Kenny WilliamsPhoto by Todd Cooper

Tattoos, Addiction and Zen

Transformation from self-doubt to acceptance 

Kenny Williams sits in the front row of the congregation at Buddha Eye Temple in Eugene during a Sunday service. The low tone of a bell rings rhythmically through the room. The faint bitter smell of incense hangs in the air.

A tattoo of a grasshopper, legs bent and ready to spring, rests on top of his left hand in the space below his thumb and forefinger. Other tattoos peep out from underneath his loose blue meditation garb on the back of his neck and the top of his feet. 

Williams is one of tens of millions of Americans with tattoos: More than four in 10 people in the United States have tattoos, according to an internet survey conducted by Dalia Research. But 34 percent of tattooed Americans regret getting at least one of their tattoos, and tattoo removal is projected to be a $4.8 billion global market by 2023, according to Market Research Future.

Williams has been getting tattoos since he was in high school. His tattoos, and those he’s covered or removed, reflect contrasting periods of his life — his addiction, his recovery and his Zen practice. 

He was born and raised in Los Angeles. When he was around 15 years old, he got his first gang tattoo in large letters across the top of his back. He’d been drinking and smoking pot since sixth grade. He started doing hard drugs, like the hallucinogen LSD, in seventh grade. From then on, he rarely did homework and skipped school often. 

“I couldn’t even say I have a third grade education because third graders are much smarter now,” he says and laughs. “They’re probably way ahead of me.” 

About the same time he got the his first gang tattoo, Williams got “Skins” tattooed on the inside of his lip — a homage to members of gangs affiliated with the skinhead subculture he’d been hanging out with in junior high school. “I felt that whoever got tattoos were tough, and the tougher people that I could be around, the safer I would be,” Williams says.

But as some of the skinheads fell deeper into neo-Nazism, he says he stopped associating with them.

“The whole Nazi thing never fit me,” Williams says. “I only did any of those things because I was in fear.”

Around the time he got these tattoos, Williams started hanging out with older guys who’d served long prison sentences. He skipped his junior year of high school, and only went to a week of senior year.

It was those ex-prisoners who tattooed “13” on William’s right shoulder. While his other tattoos glorified drinking and racism, the 13 was dangerous. He says it labeled him as a supporter of any number of Southern California gangs that have 13 in their names. And it signaled that he was an enemy of any northern California gang that used “14” in its name. 

It was an open invitation for conflict. 

Williams says this tattoo got him into tons of fights over the years, especially during his stints in jail, where he says wearing a 13 makes you feared or hated. But that’s what he wanted. He liked the danger. 

He started doing crystal meth around the time he got the 13 tattoo. As he got older, the addiction started taking over his life. Williams says he’d regularly stay up for four or five days at a time, extremely high on meth. His mental health suffered.

At 30 years old, he didn’t have a job. Many of his friends had died of overdoses or in gang-related shootings. He’d ruined relationships with many of his family members and was living in one of his friends’ houses — the only one who’d still let him stay with her. 

One day after a meth binge, Williams woke up feeling like he’d run out of options for what he could do with his life. 

“I was panicked, and I was alone,” Williams says. “Nobody wanted me around.” 

Williams’ tattoos told the world he was tough, but on the inside, he was terrified. He went to a drug treatment center, starting a battle toward sobriety. 

A little while into treatment, he asked Robert Porter, a counselor at the California treatment center, “What’s wrong with me?” Porter responded by looking at Williams and singing the chorus from “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling,” a classic pop song from the 1960s.

“I just started crying, dude,” Williams says about the moment. He says it was the first time he’d cried for a long time.

“The tears had been beat out of me — deaths, so many deaths. So many of my friends have lost their lives to all of this stuff,” Williams says. “That day, I knew could either be cold and alone, or I could get back everything that I was looking for.”

He says the song cut him so deeply because he realized he’d nearly lost his ability to love by doing drugs and getting tattoos that told people he was hateful and violent. Williams has been sober since. 

“It’s unlikely for anything revolutionary to happen until you get to your wits’ end,” Williams’ Buddhist teacher and the head priest of Buddha Eye Temple, who is known as Ejo, says to the Sunday service congregation 17 years later. 

After his moment with Porter, Williams laser-removed his first gang tattoo and “Skins” from his body and covered up the “13.” He says the tattoo removal was excruciating but necessary. 

“It was worth every bit of pain to be able to have that time of my life washed away,” he says. “Those stupid tattoos.” He pauses. “They were holding me back from who I really was.”

Williams got a pit bull named Sky a few years after he got sober and got a tattoo of her face on his upper back. She died a few months ago, and he says he loved her deeply. Williams says he could never have taken care of Sky during his years of addiction, when all he did was live on people’s couches and use their drugs. 

Williams says he loves pit bulls because people think they’re mean, but they can be extremely loving if they’re treated right. Williams says pit bulls, like him, look tough on the outside but are really sensitive on the inside. 

He also got a tattoo of the face of his oldest friend, a famous tattoo artist known as Trigger who was shot and killed a few years ago, on the right side of his stomach. They used to hang out as teenagers, even when they were in rival gangs. But their relationship bloomed once Williams got sober. 

Williams moved to Eugene with his wife three years ago. He’d visited Buddha Eye Temple a few times during visits to Eugene because his wife’s brother goes there. His brother-in-law paid the priest Ejo to fly to L.A. and to give Williams and his wife a Buddhist wedding. 

When Williams picked Ejo up from the airport, the priest lightheartedly complained and swore about the L.A. traffic, just like anybody else would. Williams felt comfortable around him because Ejo didn’t try to hide his faults. Williams started going to the temple right when he moved to Eugene, knowing that Ejo would be a good, non-judgmental teacher for him. 

Williams got the tattoo of the grasshopper on his left hand right before he moved to Eugene. Williams says it symbolizes a new phase of learning in his life — a reference to a 1970s television show, Kung Fu, where a monk in training is called a “young grasshopper.” He plans to become an official disciple of Ejo in February, which will give him new responsibilities and opportunities for learning. 

“At first, they were a symbol of who I wanted to be,” Williams says about his tattoos. “Now, they’re a symbol of who I am.”

This story has been updated.

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