For Walla Walla U. student, personal change means tattoos no longer fit

Jessica Suitsev

Jessica Suitsev Photo by Greg Lehman.

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WALLA WALLA — She wasn’t involved with gangs, but Jessica Suitsev’s teen years mirrored much of the same anti-social lifestyle.

Growing up in Salem, she hung out with kids who got into trouble and rebelled against a destructive home life. Then, Suitsev said, the tattooing started.

“I got 14 tattoos within a year, ranging from butterflies to skulls,” she said. “They were addicting, honestly.”

Suitsev, now a theology student at Walla Walla University, has begun freeing her skin of tattoos through the INK OUT program at Walla Walla General Hospital. It’s going to take some time, she said.

The skull on her calf, for example, is large and saturated with ink.

“It’s like a statement to stay away,” the 27-year-old said.

It was also a way to deal with turmoil.

“I had trauma from my childhood I didn’t know what to do with. I wasn’t sure I would make it to adulthood,” Suitsev said. “I still had all this pain and anger and I felt like no one stepped up to help.”

Her parents, both struggling with addiction, were unable to be a resource, she added.

“My mom didn’t know how to get me through it.”

Cutting her skin offered relief from inner chaos, but the multiple pricks of the tattoo gun offered similar relief, in a way approved by society, Suitsev said.

“Cutting yourself is not OK, but getting a tattoo is,” she said. “When people hear you’ve been cutting yourself, they don’t even know what to do or how to respond.”

Although she had been raised in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, it seemed like the last place to turn for help, she said.

“I was so angry,” she recalled. “But I went to camp meeting every year because it was an easy way to get high. And hang out with other people who had the same purpose.”

At 21, sporting green and black hair, Suitsev found herself at a church service just to shut up the guy who kept inviting her, she recalled. That was the day she discovered not every Adventist church is painted with the same judgmental brush she knew as a kid.

“People were so nice, very welcoming,” she said. “No one looked at my crazy hair and tattoos.”

Suitsev found herself intrigued by this different look at God and the Bible. When her bass guitar skill was discovered by music leaders, she was asked to join the church’s praise band. And there went her partying for the week, she said.

“Practice was on Friday nights and suddenly I wasn’t going out every Friday. That was the beginning of the change.”

Her goal now is to offer change to others, the theology major said. “I want to reach people that have been hurt in the world, who have been hurt by the church or by other people. And show them a loving, accepting God that they didn’t experience.”

Judging from people’s responses to her numerous tattoos, the body art is getting in the way of the message. Having them removed is something that needs to happen for the sake of her future ministry work, she said.

While she proceeds with the laser treatments that will take away much of the tattoo pigment in her skin, Suitsev also is working toward a new kind of relationship with her mother.

“There is a lot of pain on both ends,” she said. “The healing is still to come. Hopefully.”

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