With his arm, wrist and much of his side covered in third and fourth degree burns, Casey Keener had plenty of things going through his mind as he laid in the burn unit last year. It wasn’t how many of layers of skin had been destroyed by the flames of the fire pit he was thrown into, the prospect of skin grafts or the length of the recovery that awaited him.
“How are my tattoos?” he asked the doctors in the emergency room.
Having served as an ER technician at Long Beach Memorial, he knew the severity of his situation, and that when the doctors told him he had bigger things to worry about, that was putting it mildly.
There was the discomfort of a hospital bed and sleepless nights from nightmares from which Keener would wake up in cold sweats. Then came the depression, and adjusting to life without the aid of the painkillers that made the fact that 15% of his body had been burned in the accident bearable. Immobilized, Keener was left alone with his thoughts.
“You’re in pain and you can’t really do a lot so you basically have a lot of time to think,” Keener said. “A lot of time to think and a lot of time to be in a lot of pain.”
Prior to the accident, Keener, who works at Tattoo Artist Magazine, had already presented the idea for a tattoo charity event but was in search of a foundation to support. Becoming a burn survivor made that hunt much shorter. He called the Children’s Burn Foundation and sold them on the idea of raising money for child burn victims through the art of the tattoo machine.
The Art of the Machine is Keener’s way of giving back, through the tattoo industry he grew up loving, to children who will grow up scarred from burns. A groundswell of support form the tattoo community has left Keener with just over 60 tattoo machines—the electrically-powered device used to inject tiny drops of ink into the tattoo client’s skin at anywhere from 50 to 3,000 times per minute—as well as several original pieces of art that will be auctioned off at Mai Tai Bar July 11, with the proceeds going to the Children’s Burn Foundation. The prospect of raising funds for families facing expensive surgeries and rehabilitation, something that has threatened his own financial welfare, was an opportunity Keener couldn’t pass up.
“It’s going to bankrupt me, for sure,” Keener said of the nearly $350,000 in medical bills from his own stay in the burn unit. “That’s overwhelming. So, of course the financial part attracted me. They’ll help out the kids, help out the fathers and mothers focus on their kids rather than ‘how am I going to pay this bill?’”
The Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization, dedicated to preventing childhood burns and providing support to severely burned children and their families, has been operating since 1985. Through donations and fundraising events, the foundation helps pay for surgeries, rehabilitation and therapy as well as helping families with rent and transportation. They also offer summer camps where children recovering from burn injuries can develop friendships with other kids going through similar issues, as well as an international outreach program which helps provide on-site training and education to burn centers in developing countries.
According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 250,000 people worldwide die from burns annually, with the majority taking place in low and middle-income countries. The organization’s statistics show that in 2008, over 400,000 people in the U.S. sustained burn injuries despite most burn situations being preventable.
The foundation has several educational programs to help prevent burns, including one for caregivers of young children called “Careful, That’s Hot!” designed to highlight the risks in the home, where a majority of pediatric burns occur. For children, the foundation’s L.A. Troupe Safety Smart, a theatrical group that teaches fire safety and burn prevention, travels to area elementary schools, engaging an estimated 53,000 students annually in the greater Los Angeles area.
Carol Horvitz, executive director of the foundation, explained that the foundation works with children from the date of their injury until their eighteenth birthday and longer if the need is there.
“Our philosophy is that we believe in taking care of the child for a full recovery, Horvitz said. “By that we mean a physical healing, an emotional healing, a pshycho-social reentry into school and the ability for a child to live a wonderful life after the burn in all ways. And that the scarring that’s left behind doesn’t define them as a person.”
Horvitz noted that occasionally the tattoo industry and medical field converge to help the children in their foundation, with children who have had facial features damaged by burns getting tattoos to repair lip-lines and eyebrows. Still, she noted that this was the first time a tattoo-affiliated charity event had contacted the foundation, while dismissing the notion that the shock had anything to do with the perception some people hold about tattoos.
“It was a first,” Horvitz said, adding that they’re thrilled to have Keener as a new friend. “Everybody has good hearts and we’re so happy to be beneficiaries of somebody’s good wishes and good intentions for us. Of all the things in the world we certainly don’t judge people by how they look.”
Kari Barba, tattoo-artist and owner of Outer Limits Tattoo and Body Piercing in Long Beach, said that philanthropy isn’t something that’s unique to the tattoo industry; most people want to help other people. Since opening her shop in 1983, Barba has had at least one charity event a year, with last year’s 30th anniversary fundraiser going toward breast cancer research.
Although Barba is not a machine builder, she knows the attachment that artists have to their machines and how reluctant they can be to give them up. The fact that Keener has acquired so many in such a short amount of time is a big deal. Barba made sure to select a special machine—a personally signed and numbered design from renowned machine-builder Micky Sharpz—for her entry to the auction. It was the oldest machine she had that she has personally used.
“When I was picking out the machine I went through all the machines that I had and I wanted to make sure that there was signed and numbered and had my name on it,” Barba said. “You can say so-and-so used it but to actually have the name on it, it gives you proof and that’s a good thing. So hopefully it will raise the value and get more money for the kids.”
The level of support and the willingness of artists to part ways with coveted machines and pieces of art was something that Keener didn’t anticipate. When he set out to put the event on he thought an optimistic number of donations would’ve been 10 or 15 machines, with 20 donations being “amazing.”
“I came to them and asked them for a favor,” Keener said of the artists and machine builders who have donated pieces. “Instead of saying ‘you’re asking me for a custom-made tattoo machine that I’m going to make $400 from’ or ‘I want a percentage’ they said ‘I’ll send it to you.’ It was a big ask. A lot of guys really stepped up.”
He said that he’s hopeful that each machine, either because of the rarity or name attached to piece, will garner around $500 with some maybe reaching $1,000. He’s aware that not all of the machines, which will only be auctioned to tattoo artists, will be sold in one night which is why he’ll have an ongoing auction online with those sales also going to the burn foundation.
Tattoo machine in hand, Keener rolls up the sleeve of his flannel shirt to show the scars that inspired the Art of the Machine event. Because of the perception of tattoos in the workplace, he’d strayed away from getting tattoos below his elbows, a notion he scoffs at now. He acknowledges that he’s very lucky that his affected areas are a lot more manageable than less fortunate burn victims. Whether he decides to mask his scars with artwork is something he’s yet to decide, but he’s fortunate to be part of a community of talented and compassionate people who have come together to support burn-survivors, a community he’ll forever be a part of.
“I’m truly humbled,” Keener said. “I never imagined it getting to the point that it’s at and it getting the support that it has.”
The event is 21 and over with a $10 donation at the door. The charity auction with machines available to tattoo artists and art available to the general public will go from 6PM to 10Pm with an after party from 10PM-2AM. Mai Tai Bar is located at 97 Aquarium Way.
Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz__LB on Twitter.
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