By SARA ARTHURS
Last May, Derek Hess put an image on Facebook and Instagram every day, marking Mental Health Month. With each drawing, he posted a description of how it relates to mental health.
The internationally renowned artist found people were “hungry for this,” so he organized the posts into a book, adding more art along the way. A year later, he’s touring with the finished product, titled “31 Days In May: A Visual Journey.”
The book explores the link between creativity and mental health, and touches upon topics like loneliness, relationships, depression and suicide.
One stop on the artist’s national tour is downtown Findlay’s Gypsy Tattoo, where a local man got a tattoo of Hess’ art to celebrate his own recovery. That piece is featured in the book, which also includes various other pictures of tattoos inspired by Hess’ work. The people who themselves struggled with mental health or addiction wrote about what each image means to them.
“There’s some really heavy stories,” Hess said.
Angels and demons
Mathew Manley recently moved back to Findlay from Bowling Green and has been clean and sober for a little over nine years. On the eighth anniversary of his sobriety, feeling that the odds were starting “to be on my side,” Manley decided to do something special to commemorate his success. He approached Jeremy Dysinger, a tattoo artist at Gypsy Tattoo, and a friend since the early 1990s.
Manley had known Hess’ art from music posters from his youth. More recently, he started following Hess on Facebook and discovered the phenomenon of people getting tattoos of Hess’ art.
“He does a lot of angels and a lot of demons,” Manley said.
So, he thought, why not get a tattoo depicting these figures, symbolizing “what was and what, hopefully, will be.”
“Being an addict, I did things that I’m not very proud of,” and was concerned only with himself, he said. “That in a way is somewhat demonic.”
Now, in recovery, Manley tries to be the best person he can be — a productive member of society and a good father, husband and son. “That kind of represents the angelic portion of the tattoos,” he said.
When Hess reached out to his Facebook followers for tattoo images, Manley sent a photo of his tattoo along with a synopsis, and was selected to be included in the book.
Hess, speaking to The Courier by phone from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said he’s heard a lot of stories during the book tour. The specifics vary — in Nebraska, he was hearing about methamphetamine, rather than opioids — but he keeps meeting people affected by these issues.
And people are agreeing: “We should be talking about the subject more.”
It’s time, Hess said, to remove the stigma.
“It’s not a character flaw,” he said. “It’s an illness. It’s like diabetes.”
Hess said it was relatively easy for him to seek help, as “I knew there was something wrong.”
He was originally being treated for depression. But people with bipolar disorder, if they are only being treated for depression, can then develop the mania that is the other side of the disorder, he said.
“So I was misdiagnosed with depression when I had bipolar,” he said. “And that happens to a lot of bipolar people.”
Hess met a firefighter on the tour who talked about his own mental health issues, and how at the fire station he “can’t show weakness.” Hess told the man that talking about it is “the strongest thing you can do. … It’s not weakness at all.”
Hess said a good therapist helps. And while some people are opposed to taking medications, in his experience, “the meds have worked.”
Hess has also found that mental health and substance abuse issues touch everyone’s lives. He’s met people who talk about a family member or friend who has experienced this, if they haven’t themselves.
Hess’ work has been recognized in both the music and art world for more than 20 years. He began creating promo flyers for live rock shows in Cleveland in the 1980s, which are now part of the permanent collections of the Grammy Museum, The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Louvre in Paris. Countless album covers, apparel designs and gallery shows have been featured around the world.
The award-winning 2014 documentary “Forced Perspective” chronicles his art, life and struggles with dual diagnosis, and was released internationally through Gravitas Ventures and Redbull TV. He also founded ACTING OUT!, which sponsors an annual arts festival and professional conference that aims to explore issues that arise in the junctions between mental illness, addiction and creativity.
Hess said he has always been willing to talk about his experiences with bipolar disorder and alcoholism, but he became more known for it after “Forced Perspective” was released.
“The response was huge,” he said.
During the “31 Days in May” tour, Hess is trading his usual high-end gallery settings for more nontraditional locations like schools, bookstores, mental health organizations and libraries.
Hess will be at Gypsy Tattoo in Findlay from 6-9 p.m. May 31. He will have books and merchandise for sale, and some of his original art will be displayed.
As an Ohioan, he said it will be nice to wrap up the tour in his home state.
Organizers at each site were encouraged to pick a recovery organization to benefit from a portion of the tour’s sales. After reaching out on Facebook for suggestions, Dysinger chose Focus, a nonprofit center which helps people in recovery from mental health, substance abuse and trauma issues. (Focus is at 509 W. Trenton Ave. and can be reached at 419-423-5071.)
Addiction and mental health issues are prevalent in Findlay, Manley said.
“I know not everybody wants to talk about it but it is what it is,” he said.
Dysinger said he’s seen a lot of people on Facebook talking about addiction in this community.
“It’s society’s problem and society itself needs to stand up” and do something, not just one group like the police, Dysinger said.
People often get tattoos to mark “monumental moments in their life,” Dysinger said. This might mean the death of a loved one, or the birth of a new baby — or being in recovery.
Manley said a tattoo can “immortalize that moment.”
“At any moment I can go back out and drink or use … flip that switch.” So, the tattoo is a reminder of what Manley should and shouldn’t do.
Manley said it was a “county-sponsored vacation” that led to his getting sober. A judge told him, at age 32, that it was time to grow up. He woke up “in someone else’s shoes,” literally — in shoes, clothes and even underwear that belonged to the county.
“I only ever wanted to have a good time, and sometimes not feel the way that I felt,” Manley said.
But after losing his freedom, and family estrangements, he started seeking help through a 12-step group and a psychologist.
Manley’s advice for people perhaps wondering if they have a problem?
“If you’re questioning it, talk to somebody” with experience, he said. “Ask for help.”
He said he used to think he was “man enough” not to need others’ help.
“It’s not a question of manhood or intestinal fortitude,” Manley said. “It’s actually quite the opposite.”
Hess’ book deals with creativity and recovery.
“Art’s always therapeutic,” Manley said, adding there is a sense of “losing yourself in the moment.”
And Dysinger said there is a “journey inward.” Art offers an escape, and at the same time the opposite of an escape, a “connection to your emotions.”
In reproducing Hess’ art to create a tattoo, Dysinger realized how elements that at first looked “like scribbles” actually each had a meaning. He was struck by “how much emotion and story he can put through the squiggly lines.”
Dysinger likes creating “living art” that is then out there in the world. He finds he gets to know people through the work, too. Getting a tattoo is pretty intimate, and as he creates a tattoo he’ll talk to people, and they’ll open up to him.
“I love that part,” he said of hearing people’s stories.
Manley likened the tattoo parlor to an old-school barbershop, where people come in and start talking. And, Dysinger said, mental health and addiction often come up.
Dysinger said he does semicolon tattoos “fairly often.” These tattoos represent continuing a sentence, rather than ending it, as with a period. It signifies that life — like the sentence — continues, rather than ending one’s life.
Usually, Dysinger said, the person does open up about why they are getting it, such as because of a particular family member.