Crawling In My Skin: Chester Bennington

“What’s that shit on your fucking arm?”

Chester Bennington’s dad was pissed. His son had made a promise to wait until at least his 18th birthday before getting a tattoo—and here it was, not long after that day, that the younger Bennington strolled home with his first bit of ink, a Pisces on his left shoulder. For his father, it was not so much the image itself that set him off, but rather what tattoos in general symbolized.

“My dad was a police officer in Arizona and so his experiences with people with tattoos was different,” recalls the now 36-year-old Bennington. “To him, they were something associated with shitty people—convicts and criminals and guys in gangs. And he didn’t want his son to be like that. But I’m from a different time and I see it differently. To me, it’s a way to be free and to not be confined by what society thinks you should or shouldn’t do. It’s a way to express yourself.”

And so the 18-year-old Bennington expressed himself with a big, colorful fish, which spurred the aforementioned interrogation from his father. “I responded, ‘It’s a tattoo,’” recalls Bennington, stating the obvious. “And he said, ‘You know that will never come off. You wanna be stuck with that for your whole life?’” Bennington laughs. “And I was 18 years old and defiant and so I went, ‘Yeah! You’re fucking right I do!’”

Almost 20 years later, Bennington now has many tattoos—when asked for an exact count, he responds, “I think the technical term is ‘a lot.’”

He is hardly a convict or criminal, but rather the frontman for Linkin Park, one of the most successful rock acts of the 2000s. The band’s debut album, 2000’s Hybrid Theory, which spawned hit singles like “One Step Closer” and “Crawling,” established them as a leader in the then-burgeoning nu metal movement (a categorization they have come to despise). It also laid the groundwork for a career of massive proportions. In a world where music seems to have an ever-decreasing role, both financially and in terms of cultural influence, Linkin Park still fills sheds in the U.S. and plays to huge crowds overseas. They also still sell records: To date, Hybrid Theory has moved more than 10 million units domestically and ranks among the top 10 best-selling releases of the first decade of the millennium.

The band has released four studio albums since that colossal debut, including last summer’s Living Things. Their latest record follows on the heels of two efforts, 2007’s Minutes to Midnight and 2010’s A Thousand Suns, both of which, though successful, also signaled a shift away from the sound that had first made them superstars. In place of thick, down-tuned riffs and baldly angst-filled lyrics, they wrote more impressionistic songs that incorporated electronic soundscapes, textured guitars, and snippets of speeches from Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mario Savio within stories about the end of the world. “Everything about our sound that people thought was nu metal, we wanted to kill it dead,” Bennington says.

They did, but perhaps at the expense of some of the potent energy that had once defined the band. This has been corrected on Living Things. Case in point is the album’s first single, “Burn It Down,” which uses a propulsive rhythm as the foundation for a towering guitar-and-synth wall of sound, over which Bennington lays one of his trademark hooky vocal melodies. It’s catchy but not pandering, rocking but not simplistic.

“The fact that the record is reminding people of the earlier Linkin Park sound is exciting to a lot of our fans because they’ve been kind of wondering if that was ever going to come back,” Bennington says. “But they’re also happy that it’s not exactly like what we did before. It might make people think of Hybrid Theory, but it’s not Hybrid Theory.”

Bennington acknowledges that the specter of that album looms large. He even has the winged soldier image from its cover art tattooed on his left leg. He also has one other tattoo that is a direct reference to the band—“Linkin Park” emblazoned across his lower back in Old English–style lettering. But in a way, neither of these is his most Linkin Park-esque tattoo. That distinction would likely go to what he calls his “flames”—the ribbons of red and blue fire that shoot forth from each of his wrists and travel the length of his forearms.

“I got those just about the day we started our first U.S. tour,” Bennington says. “I always said I wouldn’t get my forearms done unless I knew I was going to have a job where I didn’t have to care about having tattoos. And once Linkin Park signed our deal and went out on the road, it was legit. The funny thing is, within days of me getting the tattoos the first really big poster of the band came out, and it was an image of me holding onto the microphone, all sweaty, with both my forearms up. That was pretty much the first image besides the Hybrid Theory album cover that people really saw of the band. And so the flames quickly became a symbol for Linkin Park.”

They became so much of a symbol, in fact, that Bennington says he now sees plenty of fans with the same design on their forearms. “And that’s really strange to me. Because in my experience, if you walk into a studio with a picture of somebody else’s tattoos and you’re like, ‘I want that,’ the artist kind of groans. The whole purpose of having flash is for it to mean something to you personally. It’s not a t-shirt.”

He points to one particular flame-tattoo-wielding fan who took the homage to a whole new level. “There’s a dude in China who has all of my tattoos,” Bennington says. “Every time I get a tattoo this guy gets a picture of it and goes to his artist and gets it done. And it’s like, Wow, that’s dedication. In some ways it’s cool, but in most every other way it kinda pisses me off. Because those are mine!”

This superfan even has a replica of Bennington’s most personal piece, a crest on his chest with the initials of his family members incorporated into the design. “There’s a scroll across the top that says ‘CB TB,’ which are mine and my wife’s initials,” he says. “And then underneath there’s a rose and a scroll that has the initials of my four children. So this guy has my family’s initials on his chest. And now I have twin girls that I have to add to the piece. He’ll probably get those too. He has everything.”

Everything would include, among other tattoos, the six-armed alien on Bennington’s back. “A tattoo artist friend told me, ‘When you’re onstage you have an ability to reach out and make every person in the room feel like you’re performing for them,’” he explains. There are also various dragons, koi fish, flowers, skulls, and other images on his arms, torso, and legs. Though Bennington says he has had work done all over the world, most of his tattoos—including that first Pisces design—were inked at Club Tattoo, the Arizona-based parlor run by Sean Dowdell and his wife, Thora. Bennington has known Dowdell for years—in the ’90s the two played together in the Phoenix-based band Grey Daze. After that band broke up, Dowdell went on to focus on Club Tattoo while Bennington hooked up with Linkin Park and moved to Los Angeles. “There was a period of time after Grey Daze where Sean and I weren’t very close,” Bennington says. “Had we been closer I probably would have ended up at the shop, apprenticing in piercing and tattoo design. I’d probably be working there today.”

Things worked out a bit differently, of course, although Bennington eventually found his way into the Club Tattoo organization. Years ago, the Dowdells invited him to be a partner in the business. “They were doing fine. They didn’t really need a partner,” Bennington says. “It was really just a way for us to participate in something fun together.” Bennington’s vision was to expand the business beyond the handful of shops in their native Arizona and forge a national presence. “I wanted to put the shops up in areas where the world would come to us,” he says. “And out of that came our Las Vegas location, which has been hugely successful, and also the new location in San Francisco, right off Pier 39. That’s a place where I think something like 50 million people a year will walk by our storefront.”

One area of the business he hasn’t delved into is the actual tattooing. “Different people have asked me to tattoo them, but I won’t do it,” Bennington says. “It freaks me out. They’re permanent!” But not entirely permanent: Though Bennington says he still has a lot of work to get done—“There’s some real estate on my left arm, and my left leg, and I want to add some color to my chest and back pieces”—he also has plans to rework some of his existing tattoos.

“I’ve contemplated lasering some of them,” he admits. He’d start with the Pisces. “That one never quite lived up to what I thought my first tat- too would be, which is something that looks good! But that’s one of the great things about the tattoo industry today. The technology exists to go back and improve on what’s already there.”

He laughs. “Or maybe I’ll just fade everything down and start over completely …”

It’s a thought that would likely drive one particular Chinese fan to the depths of despair.

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