Look at Breckenridge tattoo artist Jake Bray and you're likely to come up with conflicting stories about whom, exactly, this man is. It would all depend upon which part of his body you saw first.
On the wintry streets of Breckenridge, you'd encounter a round-faced, blond-haired guy in his late-20s, with an easy smile that might remind you of a Midwestern boy who earned his first few dollars milking cows in Wisconsin. If you asked him, you'd find out he moved to Summit County from Minnesota for the 2003 season to snowboard and work at a local ski shop.
But step into the shoes of one of the biased customers Bray encountered at the ski shop who asked the manager for another employee to help them: They saw Bray's left arm, completely covered in bold-colored tattoos, starting with a wristband of skulls, transitioning into razor blades closer to his veins. If they dared stare, their eyes followed gnarled tree roots to long-drawn ghoul faces and zombies. An electrified cat with an orange-zigzagged aura stands out on his thick arm. Below that is an Oz-type green witch, complete with brown-buckled shoes, flying away, empty booze bottles scattered in her wake. A skeleton bat with fangs foreshadows: If you sink your teeth deeper into Bray's storybook skin, it is full of multidimensional pain and heart.
Bray was about 11 when his older brother James came home with a bald eagle and American flag tattoo. Bray looked up to James and immediately wanted one, too. Little did he know how deeply James' actions would imprint his body.
About two years after Bray saw his brother's American tribute, James committed suicide. Bray had always been an artist - during English classes, he designed his first tattoo, a unique skull with squiggly eyes and exploding crossbones now stamped below his collar bones - but it took him a few years and nearly a dozen revisions to design the tattoo he wears over his left rib cage, closest to his heart, in memory of his brother. A 1984 Oldsmobile engine (his brother's favorite car) pumps a sacred heart to heaven, with banners reading, "In loving memory ..."
"I needed to go through some pain, because he went through so much pain," Bray said, adding that a lot of people ask him about the tattoo. "It's good. It makes me remember him. I mean, it's tough sometimes, but it's been so long. You know, he's still here. He's always with me, so ..."
Bray represents the real tattoo culture: One that respects the art and views it as a rite of passage.
"If it's something you want to do, you have to make it your life," Bray said.
The basic element to "earn your spot" involves going through the pain, completely sober.
"My first experience was like, 'Wow, I didn't think it was going to hurt that bad," Bray said. "It's not as easy as it looks to get tattooed."
When people use alcohol or drugs during tattooing - or even talk on their cell phones - he calls it "cheating."
"I never cheat," he said, adding that his left arm, depicting his favorite season of fall and Halloween, took at least 60 hours to complete. "(It's called) earning your tattoo. It's lost in just regular society, but in the tattoo society, it's still there. I don't like it when people cheat. People are soft, these days, in every aspect. Today's kids are pampered and spoiled with technology. I earned my living ... you don't see that hard work (ethic in a lot of kids today), which kind of sucks, because America and tattooing were built on hard work."
Bray spent a three-year apprenticeship with Guapo Mirable, who owned the Purple Lotus in Frisco before he moved his business to Breckenridge and renamed it Godspeed. Only one apprentice works at a time, so Bray waited a year for an open slot, while he continued to get tattooed at the shop.
Completing an apprenticeship doesn't come easy, and it's not just about mastering the technique of inking a living, stretching, moving canvas. For three years, Bray's main duties involved "taking care of the boss and the shop," which meant everything from doing laundry, washing cars to hand-scraping the paint off shop mirrors the artists had graffitied the night before.
The training period also including completing 100 free tattoos, as well as giving himself three tattoos.
"You have to feel the pain before you give the pain," he said. "It's an unreal feeling. You want to do a good job, but you're hurting yourself at the same time."
If you were to see Bray in the summer, a more complete picture would come into view. Yes, his right leg depicts a dagger piercing his skin - a traditional tattoo - and a vampire bat, whose eyes open wider on the top of his knee as he flexes his leg, seem to relate the same shadowy theme as his left sleeve. But ask him why a bad apple emerges from a red rose on the top of his right foot and he'll say it's to remind him he used to be a bad apple but doesn't need to be "that type of person."
Skip over to his left leg, and it's as if you've opened a completely different book - one characterized by Victorian ideals. Roses surround an oval-framed portrait of a classic lady, anchored by the words: "My one and only."
The first words that roll out of Bray's mouth as he explains the tattoo are "Marriage is kind of a joke." It's confusing, at best, when paired with the large space the pure message fills on his body. He continues to explain he's watched his parents go through five divorces, and his artwork speaks to how he wants his relationship to be different. He's in no rush to marry his girlfriend of 13 years, saying, "When the time is right, we'll know."
Another thing Bray is in no rush to "commit to" is filling his right arm: It remains completely blank.
"I just want to have a prime spot open so that when the moment hits me, I have it, or that artist - I will know that I need something from them," he said.
His back also remains bare, awaiting a full piece, traditionally saved as the last. Preserving space while adding art is a tricky balance: He wants "to be completely full" when he dies, yet he tries to get tattooed once a month.
"It's like collecting art for me," he said. "I don't regret any of them, even the first one I did. It's not the best by any means, but it's something I look at, and that's what got me where I am."
He says even when he's old and wrinkly, he'll appreciate the story his tattoos tell. He'll look and think:
"'Oh, I remember why I did that, how I was feeling when I did that.' All those emotions are there to remember."