Tattoos can tell the story of a person’s life. They feature aesthetic beauty, inside jokes or family memories. Some of Daniel Schleicher’s tattoos memorialize his favorite people.
He shares his story as part of the Odyssey Beyond Bars project, which provides classes for students incarcerated in Wisconsin through the UW Odyssey Project. Schleicher shared his story at the Oakhill Correctional Facility in Oregon, Wisconsin in 2021.
Penguins, Bears and Tattoos, Oh My!
When I was a kid, I looked up to Kenny. I wished he was my dad.
Kenny was, in fact, my two older sisters’ dad. I remember him coming over to our house to pick up my sisters for his weekend to have them. I never understood why I couldn’t go with them.
It was clear I was a likable kid. How he played basketball with me while waiting for them to get ready, which felt like forever … it was probably just minutes. In those moments of shooting hoops, I would even pretend he was my dad. But Kenny wasn’t my dad. He wasn’t my stepdad. He was, however, a father figure.
I honor him today by calling him my bonus dad.
I only wish I could have told him this — for those moments spent with him meant a lot to me. You see, Kenny passed away in 1994. What he doesn’t know is that he played such an important part of my life and had a role in my love for tattoos. He had several himself.
The only one I remember — it was a tattoo of a penguin on his hand. So to a boy looking up to this man, I just thought this was what men do — is get tattoos.
I got my first tattoo at the age of 13 in a friend’s garage. It was a nickname friends called me back then.
And it was difficult to hide from my mother.
Now that I’m older, several tattoos later, it’s still getting difficult to hide them from my mother.
I never had a scheme to my madness of tattoos, other than if I wanted something somewhere, I got it. I’m tattooed, literally, head to toe. I can’t say I have a favorite. I have some I want to cover and many more I want to get.
I do, however, have some that got me through some dark times with just a glance, like my children’s names on my fingers that I see every moment of the day. There’s my mother’s name on my arm. She’s been the strength and my unconditional love. I have my granddaughter’s handprint over my heart because she’s a piece of my heart, in human form.
I have my last name Schleicher, which is Kenny’s last name, that I carry on for him. I also have a rose tattoo for him with “Rest in Peace, Kenneth,” and the date he passed.
And yet my mind comes back to that penguin tattoo. That tattoo created a love for penguins that runs so deep. I customized my own penguin stuffed animals for my kids and granddaughter when I was in Columbia Correctional Institute. I used to work for the Teddy Bear Project, and that’s where I had the opportunity to do so.
I’ve drawn cards and pictures of penguins for them. And when I did bead work, I made those tiny penguins was that fit on the tops of pens and their little arms would flop all upside down with each pen stroke.
That’s not where my love stops.
I had penguins looked up to discover that they only mate once in their lifetime. And on an occasion, if the mate dies, they will move on. The male even goes as far to find a pebble or a rock, like a diamond, that he kicks around until he presents it to the female. If that is not a true love story for you, then I don’t know what is.
I decided I’d like to get a penguin tattoo in memory of Kenny. I wanted the exact tattoo or close to it. So, I wrote home asking for photos of these in order to draw it.
That’s when I discovered my whole life was a lie — that Kenny did not have a penguin tattoo on his hand like I had remembered. He had in fact a bear tattoo. And not just any bear, but the Hamm’s bear from Hamm’s Beer.
Okay, in all fairness, this was over 30 years ago and I only had minutes with the man and the ink back then was not a good quality. So, this tattoo was mistaken as a penguin.
Now I have to get this Hamm’s bear tattooed in memory of Kenneth Schleicher.
I still want to get a penguin tattoo for the moments he shared and what that meant to a boy who just wanted a father…something I never got to tell him.
MUSIC: “Like a Tattoo” by Sade