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Mom's Apple Pie and Tattoos

[whitespace] Sara Lee
Robert Scheer

The Right to Bear Tattooed Arms: Sara Lee displays some of her finest moments on her forearms.

A single mom braves her rose tattoo from an unlikely skin artist

By Sarah Phelan

EVER SINCE I GOT DIVORCED, I've fantasized about getting a rose tattooed on my derriere. Not just any old rose, but a wild, long-stemmed rose with plenty of thorns, just like single-mom me. But I've hesitated. At 40, I'm intimidated by the locker-room ambiance of downtown tattoo parlors. Exactly how would I bring myself to ask an immortal-looking hulk if he thinks a rose on my, er, bottom will sag 20 years hence?

So I put my tattoo on hold. Then one day an intriguing ad catches my eye: "Get Rid of Your Ex" it promises. Curious--what divorced person wouldn't be?--I read on.

Turns out this isn't a contract killer for hire but a female tattoo artist who goes by the unlikely name of Sara Lee (Sara Lee Daehne in full). Not only does this working mom cover up everything from unwanted gang and biker insignia to that ill-advised "I Love Monika" chest tattoo, but she also does custom-designed tattoos at Tenacious Eye Tattoos, her Ben Lomond home business. Suddenly it looks as if my tattoo dream might come true.

The Illustrated Woman

IT'S CLEAR FROM SARA LEE'S beard and heavily tattooed skin that she doesn't identify with the frilly-aproned image of her cake-baking namesake. Yet despite her unconventional exterior, Sara Lee is petite and beautiful, an unaffected mother who set up her business in her home so she could be there for her kids.

"My daughter's 13 and into lace and makeup; my son's 10 and a ditch digger," she explains as she guides me and my companion-in-arms (he wants a tattoo on his biceps) into her parlor, a yellow and black affair bursting with tattooing books. On the wall hangs a picture of a white eagle untying with its beak the rope that binds its talons to a perch.

"I got that picture for $5 at Kmart," Sara Lee says with a laugh, "but I thought it kinda appropriate because people seem transformed after they've had a tattoo, as if they've freed themselves."

Freedom was definitely her motivation for getting a tattoo. What she didn't expect was that it would also lead to a career.

"When I was a kid, my mother signed me up for everything in uniform," she recalls. "So, a tattoo seemed the ideal way to never be in uniform again. But by the time I was 18 (the legal age to get tattooed), I was a machinist in New York, and tattoos seemed pretty expensive.

"Since I could draw, I decided to buy the equipment myself," she explains, as my companion, anxious to get the torture over with, rifles nervously through a pile of magazines.

Legend has it that Japanese tattoo artist Horikin II practiced his craft on hams, sausages and daikon radishes before turning to human flesh. Not so Sara Lee. First, she inked a heart on her foot, then she worked on bikers who wanted to cover up bad jail-house tattoos or an ex-girlfriend's name. Finally, a donut maker from Maine tattooed a heart on her arm.

As she recalls, "He gave me a hand job, using a needle wrapped around with thread to absorb the dye, so it was a lot more painful than an electric one."

That was 20 years ago. Today Sara Lee displays cave paintings from her right ankle up to her knee, then pond life up to her thigh. Salt-water animals and traditional Japanese pinups adorn her left leg. And that's not the end of it. For her, tattooing is an expressive art form that uses skin as its canvas, and she has already mapped out her plans for the rest of her body.

Epidermal Dreams

FOUND ON 5,000-year-old Egyptian mummies, tattoos indeed represent an ancient tradition of human adornment. However, they fell into disrepute among the Greeks and Romans, who used them to brand their criminals and slaves. Greek emperor Theophilus once had 11 stanzas of obscene verse tattooed across the foreheads of two monks who had publicly criticized him.

In Santa Cruz, tattooing was banned until five years ago, "to keep the biker and Navy element away," explains Sara Lee, rolling her eyes. "Yeah, maybe some people get a tattoo to say, 'Look at me, I'm a bad-ass biker.' But I don't do negative, racist, demeaning, degrading tattoos," Lee says.

"And I avoid doing names," she adds, "because things change. I'll do an image that represents someone--like the cricket I did for the guy whose girlfriend's nickname was Cricket. I've had to cover up too many names, along with swastikas and gang and jail-house tattoos. And in that sense, my work is rewarding, because I'm helping people get tried of something they've hated or been hiding."

While tattoos remain a mark of rebellion for some, for others they represent freedom. "You resolve something, then mark it symbolically on your skin," Sara Lee muses as she tattoos my friend's arm with the Greek letter "psi"--his way of stating a lasting commitment to his son, Cyrus.

"And a tattoo can also be a shell that makes you seem tough and more extroverted," Sara Lee notes, rolling up her pant leg to show the shelled turtle and snail that adorn her right knee.

Her main clients are 19-year-old boys who think a tattoo is a sign of manhood and people wanting cover-ups. And then there are the 45-year-old women "who are ready to be wild, but often they get a very tame and hidden tattoo, so it's rather anticlimactic for them."

Not so, in my case. Despite my companion's teasing that "your rose is going to hurt like heck!" I decide to have it, thorns and all. But instead of my bottom, I choose my left biceps--a firmer spot and one that's far more visible.

OK, I'll admit that the first five minutes were hell. But once those endorphins kicked in, and Lee switched from the excruciating outline to the mildly painful shading, I understood why clients say they love her halfway through a tattooing.

Driving back to Santa Cruz, I imagine that my rose is clambering up my shoulder and down along my arm. I panic. Maybe I'll get fired, scandalize my kids and alienate my mother--again. But when I get home and pull up my shirt sleeve, I love what I see.

As Sara Lee puts it, "When people get a tattoo, it should already have jelled in their minds. They should already have dreamed it. I just help put on the outside, what's hidden inside."

For more information, call 408-336-9222.

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From the March 12-18, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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