Tattoos and Tiger Drive

Vitality Stories

Missy Wilkinson

Author Missy Wilkinson by Missy Wilkinson

Tattoos and Tiger Drive

Do you tattoo?

Tiger Drive is written from the point of view of four characters, and the most challenging (and foul-mouthed) character is WJ Sloan. In 2011 when I first started writing WJ’s scenes, I’d make myself blush and cringe, often chastising myself, “You can’t write that! He can’t do that! What’s wrong with you–he can’t say that!” And yet he did, and I did. Again and again.

In fact, when Deborah Halverson,, read one of my earlier versions, she came back to me and said something like,

That guy has serious flavor to his language. I can’t stand him. For the first half of the book I wanted him to go away, but by the time I finished the book, I couldn’t imagine the story without him. You need to give me something, anything, redeemable about him. Show some glimmers of a compassionate heart in his early scenes. I need a reason to hope for him.**

So I pried into WJ’s mind until I understood what self-beliefs drove him, and I found his weak spots, lovable bits, and moments where he just wanted to matter. I learned he has unspoken rules about love and loyalty.  He has fears and secrets that drive him. And I found out he has a tattoo that carries great symbolism for him and him alone. Here’s a description from the book:

The veins running from his elbow to his wrist thickened and bulged, and the tattoo on his forearm moved with each pump of blood. His original tat had been a naked, voluptuous woman leaning against an anchor with long dark hair, but he’d had the tattoo altered to cover her head with a knight’s helmet. The woman’s hair poured from beneath the armor. A buzzard, twice her size, now perched on her bare shoulder; its talons indenting, but not puncturing, her skin. But the woman didn’t buckle under the weight of the large beast, and instead, a strand of her hair tethered the bird’s ankle.

Sounds hideous, doesn’t it?

I don’t have any tattoos, and I don’t want any tattoos. Do I admire the tattoos that friends have? Absolutely. My friends have invested time and money in their body art. Tattoos are a very personal experience and sometimes, a bonding experience.

I can’t think of anything I’d want on my body forever, and I carry a 30+-year-old perception about what a tattoo would say about ME. When I was impressionable in the 1970s and 80s and surrounded by bikers, vets with PTSD, and addicts, I equated tattoos to “bad things to come.” If I saw a tattoo, it was a warning to create distance. In my small world, it was a red flag worth heeding. In the 1990s, tattoos became popular as an art form. They began to pop with color and come alive. My perspective shifted–for everyone else.

In my pursuit of understanding WJ, I decided to get his tattoo drawn. I started to call tattoo parlors, but I couldn’t find a single tattoo artist willing to draw it unless I would put it on my body. No way, no how was I putting a naked lady and buzzard on my body. Not even for WJ. And what was the big deal? I just wanted the image on paper. I was willing to pay full price, and they wouldn’t even have to do the work!

Finally, a tattoo artist explained.

Him: “We never let our art leave the building. It can be copied.”

Me: “Wow. What do you do with all the bodies?”

He thought I was funny. We laughed together. I still left empty handed.

But now, thanks to 99designs, the world’s largest online graphic design marketplace, I can get the tattoo drawn, and it doesn’t have to come near my body. Artists are starting to submit their ideas. As soon as there is a winner, I’ll share it in a newsletter, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, let me know if you have a tattoo and the story behind it. And if you’d like to take a stab at translating WJ’s tattoo, send me an email at I’ll tell you if you’re hot or cold.

Until next time, thanks for being you.


*I am grateful to Missy Wilkinson for giving me permission to use this beautiful picture of her and her tattoos. True story: this picture is actually not about tattoos, but about stumbling head first into dying her hair deep purple–hence her lavender-hued, graceful hand. I am a great admirer of Missy’s fearless writing. I highly recommend following her work.

** For the record, Deborah Halverson‘s excellent guidance helped me take WJ and Tiger Drive to the next level. She also read a later version, and here’s what she had to say about WJ once I rewrote his scenes: “WJ’s concern for the kids feels authentic and wonderfully contrasts the hardened man he’s become. . .All of this feels believable, like you’re showing us into his heart rather than randomly assigning him good deeds just so he can be viewed sympathetically.”

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