Finding Beauty In The Dark

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“Come on in. I try to make it homey.”

Jason Grodski gestured toward the front door of his Southampton studio before making his way inside. “I have all my art that I’ve collected over the years in here,” he said.

Canvases hung and leaned on his walls, some of Mr. Grodski’s favorites by pals John Ross Rist, Gregory Llewellyn and Nino Buschatzke, while others lay scattered across his bed and desks.

“I’m collecting and curating,” Mr. Grodski said, and then smirked, “and putting it all over my body.”

With a tattooed hand—a hint at the ink covering the rest of his body—he motioned to an office chair parked beneath his personal gym.

“Sit down,” he said. “Ask me anything you want. I’m very open. I’m not shy at all.”

He took a deep breath and smiled, settling his elbows onto the armrests of his electric wheelchair.

Mr. Grodski is a quadriplegic.

The date was August 1, 1995—a sunny afternoon spent swimming in Southampton, where Mr. Grodski was born and raised. He was playing Marco Polo, alluding the seeker as a “fish out of water” by crouching along the edge, his hands grazing the cool pool.

As his friend came along the side, desperately searching with his eyes closed, Mr. Grodski dove in headfirst. Just as he’d done “a million times before,” he said. Except this time, he hit the bottom.

He was 15 years old.

“I had, like, a 25-percent chance to live, all that shit,” Mr. Grodski, now 33, said coolly. “I was on a ventilator and feeding tube for about a month. They took that out and then gave me a trach[eostomy]. And I have a trach scar right here.”

He rubbed his fingers along his neck. “I covered it up with a tattoo, which wasn’t even my intention because I’m not really a self-conscious person at all. But it just kind of worked out that way. I’m pretty much covered.”

Approximately three years after his accident, Mr. Grodski got his first tattoo—an American flag on his left shoulder—which led to a few more. But when several girlfriends objected, he stopped. For a while.

“That was kind of unlike myself,” he said. “When I broke up with my last one, about four years ago, I just got back to me and kind of went crazy. I’ve been going pretty hard for about four years now.”

These days, it is easier to find the open spots on Mr. Grodski’s body than to list those covered up, he said. His tattoos are a constant evolution, he reported, and impossible to quantify or characterize stylistically. They range from comic explosions and zombies on his hands, to intricate stenciling and dead presidents on his stomach, to portrait tattoos of actresses Daryl Hannah and Milla Jovovich on his back, which took about eight hours each.

Most recently, he got two yellow minions from the Pixar film “Despicable Me” inked on the outside of his ankle just after the release of the follow-up film, “Despicable Me 2.”

Despite his injury, Mr. Grodski can feel every second of getting the tattoos, he said.

“With my accident, I got really, really lucky,” he said. “My spinal cord didn’t sever. It was hanging on by a thread, so I still have the impulses going down. They took a bone out of my hip and fused it in my neck with two titanium screws. So I’m paralyzed, but I have a sex life, I have normal quality of life stuff that’s really important. I still have all feeling throughout my bottom body.”

It is extremely rare for Mr. Grodski to get a particularly meaningful tattoo, though he does make exceptions—the Hindu God Ganesha covering his trach scar, he said, and a palm tattoo of his initials with his brother Christopher’s.

For the most part, they are simply what appealed to him at the time.

“My old tattoos are memories. I don’t think I’d cover any of them,” he said. “That’s kind of where the art thing started from: tattoos. Meeting different artists and just falling in love with everything they were doing.”

The tattoo world threw Mr. Grodski down an unexpected career path and headfirst into the art scene, where he is following the same logic as he does with his first passion: he collects what he loves—typically hauntingly dark pieces by unnamed and underground street artists who don’t pour enough value into what they do, he said.

So, Mr. Grodski is giving them value himself, he said, by exhibiting a selection of about 40 drawings, paintings and possibly sculpture as “Collective Imagination: The Dysfunction of Human Experience” through Tuesday, July 16, at 4 North Main Gallery—his second experience curating a show. The first was in June at the Southampton-based gallery, and it took some locals by surprise, he reported.

“I wanted to really bring something to the Hamptons that it really hasn’t seen,” Mr. Grodski said. “This is not landscape or contemporary art. I wanted to keep it edgy. It’s not for everybody. I think my generation really appreciates it. It’s dark, but I can find beauty in it.”

Much like his injury, he said. Looking back, he has no regrets.

“Sure, it would be awesome to walk and run and shit,” he said. “People think I’m crazy, but I really wouldn’t change anything. I’ve gotten an amazing perspective on life. It’s not even something I can articulate. It’s just an appreciation. I don’t have time for bullshit. I don’t have time for that nonsense. So everything is constantly pushing toward the positive and doing away with the negative. A lot of people don’t do that.”

He fiddled with the control on his wheelchair. “I was 15. I was stupid. But all my life, I’ve always been really optimistic—like, annoyingly so,” he laughed. “I was never really depressed about being in this thing, but I can’t sit here and watch TV all day. I’d go insane. I’ve got to be doing things. I’m really into my freedom. So, I’m here. And that’s it.”

Mr. Grodski backed up toward the door and spun the chair around in a smooth, dancing gesture that now comes as second nature.

“Later,” he waved. Mr. Grodski was off to take his friend to Resonance Tattoo in Center Moriches for his first ink. Unable to help himself, the aficionado had his palm tattoo touched up while he was there and later posted a video clip of the experience on Facebook.

“Hurts so gooood!!” the caption read.

Jason Grodski will present the exhibition “Collective Imagination: The Dysfunction of Human Experience” through Tuesday, July 16, at 4 North Main Gallery in Southampton. An opening reception will be held on Saturday, July 13, from 5 to 10 p.m. For more information, call 283-2495 or visit 4northmaingallery.com.

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