Sean Herman is intense. From the words “Live Free” and “Defiance” tattooed on his knuckles to the way he pulls his beard as he listens to a client or his young daughter. He is a tattooist with a two-year waiting list and in the past three months he has opened a private tattoo studio, an art gallery and found out he will be a dad again. He is working through a difficult past and learning his anger can be a positive force. He is also opening up to love, and these strong emotions bring life and energy to his tattoos.
Herman’s first memory is calling 911 as his mom, who suffered from manic depression, lay lifeless on her bed after a suicide attempt. He was 6 years old and a friend’s babysitter told him how to make the call. His mom was revived by paramedics and the memory was buried deep in his past. Years of denial and struggle forced him to open old wounds and face the experiences that shaped his view of the world, and his view of himself.
His parents divorced a year later. His mom remarried and moved the family from Minnesota to Daphne, Alabama. Herman was an only child who didn’t have a consistent group of friends until he was 12.
“I always longed for some sense of family and a regular life,” Herman says. “The loneliness and isolation never truly went away, and I still struggle with it. I have to choose every morning not to let those feelings dictate and control me.”
Punk rock music gave him the connection he needed, and his life changed on September 17, 1995, when he saw the Ramones play in New Orleans. He was 13. “The ground was muddy and drenched because it rained all day. I was covered in mud and mesmerized from the first chord,” he says. “That was the first time I began to feel like I was a part of something.”
Music provided a connection, but it didn’t stop his anger, the emotion that drove him and created a lack of respect for life — especially his own. He started drinking in his late 20s and he was the first to jump off a bridge, out a window, or do anything that seemed crazy and reckless. Stories of his behavior were passed around the local bar.
“I began to live for this idea of ‘the story,’ trying to emulate the writers of my past: Burroughs, Kerouac, and Bukowski,” he says. “They all careened toward eventual destruction in one glorious, bright explosion. Drinking became my medication.”
From his earliest memories, suicide was “the lingering song” in his life. He romanticized his self-destructive behavior and eventual demise until he learned to re-direct and use his anger.
“There is power in anger, but like anything else that is powerful, you have to respect it and use it appropriately,” he says. “Instead of running from anger, I now try to understand it. The worst thing I did with my anger was hate myself, the ultimate sin.”
Art started as an escape from the anger and isolation but it became his occupation. His mother couldn’t afford art classes and he bound his own sketchbooks from butcher paper and used cheap pens or pencils to draw from comic books. He got his first tattoo when he was 16 and they became a release during a time of searching for encouragement and answers. He briefly majored in religion and theater at Samford University but didn’t find the God he was looking for so he dropped out and began taking illustration seriously. He discovered his calling two years later during an apprenticeship with Kele Sparrowhawk of Aerochild Tattoos in Birmingham.
Herman got his first tattoo when he was 16 and they became a release during a time of searching for encouragement and answers.
Tattooing eventually became his meditation and the place he channeled his emotions. He got sober in July 2014 and realized that he needed to “keep his own candle lit” to help others. His marriage to Amanda and the birth of his daughter, Olivia Rose, also forced him to end his self-destructive behavior. He finally found peace and realized “the idea of God is a unifying spirit within all of us, and if we love ourselves and others, we will never be alone.”
Herman is a self-described “intense, driven, over-planner” who functions best in a creative environment. “If I am in a normal environment, casually talking about the weather, I become an awkward alien in a human suit, trying desperately to seem normal. Over the years I have begun to accept who I am, and to use that energy to create for my clients.”
He also uses that energy to help local artists find their voice and share their work. He opened Serpents of Bienville with Amanda in 2015 to bring an artistic community together. They publish books, produce podcasts and recently opened a gallery on Government Street in downtown Mobile.
“We have so many friends that can do cool things, there just needs to be a glue to bring them together. We want to show people they can be artists and provide the steps to do it,” he says. “Surround yourself with people who are supportive and it falls into place.
“There are beautiful things going on in Mobile and we get to bring them up to the surface here.”
Herman surrounds himself with creative people who are supportive, but he gives that support too. “Sean’s name has been in every tattoo magazine, but he has influenced and inspired me through his work and work ethic. His ability to love makes him special,” says tattooist Paul Averette, who worked with Herman at The Bell Rose tattoo parlor in Daphne. “He puts love into his work and his family, friends and even strangers. I was in a motorcycle accident two years ago and he visited me at least every other day for four months until I was mobile again. His visits and our conversations motivated me to heal faster and get back at it.”
The human connection is sacred to Herman and his work is more than ink on skin. He gets to know the people he works with and often tattoos them multiple times throughout their lives, seeing them through marriages, births and deaths. His art and designs can help change body image, alter a painful memory, or hold a loved one close forever.
From serpents, skulls, foxes and sea creatures to Jesus, Mary, Frankenstein and the Grim Reaper, each tattoo is filled with power and emotion. There is pain, love, anger, determination, fear or loneliness in faces with eyes that see through to your soul.
“During a tattoo, you are literally opening the skin that defends someone and putting ink in its place,” says Herman. “That is sacred. You also have the ability to create a positive experience or put positive energy into that opening, something that their body will heal over and keep with them forever. I start with their concept because tattoos should reflect the beauty and strength that is inside of them, not me.”
“Getting tattoos with Sean is more of an experience and friendship than a service,” says Johnny Duggan, who drives from South Carolina to get tattoos from Herman. “It doesn’t seem crazy to drive eight hours each way or wait two years to get in with him. These are not impulse decisions. I come to Sean with a theme or idea, but I give him the artistic freedom because my ideas may make a terrible tattoo.”
Tattooing takes intense concentration and Herman works five to eight hours on one tattoo. Books on skulls, vampires, portraits, feathers, Norman Rockwell and Grandma Moses fill bookshelves in his new waiting room. “The more I tattoo, the more I have to learn about the power of strong illustration, and the complicated world of a ‘simple’ line,” he says. “I will learn about illustration until the day I die.”
“Tattooing is technically hard, but it is my time to breathe and be in the moment,” he says. “The more I do it, the more I learn about the illustration process that creates a more pleasing image. There is always more to learn about how a tattoo wraps and moves with the body, utilizing curves and the texture of the skin.”
Tattoos and stories change over time, and Herman’s have too. After a long estrangement from his mother, he learned about her past and realized that instead of creating a storybook relationship or trying over and over to get her sober, the best he could do was love her during her last years. She died in April 2016 from cancer and alcoholism.
The images covering Herman’s hands were made by people important to him and believes there is power and positive energy in each one. He controlled the foot switch as they filled in the design. “It means more to have it done by them instead of getting one for them,” he says. “Each one means the so much to me. I even have one from my mom. She tattooed a little black heart on my hand. It is barely visible, but I know it is there.”
After her first suicide attempt, his mother got a tattoo of an unopened rose on her shoulder and said when she got better, the rose would bloom. Years later, he covered that closed bud with an open rose.
“The morning we took her off life support, I took a picture of that rose,” he says. “It meant everything to think that I had a part in making her feel at least a little bit of light in this world, and helping her rose bloom.”
Herman didn’t become his parents as he feared he might. Instead, he looks at his daughter and sees his mother’s smile and looks of love. He is showing her the love his mother searched for. “From my mother, wife and daughter, I have learned that all I am supposed to do is love with all of my heart, give everything I have and live a life without fear.”
The dark thoughts still linger and may never completely go away, but Herman is grounded in love for his family and his life. Even love for himself.
“Those are the things that keep me wanting to work through another day,” he says. “I keep my focus on the only thing I have in this life: the present. If I can talk to just one person a day, and remind them they aren’t alone, then maybe they won’t have to feel the way I did. They help me feel good too.”