I owe a lot to Joe Yelverton. He is a brilliant photographer and a good friend. Joe has taken all the pictures for this web site. Hell, he is the reason I even have a web site. Joe has created a show based off of our experiences together. The show “salvation” will provide a visual narrative of tattoo sessions I performed over a three year period. The show will be just one day only and for only 3 hours. August 7th, 5-8pm at “The Studio” in downtown Anchorage. Directly after the show we will gather at “Ginger” to continue our enjoyment of the evening. Please feel free to help spread the word. Hope to see you there! Do yourself a favor and follow Joe’s blog at joeyelverton.com!
In the spring of 2012 I met a deeply solemn man named Roger Sparks.
I was at a dinner table surrounded by a small group of Alaska friends, listening to Roger share his combat experience as a special forces soldier. He seemed to be carefully navigating memories of an event that happened on foreign soil, thousands of miles away.
A year and a half had passed since his last deployment to Afghanistan, one of many tours in a life-long military career.
The intensity in Roger’s eyes shed more light on his story than did his words, reminding me that some experiences are too visceral for the convenience of spoken language.
Along with a combat rescue officer, Roger was sent into a precipitous battlefield to triage a platoon of critically injured men still under fire. He quickly treated the ones who stood some chance of survival, and he fought like hell while running from one casualty to the next. The rescue mission lasted into the night and Roger would eventually return to his air base covered in blood.
The next time I saw Roger we had a long conversation about art. This time, Roger’s words connected with his experience. He was articulate, even poetic, and anything but solemn. It wasn’t long before I started watching him make his art—drawing, painting, music, and tattooing.
After knowing this man for a short time it occurred to me that he is one of those people the universe seems to choose to bear the suffering of the sins of the world. Until I met Roger I never believed in such a concept. Now I know this is commonplace for combat-hardened soldiers.
Art is Roger’s first language.
Many times I have observed Roger lose himself in the creative process, much the same as an extraordinary concert pianist who seems unaware of the audience when the theatre lights are dimmed, and the spotlight shifts to the stage.
My portrait of Roger spotlights his work as a tattoo artist.
The more tattoo sessions I witnessed, the more I realized that Roger’s art is a conveyance for an intimate connection with the person lying on his table. Many of his clients have faced traumatic, life altering events. After Roger meticulously prepares his equipment, and the needle first touches the skin, his studio begins filling with a perceptible air of intense vulnerability that, at times, has challenged my own objectivity. At times I’ve had to force myself to keep shooting, while I was simultaneously moved by the intense conversations I was hearing—of combat, personal sacrifice, and loss.
Roger’s studio is unique from conventional street shops. I’ve witnessed sessions that lasted up to twelve continuous hours, often involving painstaking detail and physical duress for both Roger and his client. Roger’s tattooing is both a physical and spiritual practice, where concentration is paramount. I suspect Roger is capable of tattooing for twelve straight hours for two main reasons: because he’s a warrior, and because art is his salvation.
August 7, 2015
I remember sitting on my grandfather’s lap as a child, staring down at a famously yellow covered National Geographic that he held in his grease-stained hands. As he slowly turned the pages, the faint smell of Jim Beam punctuated the exotic stories he translated for a wide-eyed five year old. Looking back, I realize now he was insatiably curious about the world, curious about the nature of everything. Despite his fluency in all-things-international, the only time he traveled was when he was in Europe during World War II. My grandfather was a deeply humble and hard working mechanic who understood the inner workings of many things. Elvis, my grandfather, remained a provincial dreamer because of an undying devotion to his first love, my grandmother, who was afraid of the unknown.
After all these years I can still remember the sweet smell of whiskey on his breath, especially when I’m standing in the middle of some vast and wild place. Or when I meet an interesting character in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes, I’d swear I can even hear his voice in the wind.
After all these years, I still miss my grandfather.
I am forever curious, just as he was. And it’s curiosity that drives my obsession with wandering around wild places and seeking out interesting people. I love hearing people’s stories, and I’ve been lucky enough to meet some extraordinary people during my journey.
Words and images are mere tools that I use in an attempt to develop my own understanding. I don’t write or make pictures for an audience so much as I do to help process my own experiences. And this process comes from necessity. I write and I make pictures for me.
Some of the most compelling stories I’ve ever heard were characterized by a strong connection to “place,” the environment around the individual. In many cases, it’s been a connection so palpable that the individual embodied attributes of the landscape that surrounded them. Observing this place — where the human element and landscape intersect — ignites my curiosity more than anything.
Someone once asked me, “Joe, where’s your place?” Without hesitation, I responded, “Behind the lens.”