UPDATE: While the event was free, it helped raise more than $20,000 through donations. The funds will be used to build a permanent memorial at the West Warwick site.
Tears streamed down Paula McLaughlin’s face Sunday as she told the story of how she came to know Eric Tier, who got a tattoo in memory of her brother, Mike Hoogasian, after Hoogasian and his wife Sandy perished in the Station Nightclub fire Feb. 20, 2003.
After her tragic loss, McLaughlin needed a way to cope. While planning the funeral, she stopped by one of her brother’s favorite music stores, Sam’s Records in Cranston, as her mother wanted Frank Sinatra’s hit, “My Way,” played at the funeral home. Upon entering the store, employees and customers alike were watching news coverage of the horrific blaze that claimed the lives of 100 people. She began talking with them and learned that they lost a few friends to the fire. Feeling a connection, McLaughlin told her story, and they ended up knowing her brother, who was known for his love of music and tattoos.
“They said, ‘We knew Mike. We used to call him Queensryche Mike,’” McLaughlin said. “I was leaving, and then one of the guys gives me a Queensryche CD and said, ‘Play number 11.’”
When she got in her car, the soothing song “Silent Lucidity” pumped through her speakers. The words instantly hit home, including the opening lyrics, “Hush now don't you cry. Wipe away the teardrop from your eye. You're lying safe in bed. It was all a bad dream spinning in your head. Your mind tricked you to feel the pain of someone close to you leaving the game of life.”
That’s when she decided to play the CD softly in the background at the wake.
Tier, who waited in the receiving line for more than two and a half hours, heard the music playing at the funeral home. Hearing it reminded of what brought him and Hoogasian together in the first place: a shared love of music. A few months later, he got the symbol on the album cover tattooed on his bicep.
“Being in line for two and a half hours listening to Queensryche reminded me what a big fan of Queensryche Mike was,” Tier said in an interview Sunday. “It just seemed fitting to get that as a tribute.”
McLaughlin had no idea she inspired Tier to get inked. It wasn’t until almost a decade later when she decided to plan the event, “Station Ink,” a photographic exhibition of memorial tattoos in honor of the victims and survivors, that she realized the situation.
“I never knew that all these years,” she said.
But she realized the situation when she was putting together the event in time for the 10-year anniversary of the blaze, as one of her brother’s best friends, Stephen Cole, is friendly with Tier. Cole, who also has a memorial tattoo in honor of Hoogasian, informed her that Hoogasian and Tier were buddies. Cole agreed to be photographed for the exhibit and shortly after Tier was on board.
In addition to Tier and Cole, as well as MacLaughlin herself, more than 60 people who lost loved ones to the fire and got memorial tattoos in honor of those lost were photographed for the exhibit.
Held this weekend at the newly renovated Pawtucket Armory on Exchange Street, the exhibit showcased about 90 photographs. It is estimated that nearly 1,000 people came through the exhibit during the weekend, and at least 600 attended Friday’s opening celebration.
Tier visited the exhibit Sunday and praised the display. Printed photos hung from the ceiling on thin wires, as large mobiles made up of felt butterflies dangled overhead. Each of the butterflies bore a name of a victim. Additionally, benches bearing inspirational words such as “Believe,” “Courage,” “Spirit” and “Strength” surrounded 100 white bags, each of which contained a glowing tea light.
“It was very well done,” Tier said of the display. “It was very beautiful.”
Other people who were photographed felt the same. For tattoo artist Christine Jones, who has 100 butterflies with the words, “Let these words portray the sorrow in my heart for friends lost,” tattooed on her left leg, said being part of the event helped her cope.
It was also a way to remember those who died.
“I think this is the most positive thing to come out of something so negative,” Jones said. “We live with it on our bodies every day because it’s our way of saying, ‘We are never going to forget.’ It’s part of who we are, and we’ve chosen to make it so everyone else can see it so when they ask us what our tattoos are about we have to tell them so nobody forgets.”
While she was not at the Station the night of the fire, Jones lost 29 friends to the blaze. Her tattoo, which covers her knee all the way to her foot, depicts 29 butterflies in color, with the rest in black ink. She realized her talent and passion for tattooing shortly after the fire and now works at Color Creations in East Providence.
“I probably never would ever have done it if it hadn’t have been for the fire,” Jones said, noting that she never charges people who survived the fire or those who lost loved ones.
“If they are a survivor and they want a tattoo for the Station and they’ve never had the funds or the opportunity to do it, I do it for free,” she said. “If it’s someone that lost somebody and they want to do a tribute to them, I do it for free. That’s always been my deal.”
Jones went on to say that her experience being photographed was a “comfortable” process, which pleased John Pitocco, who photographed people for the event. Through the photo shoots, which he described as “intense,” he strived to keep people at ease.
“We wanted to make sure they were comfortable because we were literally asking them to come out and bare their souls,” Pitocco said. “I was so respectful of the courage it took for them to come out. The people were awesome. They are happy we are identifying them with their loved ones.”
For McLaughlin, who got a small sacred heart with rays coming out of it tattooed on the inside of her right wrist on what would have been Hoogasian’s 39th birthday two years ago on Feb. 13, the event encouraged her to open up about her loss for the first time. His next tattoo would have been a sacred heart.
“It’s helped me talk about it more,” she said. “I didn’t talk for 10 years. What I wanted to do with this exhibit was take the edge off February and this anniversary, and we definitely did that. One family was saying, ‘I want to come back. It’s so peaceful here.’ That helps me.”