By Tahra L. Delfin
It has been 25 years since my sister died. After a five year struggle with depression and numerous attempts, she left this world. A year after her death, a family friend designed a tattoo for me, her death date in tribal art that I wore on my shoulder blade. It served as a reminder of the burden that I could not comprehend and would carry every day of my life. A year later, my younger brother also passed away. A struggle with depression and break up with a girlfriend was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The meaning of my life slowly drained out of me. I spent 10 years lost, searching and struggling to find myself. After a decade of therapy and many personal pilgrimages, I came out of darkness.
I spent 15 years refocusing my energy away from the burden that I carried into the gifts I had to give. I also used the gifts that my sister and brother gave me and packaged them with mine. (Sometimes, we don’t need to be present to give a gift.) I work in the arts, what I like to call the “inspiration business.” In 2008, I began to teach graduate students the science and art of Arts Marketing, Management and Leadership. It became vital for me to pass on as much experience and knowledge that I had to the next generation. I began my legacy building at the age of 35.
I wanted to give to arts organizations, artists and individuals the ability to see what’s possible. After so many years in the dark, I could see so much possibility in everything, even in the bad things. Despite all of the events happening in our world, I have witnessed so much positivity and possibility in people, especially the 500 graduate students I’ve taught, that it’s hard for me to not see the good.
I wanted to commemorate my sister’s 25th death anniversary and celebrate the transformation that has taken place in my life by turning a death date tattoo into a butterfly. Butterflies have always been symbolic for me starting at the age of 10 when my mother gave me the book “Hope for the Flowers” by Trina Paulus. It continued on my 40th birthday when my best friend gave me a photo album covered in butterflies with letters from loved ones near and far. My 40th Birthday book ended with an article written by my friend about “Hope for the Flowers” and the evolution of caterpillars to butterflies. She talked about life in the chrysalis and the transformation that happens through pain.
“Becoming a butterfly is not a destination. There is no discreet endpoint at which we arrive and breathe a sigh of relief. Rather, becoming a butterfly is a gradual evolution made in fits and starts. The question “Is this all there is?” does not have to be asked. It is when the morning is not greeted with dread. It is when we rise from the fall. It is when we ask “What are the consequences of our actions?” It is when health is not compromised by habit. It is when we dance, or read, or cook, or hug our children, or nap if we want to. It is when commitments are honored, ethics are maintained, and spirit is not separate from routine. It is the fluid conversation between present and future, health and sickness, reality and possibility, comfort and courage.”
I took all of this into my search for a tattoo artist. It took me a year to find the right person for this project. It was through a strange and, what I like to believe, divine coincidence that I met Daniel Delfin. After reviewing dozens of tattoo artists’ portfolios, a friend from work mentioned studios in Norwalk, Connecticut, an hour away from where I lived. She said that her husband had worked with a really attentive and talented artist and she would get his name. While I waited for her recommendation, I searched the Norwalk area. There are at least a dozen tattoo artists and half a dozen studios in this area, but there was one whose portfolio stood out. I emailed her and asked if by chance Daniel was the artist. Surprised, she said yes.
Our first meeting was a consult. I had no idea what to expect. I came equipped to tell a story and see where it went. I knew I wanted an original design that revolved around the last 25 years. When this young Venezuelan guy came out of his office, I was taken back as I was expecting a blond American tattoo artist from the picture I saw on the website. Daniel was welcoming and easy going. Conversation flowed naturally as I began to tell my story and describe my project, one I needed his help to create. He began to sketch as I talked, he showed me more sketches and I talked some more. Five hours later, we had created a design through our conversation. I drove home that night exhausted as a feeling of accomplishment washed over me. I told my story to a complete stranger and he embraced it and saw my story as I wanted it to be seen.
Over the next few weeks, we refined the design and colors via emails. Finally, the day came for me to get the tattoo. There were all kinds of feelings bottled up inside me in anticipation of this day. And yet again, I still was pretty unprepared for what happened. Since this was a cover-up, there was a moment when I thought maybe this tattoo would not happen. I was so disappointed and yet persisted that we continue to find a way to make it work. Daniel was patient and receptive. Finally nearing closing time for the studio, we had laid the stencil and began the tattoo work for my butterfly.
People talk about the reason why they don’t get tattoos being because of the pain. I don’t think I’ve ever been afraid of pain. There is a curiosity around pain and primal desire to endure it for me. Despite my macho feminine bravery, the pain of this tattoo was the most incredible pain I’ve ever experienced in my life. I looked forward to the application process. I was curious how my body would respond. I knew my design was a lot bigger and more intricate than the solid small black tattoo that I had gotten 25 years earlier. I was actually hoping I might sleep through it, which amuses me now. When Daniel started, I felt the pain and figured I could just ignore it. About 2 hours into it, I realized this was not going to be the way I was going to get through it. Just like the pain of losing of my siblings, neglecting my feelings would only cause me greater pain. The only way to conquer pain is to go through it. In therapy, they call this walking through the swamp.
Over the course of 6 hours, Daniel walked me through this process. This mirrored the grieving process which was both ironic and cathartic. As we sat there for the next 6 hours, here are the tricks that I learned that day about working through pain:
“Our bodies are our gardens to which our wills are gardeners.” — William Shakespeare —
On the application day, I had already worked a half day of a 6 day work week. I drove to Norwalk with a mix of work stress and pre-tattoo anxiety weighing me down. I had spent the morning training 25 seasonal staff and had been so focused on everyone else that I did not make time to get myself ready. This became clearly apparent during the first 2 hours at the needle when my temperature dropped to freezing and I shook uncontrollably. I was experiencing the effects of low blood sugar. Life lesson #1, take care of yourself. Thanks to Daniel, a large tray of Spanish meats, arepas and plantains was delivered to the studio. Only until I took care of myself could I proceed. Strength comes in self-care and our willingness to care for our gardens. The only selfish move one can make is to sacrifice one’s self before witnessing our own power.
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” — Lao Tzu —
I was not sure if I could do the entire tattoo that night. While my body temperature returned to normal, I was unsure of my ability to tolerate more pain. My own human limitations were very present and making itself known. Embarrassed, I stopped Daniel and said, “I’m not sure if I can do this. It hurts a lot.” He looked at me with understanding and strength. He let my words (which I’m certain he’s heard many times), sink in. And then said, “Let’s just get this one part done and see where we are at that point.” Our journey of creating this butterfly went step by step. Tracing it, coloring in one color, and then the next color, knowing the entire time, I could stop at any point. Our conversation drew out the application time, but conversation and connection were essential for me. Daniel showed me how to travel distances one step at a time. Over the last 25 years, this was how I found myself again. One step at a time proved to be the only way I traveled so far in such a short span of time. It is that way for everyone.
“Where focus goes energy flows.” — Tony Robbins —
This is a well-known quote from world renowned life and business strategist, Tony Robbins. It holds so much truth. Basically, it means where you put your focus and thoughts is where your energy will go. If you focus on the bad, bad things will be attracted to you. If you focus on the good, good things will be drawn to you. The lesson is to be mindful of your focus. You control it. The heart may be difficult to control but your mind is a machine. Using my mind, I was able to channel my pain into other places. At first, I tried to distract myself with music. Daniel invited me into conversation and my focus moved to engagement. My pain decreased and I was able to sit through 6 hours of tattooing.
A long time ago, I was an 18 year old actor training in New York City. One of the reasons I loved conservatory training was the long rehearsals, some went 10 to 12 hour’s non-stop. My acting partners and I would get lost in scripts, characters and the creative process. Spending so much time with Daniel, reinvigorated my love of creating. He reminded me that I was an artist still and he was there to help turn my vision into art. When we finished late that evening, I was elated. The butterfly was complete. At this point in my life, I want to focus on being a connective creator. I’ve come to realize this is what brings me joy. If I would have chosen another artist or denied the urge to create my butterfly, I might not have learned this.
The next day on his Instagram page, Daniel posted the tattoo with the most beautiful and quintessential quote that summarized everything:
“The unending paradox is that we do learn through pain.” — Madeleine L’Engle —
I was so touched by this quote and his understanding of my experience and my story. I write this article for anyone with a story inside them. I implore you to find a way to express your story. Wearing my story on my body is one way I have found to hold and share what is precious to me. I came into this process wanting to put closure and transformation around a specific period of my life. I left with an experience even more profound that included a contribution from another creative soul. We learn through stories. We grow through pain. But it is through connection that the human spirit celebrates life. Thank you Daniel for receiving my story and letting me in.
For more information about Daniel Delfin, please check out:
On Instagram: @delfintattoostudios
Epilogue: Several years after this story was written, Daniel and Tahra were married. They recently opened Delfin Studios where they live an art-filled life and build their legacy of storytelling through art.
Tahra Delfin is an educator, speaker, and not for profit administrator committed to mentorship and arts advocacy. She works with organizations and young professionals to help them find meaning and purpose with the hopes of leaving this world a better place than when we arrived.