He got a hammerhead shark on his right thigh when he was 18, and a member of the University of Utah swim team.
At 46, J.J. Chandler has amassed a stunning collection of tattoos that create a sleeve on each arm that starts at his wrists and ends just over each shoulder.
“They don’t connect, yet,” says Chandler, the assistant principal at Chandler High School.
Designs that encompass flowers, fish, and skulls exist in a thoughtfully composed work of art are Chandler’s living canvas. But these exist not purely for superficial satisfaction. Each component represents a deeper muse, whether that be a person, event, or period in time.
“My tattoos are the story of my life and not just simply art,” he says.
A native of Stockton, California, and son of two teachers with farmer pedigrees, J.J. knew getting a tattoo wasn’t going to be a hit with his traditionalist parents. But it represented a willingness to own his bold personality.
“I was 18, and you’re rebelling to a certain degree. I’m the one child in the family that does stuff by jumping in with two feet and not testing the waters,” Chandler says.
He’s got the initials of his daughters, ages 15 and 13, and for his wife of 18 years, Jen, a large and intricate chrysanthemum was done for the love she represents for their family.
A koi swimming upstream—a symbol of battling adversity—on his right arm covers a previous tattoo he got during a time in his life of which he’s not proud.
“It was me being an arrogant uncooperative male and not being there for [Jen] when she needed me most,” he says.
While a freshman in high school, Chandler witnessed his best friend die in class from sudden heart failure. A skull on his right arm memorializes him.
“The skull represents a new beginning. It’s a reminder that he’s with me all the time,” Chandler says.
On his left arm, peonies celebrate his daughters, and another skull honors his brother, with whom he grew close.
“It’s a reminder that you’ve got to be able to work with your family and be there when they need you,” he says.
In assistant principal mode, long-sleeved dress shirts cover his ink. When the cuffs are folded or sleeves rolled up just a few inches, they are visible. He never explains their meaning to students. It’s too personal.
But in some cases it bridges a trust gap that students have with administrators. It’s been an icebreaker with parents, especially when a disciplinary issue brings them to his office. The art raises a feeling of commonality than distance.
“They see me and think, that does not look like the principal we had back in the day,” he says.
Occasionally, the career Chandler loves brings intense heaviness. Over his career, he has successfully intervened during five student suicide attempts.
When he experiences a powerful event—positive or negative—J.J. heads to artist Sam Hicks from Dark Horse Tattoo in Gilbert, who has done his sleeves, and who is only the second artist to work on him. This connection is intentional and the process has become a form of therapy.
“I know some people see a counselor, but I’m not one to talk about my feelings like that,” Chandler says. “When I want to go and decompress, it’s a place where I’m able to separate myself from reality for seven or eight hours, talk with my tattoo artist… it’s the whole experience that is therapeutic to me.”