Stories in Ink

ImagineIf Libraries opens new exhibit about Flathead residents and their tattoos

By Justin Franz
Brenda Butler. Courtesy Lido Vizzutti

Every tattoo has a story.

            For Brandon Spangler, it’s a story about his struggle with PTSD and substance abuse after leaving the U.S. Marine Corps. For Jennie Stapp, it’s about restoring “femininity” after being diagnosed with breast cancer. And for Brenda Butler, it’s a story about abuse and healing.

            “I didn’t want to look at my scars anymore,” Butler said. “I didn’t want to be reminded of what happened to me.”

            The story of Butler and her ink is now on display at ImagineIF Libraries in Kalispell, Columbia Falls and Bigfork as part of a new exhibit called “Tattoo Stories.” The photo gallery features portraits of people and their tattoos, along with stories about their inspiration to get inked. Megan Glidden, community engagement librarian for ImagineIF, said 17 portraits are included in the gallery. Each portrait is paired with a detailed image of the tattoo and a brief story about the person. Flathead Beacon staff writer Molly Priddy wrote the narratives.

            “Tattoos are a visual sign of transformation,” Glidden said. “Getting one is a huge commitment, and there is usually an interesting story that goes with it.”

            Butler was severely injured when her ex-husband threw her off a second-story deck. To cover the scars, Butler got Irish wildflowers tattooed on her arm. She said the flowers represent healing and are a tribute to her heritage.

            Spangler, the Marine, has the Greek God Kairos tattooed on his back and the phrase “Warr;or.” Spangler said the semicolon represents a pause in his life and the eventual breakthrough he had in dealing with PTSD.

            Stapp, who is originally from Columbia Falls but lives in Helena now, said she never planned on getting a tattoo, but that all changed when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014. Stapp had the option of getting reconstructive surgery following a mastectomy but decided to cover the scar with a tattoo of a peacock feather.

            “I wanted to bring some femininity back to my body after the surgery,” she said.

            Missoula-based photographer Lido Vizzutti took all of the portraits for the gallery. Vizzutti, who does documentary and editorial photography, previously served as the Flathead Beacon’s photographer from 2007 until 2013. He said the series’ biggest challenge for him was accurately and artfully conveying the tattoos and their meaning.

            “These people have really personal relationships with their ink, and I had a great time sharing their stories,” he said.

              Butler said some people judge her because of her tattoo, and she hopes that the library exhibit will help people understand why some choose to cover their body with art.

            “My mom always said don’t judge a book by its cover because you don’t know their real story,” she said.

            Stapp agrees and said she was proud to help ImagineIF with the unique project. She said the gallery “gives voice” to the people it features.

            “Tattoo Stories” is on display now at ImagineIf Libraries’ main Kalispell location and its branches in Columbia Falls and Bigfork through Nov. 30. For more information, visit

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