Foster youth tell their stories through tattoos in the California Youth Connection’s new exhibit “Tribute”

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Text by Melissa Batchelor Warnke. Photos by Luisa Conlon.

On Thursday night, a group of foster youth, artists and art appreciators met at Oakland’s Pro Arts gallery space, tucked within the subdued nighttime bustle of Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, for the closing of the three-day multimedia exhibition “Tribute: Stories of Foster Youth Tattoos.”

The Foster Youth Museum is a museum in heart, if not body; it has no permanent location. In between exhibits, its art, artifacts and video portraits documenting foster care are housed in what project director Jamie Lee Evans calls a “totally inadequate” non-temperature-controlled storage space. The frames, glass and matting that encase the prints are hand-me-down equipment from galleries; the art is stacked between moving blankets; and the show is completely run by volunteers. The museum’s collection can be pulled into three distinct exhibits: Lost Childhoods, Tribute, and Homelessness. Evans is currently conceptualizing a fourth exhibit, Joy Stories: Toy Stories, about toys used by foster youth and what they represent. Tribute is the most photo-heavy of the three exhibits and, while it incorporates a few personal artifacts, the focus is on black-and-white portraits of foster youth displaying their tattoos. Evans, asked how she founded the museum, says, “I just thought, ‘I don’t even care if nobody thinks this is a good idea.’”

But people in the Bay Area responded. More than 150 people attended Friday’s one-room show. Another 8,000 saw the show at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral this October. Now, Evans is looking for funding to make a book on the exhibition and to find the museum a permanent space. She envisions it having different wings that represent the range of foster care experiences: for instance, a wing dedicated to group homes, a wing dedicated to sibling relationships. California, which has nearly 20 percent of the nation’s foster youth, would be a natural home for a permanent space, Evans says.

The Tribute exhibit is built to showcase the diversity of experiences of those who go through the American foster care system: their trauma, resilience, challenges and successes. In one photo, a young woman named Marcy looks up toward the light in the corner of the frame, her hair piled in a knotted bun. Above the line of her tube top stretches a striking, two-line statement in calligraphy: I am not afraid, I was born to do this. The photo caption tells the viewer that Marcy struggled with drug addiction and sexual abuse, but that her optimism and deep faith helped her win legal guardianship of her siblings after they were separated in the foster care system.

Another features an upper-body shot of a woman named Meredith, who holds onto a tree trunk with her back to the camera. Both the semi-colon and vine etched on her body are a nod to her struggle with depression, and her commitment to living through it. The vine represents the duality of her depression; that it has promoted positive growth as it has also overtaken her mental space.

One portrait was shot in a public bathroom; another is staged on a stairwell; in another a young man looks directly at the camera, surrounded by drawing materials. They were shot by photographer Ray Bussolari, who is now the head curator, exhibition designer and collections manager at the Foster Youth Museum. Bussolari’s photos provide a new way to talk about issues many foster youth face, including lack of permanency, homelessness, abuse, chemical dependency, forging identity, mental health or sexual and commercial exploitation.

Evans acknowledges the material can be intense for some audiences, but says that the museum provides the perfect interface for interaction. “You can come up to a photo and if it’s too heavy walk away, go to another photo, and go back to it again,” she says. It’s a way to educate people in a way that allows them to explore at their own pace.

Haydée Cuza, one of the former foster youth whose portrait was taken, attended the closing event with her wife. While Cuza has several tattoos, the one on display in Bussolari’s portrait is of a goddess with a butterfly in front of her. Cuza calls it her symbol of healing: “I cried taking the photo. He just asked me to share the story of her—it was powerful to me, to call her ‘her.’”

In another portrait Bussolari shot, Cuza holds a photo of her daughter and grandson. It’s been powerful for Cuza to see how this project connects to people who encounter it unexpectedly. At the Grace Cathedral exhibition, she saw a man and woman who had come to see the cathedral happen upon the portrait show. “You could see he was connecting, and she said ‘I think it was just meant for us to come here.’ He got teary-eyed and said, ‘I was just thinking the same thing,’” Cuza says.

Kate Teague, the Bay Area Regional Coordinator for the California Youth Connection, which oversees the museum, connects the museum to state legislation that affects foster youth. In 2014, the group lobbied for the successful passage of Senate Bill 1099, which ensured children in foster care were able to visit their siblings. While visitation had long been a policy, it wasn’t happening in practice because it was unclear who within the state bureaucracy was supposed to manage the program.

This year, the California Youth Connection saw another legislative win with the passage of Assembly Bill 260, which provides support to young women in foster care who become pregnant. More than one in three women who were in California foster care at age 17 will have given birth by the time they reach 21, according to a study done by UC Berkeley and USC researchers for the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. Women who have lived in transitional housing or extended foster care often experience increased scrutiny from social workers, and earlier parts of their lives can be used in custody proceedings: This bill ends that practice. Telling the stories of foster youth is critical to increasing public understanding of the issues they face, Teague believes. “How do you translate that picture and that picture into actual policy?” she says, pointing at the portraits hung around her.

This collection of artifacts has existed since 2008. The project had been writing curriculum to train child welfare professionals on how they could better support the needs and ideas of young people in the foster care system. The youth had the idea of bringing in personal items in order to teach ideas; for instance, in order to illustrate grief and loss, they’d bring an empty baby book.

But it took Evans, who went through the foster care system and was California Youth Connection’s Youth Training Project’s first staff member, several years to see that the artifacts they were compiling had symbolic power beyond the classroom. In 2013, they started working with Bussolari, who at that time was a museum studies masters student at the University of San Francisco. In the beginning, Bussolari says, his intention was to document the donors who had given objects to the training program, not to do artistic portraits for a show.

The California Youth Connection was not in the practice of putting non-foster-youth “in the driving seat,” as Evans says, and Bussolari had not gone through the foster care system. But he partnered with Kevin Clark, who had, and now works in child welfare policy. Clark did many of the interviews and documented the experiences the tattoos reflected. The focus on tattoos is a deft route into personal stories, says Clark. “If you go to a youth and ask them about their life, it’s more direct and, in a sense, could potentially be perceived as an attack,” he says. “When we ask about tattoos, and we allow youth to describe experiences through inanimate object, there seems to be more of an openness to telling that story. It’s more safe.”

But when Bussolari and Clark started documenting stories through photo and video, they recognized that what they were creating was “deeper than a snapshot,” Bussolari says.

“When shooting, I’d say ‘Tell me about your tattoo,’ and they’d almost all say the same thing: This is a tribute or dedication to my time in foster care,” Bussolari says. Each of the foster youth portrayed in Tribute said they would keep their tattoos, even the ones they no longer liked; they were a part of them.

One Comment

  1. Ann killory

    Anyone who attends these exhibits can tell that photographer Ray Bussolari puts his soul into the displays. He puts thought and care into all the work he approaches and it reflects in the unique outlook demonstrated in each photo.

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