Symbolic ink

(First published in the March 5, 2020 issue of City Pages)

How a Merrill tattoo artist’s recovery ribbon design became a widespread symbol for overcoming addiction


Deamon Boettcher posted a photo on Facebook on July 17 last year and didn’t give it much thought beyond that. He had created a tattoo of a looping ribbon with a broken chain segment, meant to symbolize recovery from addiction. It wasn’t initially designed to symbolize support, though it has since become that as well. Boettcher designed the ribbon to represent achievement, something anyone who has overcome addition can wear proudly.

Boettcher himself represents overcoming addiction and achieving something. From the ages of 13 to 19, he abused drugs. He started with pot and drinking, and progressed to meth and heroin when he was just 15 years old. Meth was his drug of choice, he says in an interview with City Pages.

At 19 years old, Boettcher was sent to prison for armed burglary, among other things. Boettcher feels like he lost all his teen years. They’re a blur of drugs and crime.

Prison was a wake up call, and a place where he had time to re-evaluate himself. He looked around at the people and the behaviors he saw in prison, and concluded that he wanted more for himself. And he decided he never wanted to be in prison ever again. While serving his sentence he got into weight lifting, reading, educating himself, all while recovering from meth and heroin addiction.

Watch Deamon Boettcher on the Keep it Wausome podcast:

When he posted the photo of his new ribbon tattoo design last summer, it had been seven years since being sent to prison. He now owns his own successful tattoo shop in Merrill, Inked Horizons, where he specializes in a unique watercolor style. He got married and has a family with four children. He’d been asked by other people in recovery to create some kind of tattoo to symbolize the triumph over addiction. The ribbon with the broken chain was his answer.

Of course he wanted to show off his work. Social media is especially helpful for tattoo artists since it’s an easy way to display one’s artwork to the public. Boettcher hit “post” as he often does, and didn’t think much of it. He certainly didn’t expect what happened next.

Tattoo symbolism


Boettcher’s original design: “It resonated with me on so many levels,” says Matt Jablonsky, an addiction and recovery motivational speaker.

Boettcher, now 28, woke up on the morning of July 18 and grabbed his phone to check social media. He almost couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

His post had nearly a million views, and had been shared 20,000 times. People all over the U.S. were commenting. One person who had shared Boettcher’s chain-ribbon tattoo image got almost 7 million views on their post. The next day, the post was showing up in Australia and England among other places. Suddenly he was getting messages from tattoo artists all over the world. Support groups also were interested in the ribbon.

“I didn’t expect it to go anywhere,” Boettcher says during an interview in his tattoo shop in downtown Merrill, with its checkered black and white floors and tattoo designs covering the walls. “I just tattooed it on my thumb. That’s the post that blew up.”

Boettcher has now tattooed the ribbon on about 60 people. Most have been local recovering addicts or family members getting support tattoos, but people come from as far as Pennsylvania have traveled to Merrill to get the tattoo from him.

He’s also has met with a lot of visiting artists who’ve come to Merrill. He also held a small event with some big names in the recovery world from all over the U.S., who live stream their appearances wherever they go. Boettcher said Merrill residents weren’t quite ready for these social media stars. A trip to Chip’s hamburger shop, with video crews filming everything, took Merrill residents by surprise. “It felt weird for me to have these cameras on me and everyone,” Boettcher says. “Everyone else was really flabbergasted.”

Boettcher is building on that, and holding a much larger recovery event this May.

Spreading the ink


Deamon Boettcher created a recovery ribbon tattoo — that he put on his own thumb — to symbolize overcoming addiction. He never dreamed it would become a worldwide symbol of hope and support.

Boettcher had a vision for how he would handle his recovery ribbon tattoo. He’d offer it at his shop for a minimum price, $50—just enough to make sure people buying it were serious about overcoming addiction. He knows that no addict would spend $50 on a tattoo when that money could buy a bag of dope. “I wasn’t getting any tattoos when I was addicted,” Boettcher says. “Buying drugs came first.”

He would let any other tattoo artist use the design too, or customize it. The idea wasn’t to make money. “To see someone with a tattoo of the ribbon in Laos is way cooler than having an extra $50,” Boettcher says.

Boettcher didn’t even want to copyright the design at first, but other tattoo artists threatened to do so under their own name if he didn’t. He even had people claim they had created the design and he was stealing it. But his Facebook post was proof of his date of creation.

So Boettcher did copyright the design, but allows other artist to use it to tattoo people in recovery or their supporters. He doesn’t allow anyone to sell merchandise however. This whole artful movement is not supposed to be profit driven— though it has become so big Boettcher now has a lawyer in New York to help sort out legal issues that are way more complex than he ever envisioned as a tattoo artist in Merrill.

Despite those complications, far more good has come from the recovery ribbon tattoo than bad, and he wouldn’t change a thing. In May, Inked Horizons will host an event with recovery social media stars from all over the U.S., who will speak outside the Main Street shop’s parking lot, complete with a DJ.

The fame from his ribbon has opened up other doors. Boettcher can appear as a guest artist at just about any tattoo place in the country now. His other passion is music, and through the connections made through the ribbon, he got hooked up with a producer in Cincinnati and will head there in a few weeks to record a song about the ribbon. “So, things are pretty good,” Boettcher says, smiling.

Tattoo acclaim

Matt Jablonsky is an addiction and recovery motivational speaker who lives near Whitewater, Wis. Originally from the northwoods, Jablonsky’s story is somewhat similar to Boettcher’s: He used meth for 13 years, leading to criminal behavior and run-ins with the law. At age 30, he was sent to jail for three months. Like Boettcher’s experience, getting locked up was the wake up call he needed to get sober and change his life.

Jablonsky had already been connected with Boettcher on Facebook when Boettcher posted the recovery ribbon tattoo, but didn’t know him well. The ribbon caught his attention.

“It resonated with me on so many levels,” Jablonsky says. “The simplicity of the designs and the breaking of the chains stood out to me.”

Jablonsky was one of many who reached out to Boettcher following the post, and the two became friends. Jablonsky has interviewed him on his Facebook page, from which he broadcasts live.

One of those broadcasts brought home what the ribbon means to people in recovery and their supporters. Jablonsky was about to go live with a guest one morning when his mother texted him, saying he needed to bring her on the live event that day because she had a special announcement. He explained he’d already had a guest lined up, but as he put it, you don’t say no to mom.

His mother and step-father came on the live event and his mother talked about what the ribbon means to her. Then both revealed they’d gotten the supporter version of the tattoo. “I broke down and started crying,” Jablonsky says. His mother had somewhat hinted at the idea, but his step-father hates needles, Jablonsky explains, so it was a surprise. “It’s an honor.”

Jablonsky will be one of the speakers at the event May 16 in Merrill outside Inked Horizons tattoo shop to help support recovery. Another speaker slated to appear is Robin “Higgy” Higginbotham, a 56-year-old recovering heroin addict living in West Palm Beach, Fla. Higginbotham runs a non-profit called No More. “I used my pain and turned it into a purpose,” Higginbotham says. “That’s what we do in recovery.” 

Higginbotham had the same response Jablonsky had when he came across Boettcher’s recovery ribbon post on Facebook: It immediately struck a chord. He reached out to Boettcher and the two started conversing. The tattoo blew him away. “He has created something that will stand the test of time,” Higginbotham says. “People will be tattooing this on their body for a while. It’s something to wear proudly.”

Dr. Jon Snider, a psychologist and clinical supervisor at Lakeside Recovery at North Central Health Care in Wausau, a medically monitored treatment program, says the tattoo helps serve an important symbolic role that can otherwise be missing for those in recovery. “We do symbols all the time for this: NA and AA have chips, our graduates get degrees, but this takes it a step further,” Snider says.

The tattoo not only signifies a feeling of accomplishment, Snider says, but also signals a commonality to others in recovery, to help form bonds and raise awareness. “The more people talking about it or showing they are in recovery, the less stigma there is,” Snider says.

There’s no doubt Boettcher’s simple but eloquent art design conveys a powerful message that has resonated with thousands, if not millions, of people.

“My message is you control you,” Boettcher says. “The second you take responsibility for your life is the second you start making changes. It’s easy to make excuses for why you’re doing what you’re doing, but it’s all up to you. That’s what happened in my life.”