Writer’s note: Tattooing has been done for centuries for a variety of reasons. Some cultures tattooed for religious reasons; others for branding, healing or punishment. In other cultures, tattoos signified societal status or were obtained as living souvenirs of visits to foreign lands. Also, once thought of as related to gang membership or prison time served, the art form has become more mainstream only in recent decades.

According to the website History of Tattoos, U.S. citizens now spend 1.65 billion dollars annually at 20,000 plus tattoo parlors around the country. A few other statistics: 36 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 have at least one tattoo, and 30 percent of all U.S. college graduates have tattoos. Of those looking to get inked, 43 percent want a tattoo with a personal meaning.

That desire to tell a personal story in a permanent manner is the focus of this series. If there’s a special story behind your ink, please contact Ellen at ellenmccroskey@comcast.net for possible inclusion in upcoming posts.

Dragonflies have been the subjects of intrigue and fascination for centuries. To many, they represent change. For Leland Wheeler, they represent both change and the stability of home.

MEET LELAND WHEELER

Wheeler, a successful film, television and off-Broadway actor, is a 2006 graduate of Wheeling Park High School and an alumnus of Park’s legendary theater department. After high school, Wheeler earned his Associate of Arts degree in acting from American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He also works as the event producer for the Heritage Music BluesFest held each August here in Wheeling. Wheeler has lived and worked in both New York and Los Angeles, where he currently resides with his girlfriend, Jiin Choi.

DRAMATIC BEGINNINGS

At the age of 9, Wheeler was invited to audition for Bob Athey’s Cornerstone Project theater production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’”

“But I was too shy at that time,” Wheeler says with a grin. His sister, however, was not so timid and snagged a part in the play. Wheeler tagged along with her to rehearsals, soaking in the atmosphere and camaraderie of a live theatrical production.

On opening night, Wheeler viewed the show from the front row, captivated by the performance. At the conclusion of the final act, the character Puck delivers a speech in which he directly addresses the audience. As he spoke the words, “Give me your hands, if we be friends … ,” Puck took young Wheeler’s hands in his as if to invite him into the play itself. Shy young Wheeler was embarrassed yet enthralled by this tiny taste of the spotlight, and he noticed people seated nearby reacting to his mixed emotions.

“It was the first time in my life that I felt the people around me being affected by me. It was an empowering moment,” Wheeler remembers.

It would be a pivotal one in his life, marking the precise time that he was drawn to acting. Although he was too late to join the cast of that show, he was invited to sell popcorn in the venue for the remainder of the play’s run, he shares with a laugh.

THE FIRST DRAGONFLY LANDS

During that Cornerstone production, several decorative metal pieces crafted by local artist Jeffrey Forster were auctioned as a fundraiser. As luck would have it, Wheeler’s mother won a beautiful metal dragonfly sculpture, which has adorned the family’s front porch from that time on. Seeing that dragonfly upon arriving home every day since elementary school made an impression on Wheeler. Over time, it came to represent the comforts of home and family.

When Wheeler moved to New York, he found that the sight of a dragonfly became a pleasant reminder of his childhood, and the idea of getting a dragonfly tattoo began to form. As time passed and he was caught up in endless auditions, Wheeler eventually knew that he needed a change in his focus.

“My entire identity was wrapped up in being an actor,” he says. “I needed to break out of that.” He was also in the process of ending a relationship. These major changes in perspective were two of the reasons he finally committed to getting his first ink just before his 23rd birthday. The dragonfly, symbolic of home but also of change and self-realization, seemed more fitting than ever. His friend recommended a tattoo shop she knew of on the Lower East Side and offered to pay half the cost as a birthday gift.

“It took four hours. But I grinned through the entire process!” shares Wheeler. In fact, the artist was so impressed with his positive attitude that he knocked an hour’s time off the final bill.

ROSE OF SHARON — ROOTS IN WHEELING AND SEOUL

Wheeler also has a simple rose of sharon leaf tattooed near the dragonfly on his side. Growing up in Wheeling, he found the plant pretty, but mostly a nuisance. He spent many hours hacking away at it to prevent it from overtaking his family’s backyard. When he and Choi first traveled to her hometown of Seoul, Wheeler was surprised to learn that the plant is the national flower of Korea.

“In Korean, it’s called ‘mugunghwa,’” he informs Weelunk. The fact that he and his significant other both had common roots to the same flower made it a natural choice for his second tattoo. He had it permanently inked on his ribcage before they left Seoul, a reminder of “story and place,” as Wheeler explains it.

A WORK IN PROGRESS

Wheeler, like many who have tattooed artwork, plans to augment his “canvas” in the future.

I plan to keep the (artwork on the) left side of my body ‘organic,’ and the right side ‘mechanical,’” he explains. In keeping with that theme, Wheeler most recently had a “bishop’s crook” streetlight inked on his right upper arm. The inspiration for the light came in part from one of Wheeler’s favorite paintings, René Magritte’s “The Empire of Light.”

The light in the painting has a more traditional straight post — so why did he choose the more old-fashioned, curved style for his tattoo? Wheeler says he was planning his move to the west coast at the time, and the bishop’s crook-style streetlights were the same kind that graced the streets of the New York neighborhoods where’d he’d lived for the past 12 years. The artwork now serves as a physical remembrance of the years he spent in the Big Apple as well as a tribute to a beloved painting.

Tattoos give us the means to use our bodies as blank pages on which to write our histories, our memories and our dreams. The images Wheeler has chosen for his inked masterpieces tell the tales of places he’s been and people he loves.

Dragonflies are sometimes associated with “looking deeper,” and that symbolism applies to tattoos, as well. The tales behind each one teach us that there is always more to what we see than meets the eye.

• A lifelong Wheeling resident, Ellen Brafford McCroskey is a proud graduate of Wheeling Park High School and the former Wheeling Jesuit College. By day, she works for an international law firm; by night, (and often on her lunch breaks and weekends) she enjoys moonlighting as a part-time writer. Please note that the views expressed in her writing are solely her own and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, including her full-time employer. Through her writing, Ellen aims to enlighten others on causes close to her heart, particularly addiction, recovery and equal rights. She and her husband Doug reside in Warwood with their clowder of rescued cats, each of whom is a direct consequence of his job as the Ohio County Dog Warden. Their family includes four adult children, their spouses and several grandkids.

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