Salvation in Ink: Dying Redondo Beach woman finds peace
“It’s empowered me again, Esther, to have the strength to face the world.”
Mina Fjoslien sits slumped on her couch in the dimly-lit living room of her Redondo Beach home. Her swollen feet rest on a cushioned stool. Long grayish brown hair drapes down her back, and her warm brown eyes are gleaming. Light freckles and age spots pepper her tan complexion. She asks me to turn off the TV.
Mina, a vibrant, heavyset 59-year-old woman of Filipino, European and Native American descent, invited me over one afternoon in early January because she had a story idea for the paper — about a young, local tattoo artist who is extremely talented, wise beyond his years and had happened to change her life, at the eleventh hour, too. As a heart patient who’s undergone a quadruple bypass surgery and mitral-valve repair, the retired hairdresser was given “five good years” by her doctor. That was in December of 2009.
That open-heart surgery and another operation a few years later had rendered two distinctive scars on her chest: a thick, dark pink stitch running down about seven inches from her cleavage, and a thick red diagonal scar, a few inches long, below her left collarbone. Under her skin there is a pacemaker, the small medical device that uses electrical pulses to regulate irregular heart rhythm. She calls these marks the “zipper” and the “pocket.”
None of these scars, upon a swift glance, can be readily seen. Instead, what blares from across her chest is a beautiful, bright orange phoenix, inked meticulously in both design and color. It’s flanked by two tropical flowers, a red heart with the prominent letters “D.N.R.” (for “Do Not Resuscitate”) and below that a flatlining electrocardiogram.
With this tattoo, Mina explains she has transformed in the eyes of others from a vulnerable heart patient to what she cheekily calls “a tough biker chick.” She much prefers this to being stopped on the street, being told stories of how someone’s uncle had the same thing, having to answer questions about her condition, or even worse, having constantly to relive the deeply personal experiences of coming inches close to death.
It’s not just the tattoo that has empowered her — she was deeply moved by the intimate experience of surrendering herself to this particular tattoo artist for a sum of nine hours in that enclosed parlor, just the two of them, and the inimitable bond of trust that would bloom.
With three sessions down, she’s got one more — the following Wednesday at noon. She’s visibly excited. She’s had to cancel three times in the past few months for this last session because she was in bad condition. There’s a bit of sadness, too, as she no longer will have these sessions to look forward to and will presumably have to say goodbye to her artist, who she lovingly likens to a little brother.
“I owe it to him to let him know how much I appreciate him in my journey,” Mina says, her voice thick with emotion. “He has helped me to accelerate my healing and my joy.”
“When you’re sitting here with somebody for so many hours, you get to know each other pretty well.”
Jeffrey Barnett, a 28-year-old Arizona native, looks the part of your average Beach Cities tattoo artist — ears adorned with plugs, arms embellished with color and black ink, and the laid-back attire of T-shirt, jeans and checkered Vans sneakers. Black-framed glasses sit perched on his nose, kind blue eyes behind them. He is the owner and sole full-time artist at Lovesick Tattoo in Hermosa Beach.
His parlor, which sits on the hill where Ocean Drive and Aviation Boulevard meet, is a 1,200 sq. ft. space rich with mahogany, dark red walls and lava-like flooring. Unlit candles surround antique statues of Buddha, unmistakably occupying almost every corner.
“I like the philosophy,” he explains. “From what I understand, Buddha is not a god but a representation of you being the best person you can possibly be once you get all the shitty parts of yourself. It’s an idea of who we could all be. It’s a good symbol for self-improvement and a better life.”
Jeff opened Lovesick Tattoo three Januaries ago, one of the first parlors to open after a lawsuit succeeded against the City of Hermosa for attempting to bar them from the area. He tells me he fell into tattooing at 18, learning the ropes from his then-girlfriend’s father’s shop back in Phoenix. His first love was illustration and drawing; graphic design and architecture were initially in the running, but that would’ve required years of schooling — tens of thousands of dollars he did not have. Tattooing, he explains, made the most sense for him.
He worked his way through the circuit of parlors in Phoenix before moving to the South Bay four years ago.
The artist naturally did most of the talking in our nearly hourlong interview, but by the way he speaks of his former clients, I could tell he is at the core, a listener. He fondly remembers a gentleman in his 70s who got a tattoo memorializing his late wife, who he’d been with since youth; a retired fighter pilot and longtime client who spent his entire life in the military (“But even with him being so different from me, he was still relatable”); a pair of old ladies who’d met in a retirement home and wanted matching Betty Boop tattoos (“They were just like, ‘You know what, we’re from a time where women weren’t really allowed to get tattoos but now, well shit, we’re just gonna do what we want because we’ll be dead in a few years’”).
“You get a lot of perspective,” Jeff says. “It helps you know that there are a lot of lives out there that are being lived, and it gets you outside your own little head. I’ve talked to people who’ve been in wars, people who’ve been all over the world, or just really old people. They’ve done so much and they get to share that time with you. I just let people talk.”
That’s the concept behind the name of his parlor, Lovesick. It’s his way of defying today’s culture of soulless exchanges, automated and rushed, “cut and dry and cold.”
“You don’t get to talk to people anymore,” he says. “There isn’t any love in the world it seems, and it’s very rare that you find people who make something handcrafted and put a lot of love into it. Everyone’s kind of lovesick — we need more of that. That’s what the shop’s all about, to really take the time.”
Last April, Mina first set foot in Lovesick Tattoo with her husband Karl for a consultation after hearing in passing about the local parlor.
She told Jeff everything: the debilitating heart attacks she’s suffered, the open heart surgery, the pacemaker and the unwelcome conversations her scars seemed to invite. She laid it down for him: she wanted flowers, a heart and “D.N.R” in a way that would cover up the invasive marks on her chest. He jotted down some notes and advised her to check with her doctor.
“She told me about how she’s gonna be dead soon, which was kind of shocking because she seemed to take it so well,” Jeff remembers. He had noted Mina’s peaceful acceptance of her imminent death. She’s ready for her coming journey into the unknown, he says.
Back at home after their initial meeting, Mina scrolled through his artwork on his website, trying to gauge his style.
“I was so moved by his artistic talent,” she says. At this point she mentions she’s a devout, lifelong ceramic artist, has been since age 4. Growing up, she kept busy in her backyard clay pit, in a small farm town in San Joaquin Valley. About 10 years ago, she was scouted to study ceramics at Kansas City Art Institute on a scholarship. She knew talent when she saw it. “That’s when I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to relinquish myself to him.'”
Mina called him shortly after, essentially offering her skin as a blank canvas for the artist. Inside the drawing area of his parlor, Jeff sketched out his concept for Mina’s chest-piece on paper. He went through three drafts, freehanded, before reaching the final design that he would show Mina when she came in next. It’s a meticulous and laborious process, one he takes pride in as it’s his life work; he takes it to heart that someone is trusting him to permanently mark their bodies.
“I try to take their ideas and feelings and put it into one big piece,” he explains. “I can really help people develop their ideas, to put those ideas into a picture.”
That’s how the phoenix came to be — it represented her rising from the ashes of her illness, her past attitude towards life. For both of them, such a tattoo is an intimate statement, an artistic projection of who you are and what you feel on the inside.
“And I really feel that this illness has helped me become a phoenix, help me become reborn and resurrect myself as the person that I always wanted to be,” Mina says, choking up. “I gave him no real hints about who I was, and he couldn’t have nailed it any better.”
These intimate three-hour sessions would become a refuge for Mina, who couldn’t deny the expediting symptoms of her body shutting down: tight breathing and debilitating dizziness, to name a few. Her husband Karl, 60, assists her in getting out of bed every morning. He does things for her that “no man should do for his wife,” she says. She’s bound to the couch most of the time.
“At this point, my life feels like a flipbook and it’s coming to an end. And I wanna do it with pride and dignity. It’s been hard at some points because I think I don’t want to continue like this.” Then she quickly adds a few words to reassure me. “I’m much more homicidal than suicidal, trust me.” She laughs.
I think what Mina was trying to explain was that with this tattoo, she has been able to take back ownership of the body that had been slowly failing her since 2004. During her time with Jeff, she’s allowed to forget about her condition and regale tales of her heyday as a big-shot hairdresser serving high-profile clientele across the country, her lifelong hunger and passion for ceramic art, and the whirlwind of a life–an exotic one at that, she adds–that she has been blessed with.
Their first three-hour session together etched the outline of the design; the second one a few months later gave it color; the third gave the colors shadowing. The final session on Wednesday would add the final touches, filling color in the flowers, darkening the outlines and such.
The Sunday afternoon before her last appointment with Jeff, I get a phone call from Mina.
It sounds busy in the background and her voice is barely coherent. She tells me she’s back in the hospital, has been since Wednesday; her heart is operating at 20 percent now. With her voice breaking, she tells me she won’t be able to finish the tattoo this Wednesday. She won’t be able to finish the tattoo at all. My heart drops. She says she’s not sure what this will do for the article, but she still wants the story told about Jeff. Even amidst this ordeal where the number of days before her are uncertain, she wants to talk about Jeff. He deserves this article, she says repeatedly. He deserves people to know how talented and kind he is.
Karl, Mina’s husband, is a tall, lanky bespectacled gentleman with a long silver ponytail. They’ve been friends for 30 years, married for six-and-a-half.
He meets me in the lobby inside Hollywood Community Hospital. In the elevator up to the third floor, he tells me that she was sitting at home that evening when she suddenly couldn’t breathe. The diagnosis is congestive heart failure and kidney failure. They plan to keep her at the hospital until she’s stable enough to go home. Then she’ll enter a hospice program. He tells me this in a hushed voice; he looks tired. His blue eyes are red around the rims. “But she’s still spunky,” he adds with tried enthusiasm.
We enter Room 309 — a dim, cramped unit with three patient beds separated by curtains. Mina is at the very end of the room, next to a window. She’s lying in bed, her head propped up on a rolled-up blanket, oxygen tubes in her nose, heart monitor on her chest. She’s wearing a light blue hospital gown that fits snugly, her chest tattoo in full display. A small box of tissues rests on her belly.
I sense no trace of the tearful resignation I’d heard in her voice a few hours earlier on the phone; she truly is her usual spunky self. One of the first things she tells me, in that animated fashion of hers, is that yesterday an older nurse was helping her change out of the gown when she saw the tattoo. She wanted to hear the story behind it.
“She was so moved by it and why I did it,” Mina says. “She said that story made her day.”
“I think it’s almost poetic that I don’t get to finish it.”
I ask her to explain. She says she had been waiting for better days. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to her, her lungs were filling with fluid — a condition called pulmonary edema, commonly caused by congestive heart failure. She’s now fully accepted the fact that she won’t be getting better from here. She can barely breathe and can’t sit still without going into a cough fit every five minutes. A tattoo session, without question, would be too invasive at this point.
“It’s a want and wants don’t always happen,” she says. “I really feel complete with this — seeing his work, being under his spell and getting the assistance I needed to have the strength to make it through. Because when you’ve got scars and pockets that stick out, it’s like, it’s just invasive when people try to talk to you about it. It just stopped the conversation.”
She asks me to take a picture of her tattoo — covered partially by heart monitors and her hospital gown, the letters D.N.R. in display. She thinks it’d tell a cool story.
Besides finishing her tattoo, a trip to Hawaii was the only other thing she wanted.
But in this condition, she’s officially barred from flying. Karl has pitched another idea — a road trip around the southwest hitting destinations on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.” “We don’t record all of those for nothing,” Mina says.
Mina is thinking about Buzz Lightyear as her goodbye card — “to infinity and beyond.” No phone calls, no funeral, just a simple card.
Karl chuckles. “She thinks of these things.” Mina says what she’s been saying since I met her: There’s no reason to be sad. There’s no reason to tell anybody — including good friends of 20, 30 years — that she’s back in the hospital, probably for the last time. When I ask Karl if it’s harder for him to stay in this optimistic light, he mentions that his mother passed away five weeks ago. With Mina, he acknowledges it’s been really challenging. “I don’t like to see her not feeling well. We live day to day, to get through each day.”
There are no plans for a service or a funeral. Karl is going to take the ashes out on his canoe (he’s a world-class outrigger paddler), pour half out in Redondo, the other half out in Mendocino, where Mina once called home.
Back at the shop, I ask Jeff whether Mina has impacted his life in any way. For him, she has helped take the fear factor out of death.
“It’s exciting once you put it into perspective,” he explains. “When people are constantly reminding you of the negative end of it that’s just not good. It’s counteractive to what you want to do — you want to be ready for it. To take off into the universe.”
Goodbyes have always been his least favorite part of the job. He’s tattooed some clients for seven, eight years, and the bond they’d grow to share meant a lot to him.
“It’s kind of a bummer to see people go; I guess it’s a lesson of impermanence,” Jeff says. “Everything’s gonna be gone, so appreciate it while it’s here, while you have it. I don’t get sad about it, but it’s kind of a bummer. All right man, I’ll see you later. It was nice to know you. Thanks for trusting me in doing this for you.”