My Southern Belle tattoo, done by Dave Sanchez in Gardena, CA.

As strange as it may sound, this is a question that comes to mind every now and then for me.  Then again, I was born and reared in Scarlett’s city: Atlanta, GA.  I also have the words “Southern Belle” tattooed on my chest,  anchored by dogwoods, the state flower of Georgia. To me the tattoo is blend of a lot of things. It is a nod to the history of the land I come from, a mocking of the neighborhood I grew up in, an acknowledgement that I was raised right, and a love of a place called home.

Let’s start with the first: the South is such a magical place, and full of mystic darkness for me. It’s that mystic darkness where I feel the safest and feel like I’m truly home. It’s something I don’t feel anywhere but in the woods on a humid summer southern night. The spirits like to dance there; it’s there where I feel most protected against the things that frighten me.  The air is thick and sweet there and it brings back memories of a child who didn’t know what life had in store, and who thought “mid-twenties” was ancient.  Considering that I’m now 25, I’m hoping that little girl was wrong about where it will fit into the time-line of my life.

As a child in elementary and middle school in Atlanta, one grows up going on school trips to Civil War re-enactments, the antebellum plantations at Stone Mountain, and of course, the requisite trip to Colonial Williamsburg.  We’re taught about the old South, the Civil War, and the Underground Railroad from birth.  Apparently, this isn’t the case throughout the rest of the country.  In the fall of 2001 I was in my freshman year at the Savannah College of Art and Design, and Patty, who was from New Jersey, was my my roommate.  No less than a week into the semester,  we  spotted a very large bumper sticker on the back of a canary yellow Mercedes.  It featured the “stars and bars” and read “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted For Jeff Davis.”  Patty was completely perplexed, “Jeff Davis?  I didn’t see him on the ballot?”, she said.

“Patty, Jefferson Davis was the President of the Confederate States of America…during the Civil War,” came my response.  “Oh,” she said idly, “I’m from New Jersey, we really only spent like a day on that in history, cause we won.”  I’ve been learning about it since birth, because we didn’t.

Regardless of the side you take in The Civil War, the history of the land, the battles, and the time are fascinating.  And while I would never embrace slavery, it’s part of the history of the land I come from.  The Hollywood version of it was told through a little yarn spun by Margaret Mitchell.  Gone With the Wind was filmed in the city that is my temporary home, though set in my actual home, where it also premiered.  Had MGM not decided to premiere it in Atlanta, I suspect the folks in Hollywood would have learned first hand what it was like to live in a city while it was bein’ burned.  Union and Confederate blood was spilt on the dirt I dug in as a child. It is our history, and a part of us.

The majority of my formative years, while not in boarding school, were spent in a part of town called “Buckhead”.  It’s fair to say there’s some money there.  Most of the kids I grew up surrounded by had this odd misconception that their parents money was their money, and that it determined who you were.  I didn’t buy into that, and found a smattering of friends who were like-minded in the area.  We all came from different private schools around the city, and banded together, every afternoon and evening at the West Paces Ferry Rd Starbucks.  We almost all worked in that shopping center at some point or another, be it at Gorin’s, Wolf Camera, Starbucks, Goldberg’s, or Wender and Roberts drug store.  We got up to things in that neighborhood that most wouldn’t approve of. At this time I’ll plead the fifth on the whereabouts of that atrocious manatee mailbox. (By the way, we named him Carl. ) For us, it wasn’t about who had the best car; it was about friendship and life changing experiences.  Most of us are still friends.

As far as being raised right goes … I got my first blue box with a white ribbon under the Christmas tree when I was 12 years old.  I was all a flutter with excitement.  I hastened to open this oddly large package, considering that it surely must be jewelry. And it was…a book.  Tiffany’s Book of Table Manners for Teenagers. Damn that cotillion.  I hated cotillion mostly because I felt awkward as a twelve year old, but I suppose most of us do.  Clark Nash was my partner, which was the only upside since I’d had a crush on him in 5th grade. At least in 6th grade I got to dance with him, while remembering to read “Which Fork First?”.  I learned when and where to say M’am and Sir, and always please and thank you.  (I hope) I learned a gentle brand of kindness that can only be found in the South, and I believe I’ve made my very Southern grandmother proud.

And last, but most definitely not least, a place called home:  I don’t want to spend my whole life in Los Angeles. I love it out here, but there’s something that my hypothetical children would miss if they were to grow up anywhere but in the South. I know so many people feel that way about where they’re from, but I suffer from a disease of terminal uniqueness and I’m right in a way that they’re wrong.

I got to grow up with a grandmother who knew the value of family in a way only a woman from the heart of the South, the middle child of seven, and the only girl could know. Mary Ellen Baird was — and is — such a big part of my becoming me. And I couldn’t be prouder to call her my grandmother. I’m on a path of self-discovery and I’m in love with life, and that part of the country. I feel so protected deep in the Southern woods. I feel the cool sticky pre-summer air wrap around me and hold me close like it did when I was a child. And I know that she’s there with me. And Scarlett, too.

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Austen Risolvato

Austen Risolvato

Austen Risolvato is a Los Angeles based, Atlanta born Photographer, specializing in music and celebrity photography. Her free time is spent watching the Los Angeles Lakers, at Disneyland, at her favorite local LA coffee shop, or hanging out with her amazing collection of friends.  http://www.austen.la http://austenrisolvato.tumblr.com/