Tucson Salvage: War survivor and single dad wears his heart on his leg

click to enlarge Wesley Owens inside Tattoo Avenue. - BRIAN SMITH
Brian Smith
Wesley Owens inside Tattoo Avenue.

Wesley Owens, this Pentecostal-raised kid from Louisiana, got so used to death and dead bodies and suicide bombings in wartime Iraq, the one major trauma that still feeds his PTSD involves this:

Two boys heading to a local mosque in a small car … a soused driver captains a semi-truck. The big rig swerves and crushes the car, just pancakes it. 

Owens rolls through the khaki-hued streets of Baghdad five miles west of the Tigris River, the lead gunner at the machine gun atop a Humvee. He arrives to find the smoldering car bloom in that horrible post-crash way, the immediate onlooker adrenaline and horror, the dust, blood and searing heat. Owens is still a teenager too, barely 19, serving a stupid war in Iraq and out on patrol, doing his duty.  

Iraq is advanced in many ways but also primitive, for example, there are no jaws-of-life for crash rescue, and to compensate, five or six bystanders rip the car’s roof off with their bare hands to save the teens. 

Yanked up and out, the boys lay on the asphalt, and the smell of their blood on the wicked-hot day plugs the air, a sickening pong of death.  

One of the boys’ father pushes through the gathered crowd to his dead son and howls, a wretched aural betrayal of God and life, and it is so abject and heartbreaking it gets Owens in his chest, inside his guts. That sonic sorrow circles inside his head, seeps into his unconsciousness; that, and a fear he might likely die here too. He thinks of his own father holding him like this man who lost his son, but dad is a world away in Louisiana.

“It wasn’t a part of death that we were used to,” the tattoo artist Owens says, 16 years later. A pleasing southern argot of mixed dialects gives strange musicality to his words. 

“This was death with emotion.”

***

It is a Tuesday afternoon and Wesley Owens is kicking back inside his workplace, Tattoo Avenue on East Broadway in Tucson, a clean, award-winning parlor trimmed in handsome Halloween-orange and blond wood. Several stalls are edged in artist obsessions, colorful trip-fueled geometric shapes, realism and abstractions exploding in color. It’s worlds and years away from the 2004 battlefields, and Owens wears cuffed jean shorts, burgundy Converse and a Metallica “Rebel” tee, and Drake fills the room. It is a slow day, he’s the only other soul here.

Now, the animation of Owens’ deportment jolts at first, dude is some kind of walking pictogram of 3D images, a life trajectory traced in body art. A giant tarantula tat takes up acreage atop his shaved head. The word “insatiable” is inked in cursive above his right eyebrow. “It means,” he laughs, “I was never satisfied in life, at least at the time.” 

Scan down below the sizable ear spacers, dotted left eye, the cheekbone and colored neck etchings, to some hilarity, including a tat of old Betty White wielding a snake, a juxtaposition old and new; saucy woman, graceful reptile. (“You know she loves snakes, right?”) Others curve feminine, with ideas of cherishing integrity and new surroundings. A thigh design shows a female jester, happy with tears, which seems to suggest it’s better to be redeemed through joy than pain. Older youth markings wink to punk and metal, including the Christian MXPX and P.O.D.  

Owens’s workspace, neat and kind of soldier minimalist, offers some insight into his honed abilities, from animal styles to black work. He doesn’t study art of other tattooists, he says, doesn’t want the influence. His pulls from the world around him, animals, imagination, pop culture—all manner of reptiles and desert critters too. I’ve seen his matching alien Buddha tats on a mom and daughter, insect images and video game heroes on others. Wild horses, Jellyfish and cactus. You can spot an Owens’ piece, if you know his work. The war vet is an original. 

He transmits a kind of stoner ease. The soothing but focused ice-blue eyes and subdued laughs regularly directed at himself. Yet any inmate database search turns up myriad tatted faces and shaved heads. Owens knows that judgement well, understands the wide net of hurtful stereotypes projected onto him for his appearance, people pulling their kids in closer at grocery stores, locking car doors as he walks past. He is all about shattering preconceptions. 

More, his body ink work is more about creating rainbow skin colors, a nod to an affinity for all races, a symbolic gesture to blot out white privilege, as he once noted on his Facebook page. 

“I went to Iraq with three tattoos,” he says, and those included a punk band The Misfits, his name spelled in large old English typeface across his stomach and the word “soldier” in Chinese on his back. A soldier friend in Iraq ordered a tattoo kit, “Over there you don’t know if you are going die, and I always wanted a sleeve on my arm before I died. So we did it.” Owens turned a burgeoning new-found tattoo passion into a career.

Indeed, Owens, splayed out on a chair, is a seasoned 35, but looks like a kid, a manboy swinging effortlessly between the adolescent and the adult. In one moment, he’ll detail the financials of raising a young daughter by himself — the COVID lockdowns, feeding, clothing, budgeting, saving, teaching—and in another, you’ll hear the ADHD workings of an intelligent mind, scrolling his phone for TikTok and Instagram updates, chatting in the lingo of a tattoo artist in command of hip-hop, punk and pop commercialisms as up-to-the-moment as a YouTube yogurt commercial. 

He has reason to pay attention to TikTok, which he began (@tat2highway) to document adventures in tattooing, animals and life with his daughter. 

He lifts his phone, lands on one video and explains.

click to enlarge First-grader Adeline inked a heart tattoo on dad's leg. - BRIAN SMITH
Brian Smith
First-grader Adeline inked a heart tattoo on dad's leg.

Recently daughter Adeline was quarantined from school after contact with a COVID-positive schoolkid (she tested-out negative). Dad took her into work. Adeline wanted to learn to ink. Dad obliged. Armed with a buzzing tat pen, a determined squint and a shaky hand, the 6-year-old etched a little-kid heart on dad’s leg. 

“It hurt!” Owens says. 

Dad posted the action on TikTok and it hit viral freakout, first a few thousand views, then a million, now the girl-tattooing clip boasts nearly 30 million views and counting. The video boosted his TikTok following to close to 100,000, growing daily.  

Anything he does on TikTok now regularly draws thousands of viewers. 

He’s looking to monetize it, somehow, media-company branding and licensing, which can be lucrative for a chosen few, but “if I made an extra $20 a month, I’d be stoked.” 

The tattoo work provides enough money to pay this single dad’s bills. It’s not easy so far. Yet the gazillion social media views put his head into a spin. Loathe to exploit his daughter, he says he will not, and he’s careful what he posts, mindful of child images projected on TikTok (and Instagram) and creepy oddballs who log-in to chat. But, Owens reasons, a point of social media for him is to stay busy with work, the only way he sees his clientele list grow. 

The stuff the two do together—long hikes admiring desert wildlife and petroglyphs, the climbing gym, random adventures and tattooing, is really for kicks and doesn’t stink of solipsistic self-promotion; rather, it reveals a tender bond between father and daughter.  

***

As a sensitive kid growing up in aging mobile homes (“we weren’t rich”) around woodsy Louisiana, Owens’ options felt limited: construction, sports, oil rigs, the military or jail. He was forever on the outskirts looking in. “I never liked hunting, I never played sports, I just wanted out.” He defines his adolescent life as area rote—BMX bikes to motorcycles, skateboards for transportation, sketching and drawing, punk rock, Tony Hawk video games, helping his dad customize and modify classic trucks into show beasts. But there was also strict religion and church five days a week.

Dad and stepmom converted to Pentecostal when Owens was 6 years old, but he was yanked in diverse directions. His grandma and her kindness toward others remains his single biggest influence; his devastation lasted years after her death when he was 10. He snuck cigarettes and weed as a prepubescent, a tender-aged rebellion.

Owens can delineate subtle differences of Pentecostal churches in the south, degrees of beliefs, the mystical spirituals, speaking in tongues, the long history in Christianity. He regards it all with an absurd grin.

He laughs, “Basically you’re either an angel or a devil. My parents didn’t want me to work because they thought I’d buy clothes they’d hate. Didn’t let me drive because they thought I’d go get into trouble.” 

He’d sneak punk rock. “I’d get MXPX at the Christian bookstore and my parents still wouldn’t let me keep it!” 

Religion breeds rebellion, discoveries and unknown braveness takes its place. 

At 16, Owens was a self-taught coder with dreams of working for the government as a computer hacker. He practiced said skill at high school, slicing into that school’s computer system, tracking the Calcasieu Parish school board and getting into emails. Got in the principal’s account and mentioned a bomb to close the school for a day. His IP scrambler somehow failed and within hours cops were knocking on his door. Lesson learned and that “pretty much ended” his high school days. He entered a military school for his GED. 

Owens comes from a long line of infantrymen; father, grandfather, great grandfather. Felt like the right thing for Owens to do and his old man signed him into to the military at 17. “My dad wouldn’t sign me in as infantry, the mainland combat force (“Eleven Bravo”) but that’s what I wanted.” Dad thought it too dangerous. So Owens volunteered when he got over there. (“We got hit by rockets and I refused to be a sitting target.”)

Later an anomaly, Owens was a Bernie man, far left of his parents and the “huge number racists in Louisiana.” Before Obama was elected, Owens tagged poles and buildings in his hometown with his own art: a fetching graffiti stencil that shows Obama as the bomb. 

He is close with his parents now, especially his father, a diametric opposite, which Owens describes as a love in which they accept one another for who they are.

Dad was once a musician, backed legends, including soul-great Percy Sledge and swamp-popper Charles Mann, tells stories of drinking one night with Janis Joplin months before her death. He had six children, two each with three different wives, Owens the second to last. There is speculation. Owens laughs. “Every first son resembles my dad, the second ones not at all.” 

***

Owens saw countless people shot or blown up in Iraq including friends, and it all but silences him in recall. “Not every day, but often, especially on holidays.” 

Suicide bombings wiped out gatherings during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and an improvised bomb once blew up a fuel truck 100 yards away from Owens on Christmas Eve, which “lit up the night like day,” yet another moment he figured he was a goner.

click to enlarge Wesley Owens: "It wasn't a part of death we were used to." - BRIAN SMITH
Brian Smith
Wesley Owens: "It wasn't a part of death we were used to."

This was 2004, after the U.S.-led forces ousted Saddam Hussein and the Ba’athist Iraqi regime. “We did Iraq’s first election after we got Saddam out,” he says. “It was politically unruly, insurgence everywhere, and it hadn’t gone on long enough yet to see the [Iraqi] citizens want us out of there.”

He fired on enemies, unsure if he killed anyone. He shakes his head, this single dad to a first-grade girl. “She knows I was in a war. She knows I’m going to cry if I watch a war movie.” Fourth of July still kicks Owens’ PTSD into gear. He understands the psychology term “psychic numbing,” that inner-deadening as deaths pile up. 

For calm in Iraq he traveled and took in its beauty. “I couldn’t sit in the motor pool. I had to see the country.” He goes on about visiting the Etemenanki, a ziggurat in ancient Babylon, south of Baghdad, the possible inspiration to the biblical Tower of Babel.  

“Seeing that blew my mind.” 

After serving a year, he waited in Kuwait to go home to the family trailer in Lake Charles, Louisiana. He watched on the news as Hurricane Katrina hit. His heart broke, and killer hurricanes became a recurring theme in his life. 

He couldn’t believe the conflict post-Katrina, the looting, the fighting. “I was excited to return to a peaceful home but I came home to a warzone.” 

He spent the next two years cleaning, rebuilding, and fighting PTSD, the dark inner-tripper so often full of rage. “I’d pick the biggest guy in a bar and go after him.” He shakes his head. “I wasn’t right in the head, drinking all the time to self-medicate.” 

He’d get jailed for stupid shit, discharging a weapon, drunk in public, “process for marijuana manufacture.” He was about done with a military career after Iraq. He wanted to be a tattoo artist. 

He went AWOL after not showing up for requisite National Guard drills. “I did not get paid for doing the first three drills, and they couldn’t figure out why. So I didn’t show up for the others.” He turned himself in and spent a week in the county clink. His platoon sergeant gifted him a carton of cigarettes for comfort. Owens got out of the army on a general discharge, benefits intact. He worked construction, and as an offshore deck hand. Later as an engineer on a crew boat, he failed a piss test for weed. Its use was a key to calming his PTSD, which came down each time he went to sleep. Mental-health treatment helped some too, he says, but the VA paperwork in Louisiana proved difficult to navigate. 

***

Six years ago, Owens ballooned to 215 pounds on the VA’s (non-narcotic) treatment cocktails to “fix” his PTSD. He’d been married and split with his wife summer 2016. She’d checked into a world of drug addiction and arrest warrants after the birth of Adeline.  

At that moment he confronted the inner-frights and hatreds, wrestled complete control of his life for the first time, centered on self and his daughter. He won full custody of his daughter, got off all prescription meds from the VA, got sober from booze, cold-turkey off cigarettes, went raw vegan for months, and dropped 80 pounds. Then he bought a couple tarantulas and a snake, and literally “climbed his first mountain,” on a trip to Washington State. “13,000 feet in the sky.” Call it a spiritual awakening. 

Owens began to turn honorable feelings into actions, became a participant in his days. For example, he always adored wildlife and animals, and the little lives took on deeper life meaning and purpose. He began rehabbing racoons and squirrels and releasing them in nature. He rescued and raised his first opossums, named them Princeton and Penelope, and got close to them. Adopted a fetching, tri-colored albino Nelson’s milk snake. 

Owens soon rescued and carefully raised various species of reptiles. Eventually he housed and cared for dozens: pythons, boas and colubrids, anything non-venomous. Various foot-long monitor lizards, myriad geckos. He’d train these little dinosaurs to eat from his hand, many raised from hatchlings and as such he calls them “my babies.” He and Adeline grew close to their reptiles, named them all. He housed 150 tarantulas too, and “named the first 30 of them, but some don’t live that long and it sucks.”

Owens rattles off details on the care and feeding, produces myriad photos, including one from last year of a little Adeline wearing a big grin wrapped in her favorite snake, a 12-foot Burmese python.

He built habitats inside a backyard shed he refurbished into a living
paradise. Suitable terrariums in a veritable backyard zoo, reptiles kept in lighted enclosures built with wood he’d “drag a mile down the beach.” Ran plumbing for the watering, conduits for electricity, changed water daily, grew a yard garden that yielded fruit. 

He pushes up skin of his arms, tracing little bite scars rising up from ink. “I have been bitten,” he laughs.

The little refuge lasted more than four years, a Zen-ass quiet world, the other side of gunfire, death and wary memories, filled of calm repetition, caring for and adoration of graceful creatures, teaching his daughter that love.   

There is easy personal allegory here, an empathy for creatures whose appearance intimidates people, makes them nervous. He could be talking of himself.   

“I had been able to change so many people’s perspectives on these animals. All it took was for me to show the beauty I found in them to ease their fears. It’s about being the light in this world that changes opinions and breaks stereotypes.”  

He’d never have guessed he and Adeline would be forced to shack up inside the shed with the animals. 

The year 2020 started well for Adeline and Owens. He was tattooing and piercing on a large clientele in Lake Charles. 

Then COVID shut down the area in March, and Jeff Russell, the owner of the tattoo shop, died of cancer, leaving Owens the business. 

As a new business owner, Owens was just finding his legs, getting on top of the taxes and learning to run the place, but hadn’t gotten to the lapsed hurricane insurance yet. (“I figured we had some time before the next hurricane.”) Three and half months later in August, Hurricane Laura all but killed the shop. Income stopped. He began to salvage the place when Hurricane Zita came through in October and landed the final blow. His business was dead, his dedicated employees out too. 

The region suffered. Owens lived in a well-kept suburban brick house (rented) with a big yard, barbeque, and animal shed in a sedate neighborhood of mostly older people. It flooded, created black mold in his home and that’s when he and Adeline slept for more than a month in the reptile shed.   

Surviving on government emergency food, he’d gather hot food and water for his older neighbors. He boiled water on the outdoor grill to make tea, showered with water bottles (“takes about 10 bottles of water to get a good one,” he laughs).  

click to enlarge The heart tattoo that launched tens of millions of times on TikTok. - BRIAN SMITH
Brian Smith
The heart tattoo that launched tens of millions of times on TikTok.

He raised $4,500 with help from friends to move himself and his daughter the hell out, donating his zoo to a caretaker based in Texas and Louisiana, who drove to Owens’ and collected them all. Dad and daughter were heartbroken, but their pets are safe. Owens visited them on a trip to Louisiana. 

They landed in Tucson last year, stayed with Owens’ half-brother here, slept on bunk beds. A few weeks later Owens got hired at Arizona Tattoo and moved into their apartment earlier this year. 

“I pray to whoever looked out for me all these years, I’ve been through so much shit.” It’s not God, he adds, it’s more of a greater good, or nature. “You shouldn’t need religion to be a better person. I just want to make people around me happy.” 

Really it is this: A sweetness and sensitivity to what he calls his “adventures.” He (literally) went to battle and emerged on the other side, self-hatred yielding to self-analysis, a wisdom from mistakes, to loosen the clasp of debilitating familiarity, which gave way to self-awareness. 

Also, he says, “Adeline is, 1,000% the reason I’m a better person.”

***

A day later at dinnertime, Owens relaxes on a gray ottoman in their gated-complex apartment on Tucson’s east side. Adeline plays in and out of her bedroom with stuffed animals and their two cats they raised from kittens. The day was like any other day lately; a routine for which he is damn grateful. He got Adeline to school and daycare, worked, picked her up, and now maybe they’ll head to a rock-climbing gym. Adeline must eat her vegetables first before anything sweet. He doesn’t allow his daughter screens. 

click to enlarge Father and daughter home after a work and school day. - BRIAN SMITH
Brian Smith
Father and daughter home after a work and school day.

Adeline is accommodating and curious, and there’s that baffling parental trick, his mind to hers, that non-parents can only marvel at. She learns and listens. In dreamy excitement she shows off her stuffed rainbow unicorns and a baby Yoda, and a tiny arm scar like a trophy, where a Blue-tongued skink, an intelligent and (mostly) friendly lizard nipped her back in Lake Charles.

The apartment is immaculate. (“I’m a little OCD,” he says, “Adeline gets it, she’ll straighten things up too.”) Lavender ambient lighting, the walkout patio crammed with their blooming plants and foliage. A kind of curated collection of graffiti art decorates in splashes of color, a green glowing neon “Open” sign from his tattoo place in Louisiana illuminates the kitchen. Everything has its place, like Adeline’s school backpack hanging next to dad’s skateboard on the back of the front door. 

One piece hanging on the living room wall shows Adeline’s colorful footprints as butterfly wings, a painting gift from her that says: “Happy Mother’s Day! To Daddy!” 

Owens says Adeline hasn’t asked about her mother, and there is no contact. “It could be because she only really knows me.” 

Troubled past or no, from female basics to the schoolwork, the work of any single dad raising a daughter is not easy, especially one so quickly judged from his appearance. “I like to have moms in my life,” he adds. “I have mom friends who help me, like a support group.” 

He’s made habits of early morning hikes, treks with Adeline, and occasional runs of area peaks. “It’s the first time in my life I electively wake up at 5 a.m. Tucson is amazing.”

After a moment, he adds, that musical argot heightening whatever wonder, and by way of explanation, “there was nothing worth waking up for in Louisiana. There was so much oppression there, I mean that’s why New Orleans gave us jazz. It was the oppression, and it really hasn’t changed that much.” 

The PTSD is never fully dormant. “I have medical marijuana with VA discounts, and I don’t feel like a criminal [in Tucson] smoking,” which he does occasionally, away from Adeline. 

But, he adds, “I still don’t do well in big crowds. I stand on the outskirts.”

***

Brian Smith's collection of essays and stories, Tucson Salvage: Tales and Recollections of La Frontera, based on this column, is available now on Eyewear Press UK. Buy the collection in Tucson at Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave.

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