DES MOINES — Two-year-old Henri “Kai” Grabill is the grinning center of his own universe now that he has his own walker, hand-painted with a galaxy of stars. A tattoo artist took up the project for free after he spotted a request on Facebook.
“He was pretty excited about it,” said the boy’s mother, Kourtney Knapp. “We picked it up on Monday night, and the next day, he was showing it to everybody at physical therapy.”
Kai was born with a condition called hypotonia, which is characterized by low muscle tone. As an infant, he flopped around like a rag doll, and has had trouble crawling and walking around his family’s Drake neighborhood home.
Kai is the second-youngest of six children and is used to hand-me-downs. He used a loaner walker from a charity for the last few months.
So when his mom decided to spring for his own, she wanted to make it special. She asked for ideas but didn’t find much help.
“Everyone said, ‘Why don’t you duct-tape it?’ Or they said it was too small to do anything with,” she said. “I kind of gave up for a bit.”
She eventually sent a note to Nathan Gerger, an artist at Ironside Tattoo in Ankeny, who jumped on the idea. He has painted casts before but liked the new challenge.
“Anytime I get to paint, I get to learn something new,” said the artist, 33.
So Knapp emailed Gerger a photo of Kai’s favorite new shoes — the ones decorated with stars — and asked if the artist might be able to paint the walker to match. Six hours and several layers of paint later, the tiny device glittered with a spray of constellations.
Gerger, who enlisted some help from his colleague, Chris Sullivan, hoped the new walker could help Kai walk a bit taller.
“It’s tough being a kid with something different,” he said. “But if we can take that thing and make it cool, then maybe it won’t be quite as hard.”
Knapp had expected Gerger to charge a few hundred bucks but was stunned when he said it was free.
“I gave him a big tip and some beef jerky,” she said, laughing. “I figured he must get hungry working in the studio all day.”
She was grateful, for her sake and for Kai’s, too.
“It just goes to show that there are still good people around,” she said. “People think tattoo artists are a scary bunch, but they’re actually really nice.”
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