Florida · Health · Photography · Repatria · Third Culture Kids · Trauma · Zuzu Arbus

Tattoo Nightmares and #365Grateful

Just because there is a picture of His Holiness on the wall does not mean you will be treated with compassion.
Just because there is a picture of His Holiness on the wall does not mean you will be treated with compassion.
Photo taken at A Stroke of Genius Tattoos, Boca Raton, Florida.


Ever since I was a little girl I was obsessed with drawing on myself. My notebooks were filled with little doodles and haikus, but so would the skin underneath my hems and sleeves. In spite of being a Third Culture Kid I was never exposed to tattoo cultures in any of the places I lived, and it wasn’t until 1990s American cinema that I began to see tattoos more regularly. I knew one day I would have lots of them.

There are so many reasons why people get tattoos. For me, it was always about owning my own body — making myself — and for memorializing people I love into my flesh. I never felt like I fit in, I was often bullied at home and at school for being “too sensitive” and in the crueler iterations “crazy” and “a nerd”, before it was cool to be any of those things. Always feeling the odd one out as I got older I began to embrace and exaggerate my difference through performance art-style dressing and eventually tattoos. Now, tattoos are one of many ways I choose to express my own creativity.


At the end of 2013 I made the huge decision to move forward on the forearm sleeve idea I’d had in my head for at least a decade. I’m approaching my 35th birthday, I accidentally live in a retirement community, and unlike my exciting woman-about-town life in Europe and globetrotting, in Florida I’m housebound aside from my husband’s days off work.

I felt I’d lost my edge, and I wanted it back. A tattoo sleeve felt right.

My husband and I did our due diligence with tattoo parlors in the area, settling on A Stroke of Genius in Boca Raton, owned by “award-winning” New School artist Jason Ackerman, because of its reputation for excellence. We chose an artist, David Robinowitz, because of what appeared to be a solid portfolio, style, and experience, and began working with him to develop the design. My key words were feminine, delicate, colorful.

My tattoo day came and went, and will now go down as one of the top ten worst days of my life to date.

David Robinowitz proceeded to mark my arm with heavy, uneven line weights, wobbly linework, and explosions of ink under my skin from where he tattooed too deep. The entire tattoo is raised and scarred, the sign of a poor tattooist. The lines are a horrid thick black, like a really shitty “tribal” design, the opposite of what I asked for in feminine and delicate.

To add injury to insult, I had a horrific allergic reaction to the ink and tattoo materials that had my arm itching for six weeks like chicken pox.

What should have been a feminine, delicate, artful forearm is now oafish, mannish, and outright ugly from right elbow to wrist. Fuck.

And with it gone the vision of my self that I was creating, one piece of artwork at a time. In its place a stranger whose arm I would like to amputate, hence the lack of photos of the forearm that is no longer mine.

The owners of A Stroke of Genius completely blew me off and refused to meet with me so I could show them what their artist had done.

When I showed David Robinowitz the tattoo he informed me that he used an “animal-based” ink, something which is not standard at all in the tattoo industry, and is likely what caused the severe allergic reaction I had. He also said that if I’m not happy with the tattoo I should get laser removal. Can you imagine?

When I asked for the list of materials that went in and on my skin during the procedure, A Stroke of Genius told me I need to contact their lawyer for that information. Not to mention, I have to pay their lawyer to give me the information that is mine by right.

Stroke of Genius Tattoos in Boca Raton, Florida: what a class act. Not. If you’re in Southeast Florida avoid this shop like the plague.


I’ve cried every day in the weeks since having my flesh raked over by a tattoo hack.

And every day my husband tells me it will be okay. The tattoo will eventually be beautiful. I’m going to someone I trust — Phill Bartell of Rising Tide Tattoo in Boulder — to fix it.

But still, the delicate-tattoo ship has sailed. And now I’m doing the work of accepting that I will never look the way I saw myself looking, in spite of having had the ability and the privilege to make that choice.

Instead of an empowering design on my arm, one that reminds me of my warrior and badass self, this arm resonates with the fact that once again some asshole man took things from me that weren’t his to take.

So much unresolved trauma now works its way through the scars. I can feel it itching to get out.

David Robinowitz and A Stroke of Genius Tattoos destroyed the image that lived under my skin, and I can never get that back.

And I’m furious they get to go on with their lives as if nothing happened. I literally and permanently get to wear the scars David gave me from his incompetence. Scars that have since begun to symbolize all the men in my life who have wounded my body and soul in all their different ways.

From warrior queen to victim in a mere forty-five minutes tattoo time.


Searching for Falcor #2
Searching for Falcor #2

To combat the deep depression this experience has resurfaced in spite of continuing my magical green juice and smoothie regimen, I joined #365Grateful. This daily gratitude photography project on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook has been helping me to meditate and focus on at least one thing a day for which I *am* grateful.

Even though I feel like absolute crap and want to crawl into a hole until my arm is fixed. Even though I don’t want to see anyone or talk to anyone, I’m so mortified by this terrible tattoo on my FOREARM out where everyone can see. Even though the last thing I want to do is find anything positive in this experience.

Some days it’s almost impossible to find something for which I’m thankful, but I do it anyway. #365Grateful is helping me get on with my life.

I’m waking up, I’m working, I’m making art, I’m juicing, I’m doing the dishes, I’m pinning images of how I can transform disaster into beauty, I’m looking forward to seeing my soul sister and brother when I return to Boulder later this year for Operation Fix A Stroke of Genius’s Fuck-Up. And look here: I’ve even started writing again.

I’m doing my best to acknowledge the pain this tattoo nightmare has brought up along with the reminders of physical violence in my past I’ve never properly healed.

I’m doing my best to look forward.

Because silver linings only exist in the future.

Feel free to share your own tattoo nightmares in the comments below.

©Sezin Koehler, images by Zuzu Arbus

One thought on “Tattoo Nightmares and #365Grateful

  1. What a nightmare, Sezin! I absolutely understand what you’re going through, having solicited a couple of tattoos myself that were not so professional. I took the blame in those cases, however, as I made bad choices about where and when to get them. Still, they are both lovely now, thanks to gentler hands and better artists, which I hope gives you hope for a good outcome! Much like scars, tattoos are a mark of our experience. That all being said, I so wish I still lived in Boulder so we could get together while you’re there. Also Rising Tide is where I got my last tattoo (for a cosmic coincidence), though Phil was not the artist. Good luck and I hope you feel better about your arm soon. If anyone can bring it more in line with your wishes, it’s the magic artistry of Phil.

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