Right about this time last summer, my husband, Captain Fun, had the idea for us to go visit a local music festival at The Ohio State Reformatory. I had just spent the weekend cooking and feeding a house full of people and was ready to be off duty. “Sure!” I thought. “I’d rather go to prison than cook or clean one more thing.” Perfect.
The Ohio State Reformatory, not too far from our farm, is where the film The Shawshank Redemption was shot some 23 years ago. I loved that movie and was interested to see the building, a gothic inspired kind of castle whose exterior beauty, I would find out, belies the sorrow within.
“A music festival out in the country …” I mused. “Hmm … what to wear?” Well, I wanted to fit in out here, so of course I donned my cowgirl hat. And it was a hot summer day, so my flouncy white skirt and a light pink shirt were just the thing. “I wonder if there will be square dancing?”
Well, the “music festival” was titled Ink in the Clink. “Hmm … that’s funny,” I thought. “Ink? Like a writing festival?” Nope. It was a tattoo festival. “Oh, ok, cool,” I thought. Tattoos are so mainstream now. My daughter, Flora, has a darling one on her foot. My hairdresser, a beautiful young woman whom I adore, rocks them all over her body and she is precious. Tattoos are as ubiquitous as freckles these days. I’m not getting one, mind you, but I have no problem with them on others. "Let’s check it out."
At first, it felt like any other festival: corn dogs, elephant ears, fried cheese curds, freshly made lemonade … all the usual suspects. But things took a dark turn fast when I turned the corner to the vendors’ section and I knew I wasn’t in Kansas any more. First of all, I could not have felt more suburban, lily-white, middle aged, square and un-tatted. Everyone – and I mean everyone – was dressed in all black, Goth attire, most with dyed black hair and sleeveless t-shirts (why have an arm tattoo if you’re not going to show it, right?). Nary a cowboy hat in sight. My flouncy white peasant skirt was like a beacon in a sea of darkness. I felt like a prison spotlight was following me throughout the festival, screaming “Hey! I’m a big square, a poser and don’t belong here! I’m not even a real farmer!”
I ventured in and swished over to check out the vendors. I noticed something swaying in the hot breeze ahead. “Oh, look! Is that some sort of wind chime?” Nope, that was an anatomically correct replica of an upside down human being, skinned and hanging from a pole, swaying back and forth. “Nope, I don’t need one of those, thanks.”
Onward. “Let’s check out this toy booth. Looks like they have some cute little teddy bears …. Oh no! Good God in heaven, what in the …?” There, before me, sat a disemboweled teddy bear. For sale. Apparently there is a market for devil faced teddy bears with their guts spilling out. They came in all sizes, too: large ones to put on grandma’s rocking chair, medium sized ones to give to the Munster kids, and tiny little ones to carry in one’s purse, I guess. I backed away, trying not to show my revulsion and swished over to check out the S&M whip and handcuff vendor next door.
“Babe, you want a beer?” Captain Fun asked. “Oh hell, yeah.” I’m not big on day drinking, but yes, I will have a very large can of beer, thank you. Must get the image of the tortured teddy out of my mind. “Let’s go listen to the band,” I said, guzzling my Natty Light.
Ah, music. It soothes the soul. I was expecting some good country music. Wrong again. The featured band, Saliva, was just starting. “Hmm. I’m not familiar with them,” I thought, wiping beer from my mouth. Now, I hate to sound as suburban, lily-white, middle aged, square and un-tatted as I am but, well, let’s just say that Saliva was not my cup of drool. I just don’t get screamo bands. I have no idea what the “singer” was saying, but I think he was very angry about something. Maybe he was scared of that devil teddy.
We downed the cold beers and went inside the Reformatory to check out the “ink” portion of the festival. The interior of the Ohio State Reformatory is rather interesting and historical but oppressively sad. One can just feel the misery. It permeates the walls. Oh, and it’s definitely haunted. (They have regular ghost hunting events and I am 100% sure they bump into plenty.) We perused the exhibits a bit then wandered into the old infirmary of the prison, where the inking was taking place. It was such a surreal scene: rows and rows of gurneys were lined up with customers laying down receiving their customized tattoos in the hushed, semi-light. It felt like that scene in Gone With the Wind when the camera pans out to the rows upon rows of soldiers being treated for gruesome injuries. But these people were quite cheerful, paying good money to be here and seemed completely at ease in this haunted prison. And the art being made was quite beautiful, really.
To complete the scene, for some reason there was a little display in the corner of the room with jars of potions as well as preserved newts, bats and God knows what else with a very serious sign in front of them: “No photographs please.” No photos needed, thanks. These images will haunt my dreams.
After a quick tour of the prison cells, stacked one on top of the other like sad shoeboxes, paint peeling, as if the wall themselves were weeping, it was time to go.
Ink in the Clink was definitely an experience. The visuals were something else. But the most surprising thing was that, to a person, every single individual I encountered was completely lovely, polite and welcoming. Even the tortured teddy vendor. Go figure. Maybe they just were coveting my pasty Irish flesh as a canvas for their art. Maybe they were high on eye of newt or something. Or maybe you just can’t judge a tattooed book by its cover.