Alright, get that motherfucker out. We’re gonna type ‘nipple clamper’ on here.” Guess how many “witches” I’ve met since then? This was over 10 years ago… Dozens! Guess how many have been able to read it? Zero.
Vanessa Niemann a.k.a Gal Holiday
Why the cowgirl?
That one was more of a strength tattoo. She’s got her little gun, she’s out there doing her thing, taking care of her business, being strong and independent. And I hadn’t really gotten anything for Gal Holiday yet either, so I figured the cowgirl would be appropriate… It’s like two years old.
You also have a turquoise rose on your shoulder?
That one’s for my grandmother. Her name was Rose. I actually got it while she was still living, but I never showed it to her because she wasn’t really into tattoos.
I was very close to my grandmother and grandfather. I spent a lot of time with them when I was very young. I haven’t gotten my grandfather’s tattoo yet, but both of them were very important to me.