What do a tattoo artist, an IDF wounded warrior, and a scorpion have in common?
Brilliant blue eyes and smile lines etched in his face could not diminish the horror of the event he was describing. Possibly it was this inherent charm, his almost apologetic leaning towards me as he spoke as if subconsciously pleading for understanding, that evoked in me an intense reaction to what he described so calmly:
“It was in 2000. On the way home from the army, the car I was in was ambushed by terrorists. The soldier next to me was shot. I was shot too. I got out, returned fire and killed two terrorists. We drove off but they had already spread the news and before we got much further a lynch mob was waiting for us. I was shot again, in the chest. I killed two more terrorists and then we got away. They told me later I had been mortally wounded.”
Ambushed. Shot twice. Surviving the first ambush only to end up in a much worse situation. Battling for his life. Struggling to protect himself and the other passengers in the car while he was bleeding out. How is it possible to do something so amazing?!
A man like Yossi would probably answer: “How is it possible not to? What other choice did I have? Death by lynch mob is much worse than death by bullets and there were other people with me.”
I say probably because I didn’t ask. That’s just what people like Yossi say.
I have lived in Israel long enough to learn that no real hero will call himself a hero or be comfortable with other people giving him that title. He will tell you about the people he didn’t save. He will tell you about others who deserve grand titles more than he does. He will tell you he did his best, that he wishes he could have done better. That he just did what needed to be done.
“Just.” Such a small word…
What comes to mind when you hear the term “hero”? Do you think of a Superman, a comic-book superhero? Someone with big muscles and a loud voice? Strong and self-assured?
How would you label someone like Yossi?
For many, it is difficult to understand that the scars left by bullet holes that almost killed you can be negligible compared to the trenches extreme trauma can dig into your psyche. Physical wounds usually heal. It is the wounds of the soul that cause the worst damage.
Quietly, not searching for sympathy, just as an explanation, Yossi told me that because of his PTSD he cannot work indoors, in a typical job so he works outside, in construction, volunteering to help others who are suffering. When he was injured, after the physical wounds healed, there was no one who could really help him with the emotional burden. Now he helps other soldiers who have been through traumatic experiences.
Who would ever imagine that it would be a tattoo artist from South Africa who would step up to help Yossi?
Nicholas Mudskipper is a nice guy.
Nick came to Israel as part of a group of tattoo artists of an international caliber participating in a unique program called Healing Ink. The goal of the program is to utilize the art of tattooing to bring psychological and emotional support to people suffering from trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The tattoo serves as a type of talisman for the recipient, a permanent piece of artwork to transform an ugly experience of violence and hate into a conscious choice of beauty. The act of choosing the tattoo empowers the recipient who did not choose to experience the traumatic event. Sometimes recipients choose tattoos that cover physicals scars, incorporating them into the art created. Others choose symbols of things they need to be reminded of when the darkness of remembered trauma overwhelms them, a kind of light to hold on to when everything else seems too overwhelming.
Historically Jews have an aversion to tattoos – due to the practice being explicitly forbidden in the Torah and the more recent memory of our parents and grandparents being forcibly tattooed with dehumanizing numbers by Nazis. Today the practice is becoming more socially acceptable in Israel. Heavily tattooed people are not common in Israel but people who have one or two tattoos are no longer a rarity.
In Israel, seeing someone like Nick, covered as he is in tattoos, is unusual. The question is, would you stop to talk to him and learn about his art or would the tattoos on his arms (and legs) distract you? Would you see the man or the paintings on his skin?
To me it seems that most tattoo artists must reject labels. It takes guts to decorate your skin with permanent art and disregard what others might think as a result.
Coming from South Africa to Israel, to help IDF wounded warriors must not have been an easy thing. I can’t imagine that in the country that would rather go without water than accept Israeli technology that would solve the crisis, many would find the concept of offering support to one of our soldiers acceptable.
But Nick didn’t see the labels so many others put on Israelis. He saw people, individuals he could help, just by being himself, doing what he does best. This wasn’t about supporting a political cause or a “side”, this was about recognizing human pain and using art to minimize suffering.
Like I said, Nick is a nice guy.
Most people find it difficult to understand PTSD. Often negative or traumatic experiences are conflated with PTSD. This is similar to people saying: “I forgot where I put my keys, I must have Alzheimer’s Disease!” Many people have had traumatic experiences. These leave a residue of negative memory. This is nothing like PTSD that repeatedly pulls the sufferer back into the horror in a full sensory experience that is not a memory but the experience relived. Over and over and over. (Read this to get a better understanding of PTSD).
One of the biggest challenges for someone suffering from PTSD is recreating their relationship with the label: “normal.” Imagine yourself in Yossi’s shoes. Would you ever be able to shake the fear of being trapped in a situation that could kill you? Can you imagine doing something normal like getting in a car to drive home? What would it be like to suddenly be caught in a traffic jam, cars piling up and no way to get out?
Interestingly it was Nick’s open mind and heart that brought normality to Yossi. For the time they spent together, Yossi wasn’t a label: IDF soldier, hero, injured, PTSD… he was just a guy.
They discovered that both were interested in the same sports. Both are MMA fighters and do similar workout routines. That was enough to create an instant connection. It was easy to overcome the differences in language and life experiences because they weren’t divided by labels.
It was the scorpion that threw me for a loop. I watched Nick and Yossi excitedly discuss the story they were both familiar with about the scorpion and the frog:
A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The frog asks, “How do I know you won’t sting me?” The scorpion says, “Because if I do, I will die too.”
The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but in midstream, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown, but has just enough time to gasp “Why?”
Replies the scorpion: “It’s my nature…”
Yossi wanted Nick to tattoo a big scorpion on his back, next to the scars left from the bullet holes. At first, the choice seemed incomprehensible.
Why would Yossi want to brand himself with the scorpion that stings even when he knows it will kill himself? Why did Nick feel this was a cool and positive choice to make?
What was I missing?
When I came back at the end of the session and saw the final tattoo, it’s meaning began to dawn on me.
Yossi straightened himself, to stand proud, his body no longer apologetic. The scars are still visible but it is the scorpion that draws the eye – his choice, not what was inflicted on him.
The scorpion is dangerous, it stings, it can kill. Knowing this, Yossi chose to put that on his back. He did not choose the ambush. He did not choose the PTSD that changed his life forever. His desire to carry the scorpion on his back is an acceptance of his “new normal” and a bold statement of power and freedom.
It is a declaration that, being fully aware of the difficult, harsh and sometimes damaging nature of this new normal, he is strong enough to carry it.