Tattoo artists from around the world gathered in Las Vegas to cover the scars of survivors of the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival and the first responders who helped treat them.
The nonprofit Healing Ink put on the event at Seven Tattoo Studio in Las Vegas. The goal is to use tattooing as a type of trauma therapy to help empower survivors suffering from physical, mental, and emotional scars.
The nonprofit Healing Ink put on the event and use tattooing as a type of trauma therapy to help empower survivors.
Craig Dershowitz is the CEO of Artists for Israel and the president of Healing Ink. He said the group had more than 100 applicants for the event. They had to narrow that down to 17 people for the 17 artists available.
“These recipients were either injured in the 1 October shooting, are families of victims who have passed, or are first responders who helped to keep people alive during that tragic time,” Dershowitz said.
He said they’ll be getting tattoos that help them heal, celebrate their resiliency or in some way have an impact on their quality of life.
Healing Ink came out of the group Artists for Israel, which used art to better communities in that country.
“I know personally that I’ve used tattoos to mourn losses, to celebrate victories, and I said, ‘I wonder if this modality of healing will work,” he said, “We did it the first time in Israel in 2016, and it exceeded our wildest expectations.”
Dershowitz said during the event in Israel they heard stories of people who had been suicidal until that event or wouldn’t leave the house because they had been disfigured during a terror attack and felt uncomfortable – until they got a tattoo.
After the group realized the impact they were having, Healing Ink expanded from there.
“The process for getting this tattoo and for the healing aspect of it starts before the tattoo,” he said, “It begins when the artist first talks to the recipient and there is this sense of, ‘I’m not alone, something is going to happen.’ They are able to put their faith and trust that they’re going to feel better at the end of this process.”
He said recipients are also helped by the act of going to the event and seeing others going through the same thing.
“Each person has a reason a story for their tattoo as unique and different as we are as people,” he said, “Some its to cover a scar. The scar makes them feel uncomfortable and disfigured. They don’t want people to see it and now they wake up in the morning and see something beautiful.”
He said others seen their tattoos as a badge of honor. Overall, Dershowitz said the tattoos are about agency and personal freedom.
Each survival and first responder receives a tattoo that is custom to their personality and their story.
For Heather Gooze, who was working as a bartender at the Route 91 event, her tattoo artist Becca Martin was the perfect person to tell her story through art.
“I’ve got a feather that kind of turns into birds, flying from the feather,” Gooze explained, “Underneath, in cursive, it says, ‘Be your own kind of beautiful.’ It’s just to remind myself, and others, that we’re all different and we’ve just got to find the beauty in all of us.”
Gooze said the colors of the tattoo are significant. One side will be purple and orange, which were the colors of the Route 91 Harvest Festival. The other side will be red, yellow and green. The colors represent the colors of the bracelets that workers at the festival wore on each night.
She said, for workers at the event, green is significant because it is the color of the bracelets they were wearing Sunday evening, when the shooting happened.
Martin said she and Gooze collaborated on the design for the tattoo. Gooze said she was originally assigned a tattoo artist who specialized in darker, black and white, and 3D images, but she wanted something that was more colorful.
Healing Ink found Martin who was a better fit for what Gooze wanted to be done.
“It is super humbling to have someone ask you to mark them permanently,” Martin said, “But I also understand the power of healing through art. It is just another way to help people who are looking for a different way of healing.”
Martin was excited to know that she is making another person’s day better, but at the same time, it was nerve-wracking because it is permeant and she wanted Gooze to love the tattoo.
Gooze said there is a special bond between the artist and the recipient because of the trust they have to have in each other.
“I’m healed as much as you can heal three years after an event that changes your life,” Gooze said, “For all the people that say, ‘Get over it,’ or ‘Move on,’ you’re never going to. It becomes a part of our life.”
Gooze said after surviving the shooting she has more empathy towards people who are going through their own personal traumas. She found the Healing Ink event extremely healing and being with her other Route 91 family helps with that healing.
For artist Michael Caldwell and recipient Gregory Koehler, the time they spent together was dedicated to healing the soul. The two worked together on the design. Koehler wanted the Route 91 sign involved in the tattoo but not the actual concert logo.
“And as we talked, our conversation evolved into why he was getting the tattoo and it was to heal and to further go through life and not be stuck in that moment,” Caldwell said, “To be able to have something positive to tie to that moment.”
In the end, the two decided on a design featuring a phoenix because the mythical bird rises from the ashes and brings empowerment through dark moments.
“To me, this is incredible. I think we’ve all been through traumatic experiences, things that have affected our soul and our existence and to be able to provide service and an experience to someone that helps bring positivity to their life is everything,” Caldwell said.
Koehler already has a half-sleeve tattoo on his arm, but this project completed it onto his hand. He said the phoenix design represents many aspects of his life.
“Rising from the Route 91 situation, I just survived COVID this summer, so that is also rising from that,” he said.
Koehler was in a VIP box when the shooting happened, but within minutes of the first shots, he raced to the ground level to start treating and triaging people. He ended up working at the site for another eight hours.
“I’ve had some good come out of that actually,” he said, “I met my girlfriend, don’t tell her – but someday wife – from this tragedy. Three years later, I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD. As a paramedic, I still run shooting patients within the city on duty and sometimes it – I wouldn’t say flashback – but the thoughts of Route 91 do come into my thought process when treating patients.”
He said that he’s been able to get past it, but the week leading up to the anniversary and the week after it, he is grumpier and short with people.
Koehler believes he’s lucky that he hasn’t had any major triggers like other survivors who are re-traumatized by fireworks or helicopters. Despite that, he did admit he had some extremely dark moments in his healing journey.
“I’m going to be brutally honest,” Koehler said, “A year and a half after, I had a dark moment, where I was going to kill myself. I don’t know what triggered it. It’s the one time that I’ve had a situation come up… I sat there with my gun in my hand and I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen. I reached out to a friend of mine. He was able to stop what he was doing and talk to me for 45 minutes. He’s on the peer support team at the fire department and he set me up with a counselor.”
Koehler said that incident was likely an accumulation of his work as a paramedic and the tragedy and trauma he experienced on October 1, 2017, but luckily, he reached out to someone for help.
“I tell that story about myself, not because I want to… but because I know there are others out there. It can only help,” he said.
Koehler believes the mental health of survivors and their families need to be addressed.
Besides finding his girlfriend, Koehler said another positive outcome from the shooting is that is more able to empathize with people who are experiencing trauma, which is something he deals with all the time in his line of work.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Gregory Koehler, survivor and North Las Vegas First Responder; Becca Martin, Tattoo Artist; Heather Gooze, bartender and survivor; Shannon Loveless, survivor; Jaded Moon, Tattoo Artist
You won’t find a paywall here. Come as often as you like — we’re not counting. You’ve found a like-minded tribe that cherishes what a free press stands for. If you can spend another couple of minutes making a pledge of as little as $5, you’ll feel like a superhero defending democracy for less than the cost of a month of Netflix.