As a child of a black mother and a white father who divorced when he was a toddler, this duality extends deep into his identity. “My whole life, I’ve never fit in,” he says. “I was always too white or too black. People that are multiracial know exactly what I mean because I lived in the black neighborhood with my mom and I was known as the white boy, and then I moved in with my dad in an all-white neighborhood and I’m the black guy. To this day, there are people who are disappointed because I’m not black enough or because I’m not white enough, or I’m too white or I’m too black. I’ve always been on the fringes.”
As a permanent outsider, he embraced tattooing without hesitation. “What I’ve gone through in life has aided me in being tattooed,” he says. “You’re an outcast, for lack of a better term, when you decide to be fully sleeved, especially when you decide to tattoo your neck. You’ve crossed that line. I think there’s even a line beyond that when you do your throat, you do your face. I look at that like, Whoa, that’s a little crazy. But because I’ve lived my whole life as an outcast, it wasn’t a big mental block for me to go and be tattooed.”
The prejudice and judgment that was heaped on him because of his race has morphed into a different form now that he’s a fireman. A profession known for its traditionalism, the American fire service prides itself on its uniforms, on its status as community heroes and role models. It’s long forgotten its medieval Japanese predecessors, if it ever acknowledged them at all.
“Professionally, it took some thought to be tattooed because it isn’t the norm to see a fireman fully sleeved with their neck tattooed. I knew that I was going to be scrutinized. I knew that there were going to be people who believed it wasn’t professional. I know that people scrutinize everything that I do because of it, and I guess I was willing to accept that scrutiny. I look at that scrutiny as a challenge for me to stay on my game. I guess I was lowering people’s expectations on purpose,” he laughs. “Coming in under the radar.”
Not all fire departments allow their members to be tattooed, and Melanson has encountered many peers who openly question his qualifications as a representative of the field.