With the 10-year anniversary of the Station Nightclub fire just a few months away, Paula McLaughlin of Chepachet decided it’s the perfect time for her to pay tribute to those impacted by the blaze, which claimed the lives of 100 people Feb. 20, 2003.
McLaughlin lost her brother Michael Hoogasian and her sister-in-law Sandy. They were Cranston residents. To help keep their memories alive, McLaughlin is organizing “Station Ink,” a photographic exhibition of memorial tattoos in honor of the victims and survivors. It will be held at the Pawtucket Armory at 172 Exchange Street from Feb. 15 to 17, with the opening reception to be held Feb. 15 at 7 p.m.
The event is free, but donations will be accepted. All funds raised will be donated to The Station Fire Memorial Fund.
“The 10-year anniversary is incredibly painful because it was like it was yesterday,” she said. “You wake up and it’s 10 years later, but it feels the same. It’s always incredibly sad and I think this year it’s going to be even more sad. We’re all broken because of it. This event is for everyone and it will give us all something to look forward to instead of focusing on that number.”
While McLaughlin is working out details for the event, she has already found nearly 30 participants with tribute tattoos willing to be photographed. However, she is hoping for additional contributors.
“I need to get more people to these photo shoots, so I hope they will come and get their tattoos photographed,” she said.
Anyone with an honorary tattoo who would like to be photographed should contact McLaughlin at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a photo session. Sessions are taking place Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Dec. 15 and Dec. 30 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Armory, on the second floor. There is no charge for the photo shoot, but participants will be asked to sign a photo release to be part of the show.
“The response has been amazing so far,” McLaughlin said, noting that she held a private photo shoot a few weeks ago with loved ones. “I have friends that I met in my support group, so I invited them and my brother’s friends.”
The tattoos, she said, don’t have to blatantly indicate that they are affiliated with the fire, but it is OK if they do. For example, McLaughlin has two tribute tattoos: one is a small sacred heart on the underside of her wrist, while the other is a cross on her lower back that features butterflies, as well as ribbons that read, “Mike and Sandy Forever,” as the couple was inseparable.
She got the cross tattoo a few months after the fire, and had the sacred heart done two years ago on Michael’s birthday, Feb. 13.
But she’s not the only one with the sacred heart tattoo, as Michael’s friends and Sandy’s brothers all got the symbol inked on their bodies within days of the fire in honor of Michael and Sandy.
The meaning of the cross is a bit different from the heart. Michael and Sandy had gotten married shortly before they passed, with McLaughlin serving as Sandy’s maid-of-honor. As a design director for a jewelry company, McLaughlin crafted Michael a cross, which he wore as a pin during the ceremony, and made Sandy a set of rosary beads that the bride carried as she went down the aisle.
Getting tattoos, said McLaughlin, is a means to cope with loss of them. As the years go by, she’s met people who have three, four and even five memorial tattoos.
“It’s hard to explain – you feel like you have to do something for the person that you can’t be with anymore and that’s why I did it,” she said. “I never had a tattoo before, but seeing everyone come together and hearing more and more stories about it I said, ‘I have to do something. I want to photograph all of these tattoos and do an exhibit.’”
McLaughlin opted on a tattoo theme because Michael and Sandy each had tattoos. In fact, while Michael was getting tattooed just hours before the fire at a now closed tattoo parlor, Doors of Perception, Jack Russell walked in. Russell was the lead singer of Great White, the band that was performing at the Station when the fire ignited. They chatted with Russell, and he ended up inviting them to the show. He promised to put them on the VIP list, which he did.
“My brother called me and said, ‘You’re not going to believe this. I’m so excited. I met Jack Russell,’” said McLaughlin. “I said, ‘Oh, you’re not going to that show. It’s late and it’s cold.’ He said, ‘No, I have to go.’ Everybody Jack Russell invited died, [including] Skott Greene, [who owned Doors of Perception, which was] on Quaker Lane. Because my brother went and got a tattoo that night is basically why he and Sandy are not here.”
The photos in the exhibit will be accompanied by personal stories, such as McLaughlin’s, explaining the meaning of the tattoos.
“I have everybody writing their stories down,” she said. “It’s emotional and touching, so I want everybody to know these stories. It’s going to be a really nice memorial.”
Another touching thing for McLaughlin is the fact that photographer John Pitocco, a friend of McLaughlin’s, is volunteering his time for the exhibition. Additionally, Debbie Whitehouse, who runs the Pawtucket Armory, donated space for the event.
“It’s beautiful and it’s just been renovated,” McLaughlin said of the Armory. “She gave me the main hall for this exhibit and I want to fill it with photographs. People are just coming out of the woodwork saying, ‘Whatever you want, I’ll do.’ I have an enormous amount of people volunteering.”
In conjunction with the show, McLaughlin and Pitocco are planning an accompanying book. She hopes that anyone who cannot attend the event will find comfort by looking through its pages. Proceeds from the book will also be donated to the fund.
“Some people have six to 10 pictures and we’re not going to be able to put all those pictures in the show, so we’re going to make a book,” she said.
For now, she’s hoping a memorial will soon be erected on the West Warwick land the Station formerly resided on, and is working diligently on the exhibit.
Also, getting another tattoo is on her agenda.
“I plan on getting more,” McLaughlin said. “I might even add to the one on my wrist.”