A short stint in a California prison for aggravated assault had given him 18 months to practice a newfound craft. He showed us how to make a tattoo gun from an eight-track motor, a Bic pen, and a sewing needle.
  • A short stint in a California prison for aggravated assault had given him 18 months to practice a newfound craft. He showed us how to make a tattoo gun from an eight-track motor, a Bic pen, and a sewing needle.
  • Image by Ben Indyk
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

A tattoo addiction has left 20 percent of my body covered with subcutaneous ink. Depictions of water, cherry blossoms, a green demon, and an octopus cascade down my arms. I am eternally wearing long "sleeves."

I started the sleeves when I was 25 and finished last year, just after my 27th birthday.

I started the sleeves when I was 25 and finished last year, just after my 27th birthday.

When I was eight, I saw a tiny red devil tattoo on my dad's left bicep. That devil might have been no bigger than a golf ball, but he couldn't have made a larger impression. From that moment onwards, I couldn't contain my questions.

"Can I get a tattoo?"


"Did it hurt?"


"Where did you get it done?"

"The Philippines."

The Lady Luck is a traditional-style tattoo. Sometimes called "old school," these tattoos were made popular in the 1940s and '50s.

The Lady Luck is a traditional-style tattoo. Sometimes called "old school," these tattoos were made popular in the 1940s and '50s.

In coming years my father would uncover tattoo magazines under my bed, find a cigar box I'd marked "Savings for Tattoo," and uncover checklists I'd made outlining the process of immigration to the Philippines.

But in the end, no trips to far-off lands were required. Rumors circulating around my high school led me to find a drifter -- a man escaping justice from a burglary he'd committed in Idaho -- who would tattoo in exchange for beer. The man was dressed like a hobo, in borrowed clothes, and sported a ragged beard. He had no compunction about tattooing kids -- as he told us all, he himself had been tattooed, as a teenager, by one of his uncles.

And so, in a little wooden shed behind the home of a local, charitable family, the drifter told us how he'd come to be a tattoo artist. A short stint in a California prison for aggravated assault had given him 18 months to practice a newfound craft. He showed us how to make a tattoo gun from an eight-track motor, a Bic pen, and a sewing needle. At the age of 14, I walked into that shed with a 12-pack of beer and walked out with my first tattoo.

In the months to come, I'd visit the old, graybeard tattooist again and again. Each time, I'd walk away with a new piece of art on my arm. That year, I had six crude sketches of various animals, crosses, and skulls stenciled onto my body. None were especially detailed; all were in one color -- the faded denim blue that comes from having cheap black ink being injected beneath the white canvas of your skin.

The older I got, the more embarrassing I found them. Shame over the poor quality of those tattoos is the reason I now have sleeves of boldly patterned ink. Those large, heavy tattoos cover up a first generation of shaky outlines.

A friend of my dad's friend, known to me as "Loner," was the first person I'd met who'd had his arms completely masked. Panthers, eagles, and crosses encompassed Loner's arms, from his knuckles up to where they disappeared under his T-shirt. The doodlings I'd got when I was a teenager were minuscule compared to the coverage he wore. Upon meeting him I thought, That's what I want.

When I was 24, I was making a decent living as a developer for a local Internet company but looked as though I ran a crystal meth ring out of my apartment. I knew this because my neighbor ran a meth ring out of his apartment and his tattoos were very similar to mine. The final push to get my old work covered up came when I passed his doorway.

"Hey," he slurred in a toothless Arkansas twang, "nice work."

"Ugh," I replied. The groan wasn't intentional. I hadn't meant to let my disappointment show, but I couldn't catch myself either. To have him compliment me on my appearance was the worst insult I could imagine.

"Thanks," I said quickly, trying to fill the time it took to get to my apartment.

"If you're looking to get some new work done, I sling ink," he whistled.

The thought of him adding more disjointed jailhouse ink to my already-marred skin was disconcerting -- I realized I had to reverse the process and start over.

So the next day, instead of doing actual work at the office, I started my search for downtown tattoo studios. I listed the addresses on a piece of paper, and when my managers weren't looking, I shot out of the building. Tiger Jimmy's was the first place on my list, followed by Super Fly, and then Lucky's.

Tiger Jimmy's is the most famous tattoo joint in San Diego, but after leaving the shop I felt as if I needed to scrub myself down with steel wool or stand in the blast of a fire hose. I imagined hepatitis bugs doing backstrokes in the greenish liquid I'd seen puddled up on the counter. It may have been spilled soda, but I wasn't about to compromise my perfect 12-0 win-loss record of tattoos versus diseases.

When had I become so picky? At 14, a Bic lighter and bottle of rubbing alcohol provided enough protection to ease my mind. My ideas of sanitation consisted of keeping the vagrant's dogs off of my lap and curled up on the dirt floor at my feet. Now, here I was, ten years later, the Queen of England, who couldn't get inked in a studio that wasn't cleaner than my own bathroom. Before anyone noticed my presence, I checked Tiger Jimmy off my list and moved on.

Super Fly passed my initial cleanliness inspection. Sunshine beamed through the windows and gleamed over the tile floor. The spacious main room was more like a lounge than a tattoo pad, and dulcet tunes of loungey electronic music filled the air. If cartoon animals had been allowed in the shop, I'd have seen squirrels staging a song and dance while bluebirds tied ribbons in my hair. Super Fly was everything I was looking for. Until a woman in blue-jean overalls broke me out of my reveries.

"What the fuck do you want?" she barked, from the center of the shop.

"Sorry," I said, flummoxed. "I just need to talk to someone about my old tattoos. You see, I'd like to cover these up. Maybe get full sleeves with a bold pattern to hide these shoddy ones. How much is that? What's the hourly rate for work?"

While I was talking she advanced aggressively on my position.

"A lot," she huffed. "I don't have time for this."

We now stood nose-to-nose. I thought she was going to punch me, and I flinched and stuttered.

"Whatever," she hissed. I was apparently keeping her from curing cancer in the back because she spun around and stormed away.

"Well, fuck you then! You want people to come in here? You want to keep a business going? You better straighten out your goddamned attitude! I'd rather give that paraplegic out there a rusty pen knife and a Magic Marker than get a tattoo from you, bitch!"

That's what I should've said. What I said was, "OK. Thanks!"

I turned back once again when I reached the door and shouted into the interior of the shop, "Thanks!" with real conviction. "Maybe I'll come back."

I couldn't tell, but I think she was giving me the bird.

"Thanks," I said again, before scratching "Super Fly" off my list. My choices seemed to have been narrowed for me, and I was hoping that Lucky's would be more hospitable than the competition.

Lucky's turned out to be smaller than the other parlors. Every inch of the walls was covered in "flash" — images of tattoos, painted on paper and hung up on the walls for customers to choose the designs they want. The flash here wasn't mass-produced and ordered from a magazine, like the flash from a lot of the shops I'd frequented. I was impressed to find the flash was authentic and original hand-drawn art.

I was poring over the designs, looking for something that could be spread out over a large area, when a thin guy wearing a long-sleeve pullover and glasses walked to greet me.

"Hi," he said. "I'm Dan."

It occurred to me that Dan looked more like an assistant professor than like the other tattoo artists I'd met.

"You looking for anything in particular?" he asked.

I was looking for bold patterns, and Dan suggested Japanese-style tattoos -- the wide shapes and dark background would be perfect for concealing the line drawings I had acquired when I was young, and the bright colors in the foreground could blend in with old bland tattoos or completely hide them.

After talking with Dan for a couple of minutes I met Ford, another artist who shared the space. Both were nice, laid-back, and funny, and I made my appointment to start a cover-up process that would take almost 30 four-hour sittings -- and two years -- to finish.

In the course of all those agonizing hours, I saw a lot of people come and go. Fading beauties would try to recapture their youth by getting dolphins marked into the small of their backs. (I came to know these tattoos as "asshats.") Tough men -- "trained killer" types -- would puff their chests out upon entering, only to shake like puppies shitting peach pits when the needle hit their skin. If Dan was already working on someone when I came in, I'd hang out for the hour it took him to finish up. (The majority of customers in Lucky's were military men and women who wanted a small symbol to show off to their friends.) And in the time it took Dan to do a day's work on me, Ford could breeze through two or three cartoons, sunflowers, or sailing ships.

At the three-hour mark I'm usually looking for things to wrap up, but I always push on to prove I have big, swinging balls. One day, we went for six hours straight, until Dan noticed that one of my eyes was continually shut, that my mouth was frozen open, and that my eyebrows were fixed in a V that spread over my sweaty red forehead.

"Uh, maybe we should knock off for the day," Dan suggested and snapped his rubber gloves off. I agreed and peeled my white-knuckled fingers from the arm of the chair.

I started the sleeves when I was 25 and finished last year, just after my 27th birthday. Over that time Lucky's Tattoo closed down and the artists scattered to different shops. I followed Dan from Lucky's to About Face Tattoo in Oceanside, then to his apartment. Because of fallouts between Dan and shop owners, I never knew if I'd have to meet him downtown, in North County, or in his kitchen. Wherever we worked, Dan would pass the time by complaining about the state of the tattoo industry. As a rule, he said, studio owners kept half of everything an artist brought in. Owners rarely worked in their own shops, and some never showed up at all, except when it came time to collect their share of the earnings. Dan talked about teaming up with Ford -- they'd worked together for years, tattooing in different cities in Florida and California before settling in San Diego, and almost always consulted each other on design, composition, and color before beginning a new job. Together, they'd open a new studio. But while it seemed like a natural step, the financing, and the added responsibility, seemed daunting.

While Dan and Ford considered starting their own business, I was starting to tire of mine. I'd grown sick of the commute, the office, the porn sites I'd been surfing instead of getting down to work. Before my company could fire me, I jumped ship and concocted a plan to backpack through Europe.

Stopping off in my hometown, I ran into Jess, my best friend from high school. Noticing my tattoos, he asked me to go to one of the local tattoo studios and hang out while he got one of his own. I was surprised to discover three shops had sprung up during my long absence, and curious to see if there were any good artists working in the small town, I agreed to go with him.

Jess had wanted to get a stylized, wallet-sized eagle etched onto his back and decided to add some furled yellowed banners engraved with his son's name and birth date. The artist designed an arrangement in which one banner sat above the bird while the other ran below. It was a solid design, with dark browns and amber colors that complemented each other well. I had my misgivings about the parlor Jess had chosen -- the tattoos looked cheap, with spotty colors and shaky lines -- but the eagle was so small and so bold, I didn't see how the artist could mess it up.

When it was finished, I asked Jess about the date he'd chosen.

"That's his birthday," Jess answered, looking in a mirror.

"No," I corrected him. "Donovan was born in 2002, not 2200."

"I'm always doing that," said the artist. "I write 2300 instead of 2003 on my checks all the time," removing all doubt that he was, in fact, dumber than toast.

That winter, my high-visibility tattoos would cause a stir at Heathrow airport, where I was detained for eight hours by British border authorities. They told me they had to check on my financial status -- that they didn't want me to sneak in and start working under the table. But they kept me in custody even after I showed them my bank statement and plane ticket out of the country. By the time they'd released me, I made a mental note to wear long sleeves when crossing borders.

While I was schlepping a backpack through Europe and doing my best impersonation of a homeless man, Dan and Ford had finally opened their own parlor -- 7 Seas Tattoo, on Tenth Street in downtown San Diego. They called it their experiment in communism, because, unlike the owners of shops they'd worked in, they didn't take money from the artists who worked there. Instead, each artist paid an equal share of the rent.

"Honestly," Dan told me when I arrived back in San Diego, "I have to put money into this place every month. But, I'm finally working for the right reason, not to make someone else money, but to do good tattoos."

The first time I stepped into 7 Seas I scanned the walls for all of the things I think are important to a tattoo studio. Long ago, I might have looked for surgeon's soap, an autoclave sterilizer, and plenty of rubber gloves. I may have sniffed around for the unsettling aroma of ink and alcohol. But somewhere along the line, I learned that anybody can buy these things and scatter them around a store.

Today I know that what separates a fine tattooing establishment from the scum-bum scratcher shops is the decorative art on the walls. Now, the three things I look for in a good studio are a jackalope, fez hats, and a small, white, ceramic kitten with one paw up in the air and the other paw holding Japanese coins -- a little statue you can see in any number of Asian restaurants and markets. It might be superstitious, but if these items are in place I feel as though I'm dealing with true professionals.

While touring 7 Seas, I kept coming back to a spot on the wall that displayed a Lady Luck illustration. I thought it would be perfect to cover up a faded blue tattoo I had on my calf. The tattoo showed a little skull. The skull was smoking a joint. It was the last decrepit tattoo from a youth I wanted hidden.

The Lady Luck is a traditional-style tattoo. Sometimes called "old school," these tattoos were made popular in the 1940s and '50s, but they've seen a recent resurgence in demand. Traditional tattoos are simple shapes and symbols with thick outlines and a limited palette of color -- if you think of the old circus sideshow freak, the Tattooed Man, his ink is the original style of American tattoo. The ships, bluebirds, and arrow-pierced hearts that were once paraded as oddities have now become de rigueur.

Pinup girls are another hallmark of vintage tattoos. These scantily clad ladies are all the rage with old perverts who can make girls dance the hula across their forearms by wiggling their fingers. You, too, might have had a lecherous old uncle who got his tattoo "back in the war" and practiced for days to get her hips to shimmy just right. It was required back then.

Pinups come in all shapes and styles, but the Hula Girl, a native in grass skirt and coconut bra, is probably the most well known. Sailor girls, boxing beauties, and even the Statue of Liberty have all claimed their place on the wall as standard pinup girls.

Lady Luck is another pinup girl, but she ain't no hussy. She smiles at you from atop a pile of fortunate items, winning cards, dice that always come up seven, a horseshoe. In her stockings, a wishbone around her neck, a rabbit's foot, a shamrock for her hair. She is so laden with good fate that, if her clothes happen to have fallen off, she doesn't mind in the least. She is a classic, and to possess her is to have the fates smile on your ass for eternity.

I had to possess her.

Dan told me the Lady Luck was Ford's flash, and I asked Ford if he would put it on over my old marijuana-toking skull that had been tattooed into my right calf when I was 15. Ford jumped on the phone and began rearranging his schedule to accommodate my request.

"It's about time" is what I thought. Finally, an artist who treats me with the respect I deserve.

"You don't have to postpone appointments for me" is what I said.

"I know," he said, and shattered my royal ego. "I just want to do that tattoo, and I've never had the chance."

While Ford customized the drawing, I sat in the storefront, bothering the other customers and talking to Dan about the work he'd been doing.

"I've had some good luck lately," he said. "A lot of big pieces on people's ribs, backs, and legs."

All of those years of slaving over tiny Tasmanian devils has paid off for Dan, who now looked forward to the workdays he used to dread.

"I'm not as successful as Cartoon or those big-name guys, but I don't really want to be," he told me.

(Mr. Cartoon is the most expensive tattoo artist in America. Rumor has it that it requires a $100 deposit just to schedule time with him, and the work itself costs a $1000 minimum. Eminem, blink-182, and 50 Cent have all paid big money for Cartoon's talent with black-and-white prison-style tattoos. He is the latest trend among stars and L.A. debutantes.)

"My favorite artists are, like, Ed Hardy and Philip Leu," Dan continued. "The best in the business, who people have never heard of."

Just then, Ford came to the front of the shop to ask my opinion of the elements I'd like in my tattoo. Eight ball or checkered flags? Poker hand or blackjack? Once we'd settled on a design he invited me back to his area in the shop, drew out the final rendition, and copied it to transfer paper. When it was ready to go and I'd hiked my pant-leg up, he called out to everyone in the shop.

"Hey, everybody come here and check out Ollie's old tattoo," he said.

Four people stopped what they were doing and walked to the interior of the studio to mock me.

"I was just a kid," I said, defensively.

"No, no. That's a sweet design," another artist said. "A skull, in a fedora, with a doobie."

He could barely get that last word out through his laughter.

"Thanks," I said. "Can we start, please?"

"Hang on, tough guy," Ford said as he walked to the fridge.

"Are you getting drunk before you put this on?" I asked.


"What are you drinking then?"

"Pickle juice."

For all the weird shit I'd seen in tattoo shops, I'd never thought I'd see someone drinking pickle juice before sitting down to work.

"I love it," Ford said. "I'm addicted to it. My mom used to hide it from me, but I savor it."

A tattoo is put on outline first, and the liner machine can use from three to nine needles in a bunch. That might sound like a lot of needles to group together, but the tool is actually thin and sharp, and the separate needles are indistinguishable without a jeweler's loop or magnifying glass. When applied, it feels as though it's cutting the skin open and can be the most painful part of getting a tattoo. The color and shading are done with larger groups of needles -- up to 30 at a time. By this time the skin is numb from the shaking, and compared to the liner, the broader needle configuration feels like a gentle rubdown. The worst part by far is getting rubbed with the paper towel. Every time the needle splashes ink, or blood oozes out, a paper towel is employed to clean the offending area. It doesn't take long for the towel to feel like sandpaper, scrubbing against the wound.

But when I was lounging atop a creaky massage table, with my leg shaved, and Ford transferring the drawing to my skin, I couldn't get the pickle juice out of my head. "Who would've thought?" I kept repeating to myself. "Pickle juice!"

"You ready?" Ford asked, and turned on his machine.

"Yeah," I answered, thinking only of the green brine he'd sipped from the jug, instead of the big hurtin' I was about to receive. Then I looked down at my leg and watched Ford's sharp liner drive into my flesh.

Half an hour into the project, severe boredom tends to set in. This is counterintuitive: Having metal plunged into the outer layer of your skin several thousand times a minute may sound stimulating, but without something to read or watch on the tube, the act is void of intellectual amusement. This is the point I was at when Dan appeared before us, holding a transfer paper with some sort of design scribbled on it.

"Look at this shit!" he said.

"What the hell is that?" Ford asked.

"That's the outline of a tattoo a guy down the street just put on someone."

He turned the sheet over in the light so Ford and I could see.

"Is that a Marine emblem?"

"It was for a Marine. But look at the words."

Ribbons above and below the logo read "Stregnht" and "Discpline."

Some poor bastard was going to carry those around with him for life. I remembered my friend Jess and thought of how he'd felt when I pointed out that some hungover junkie had screwed up his son's birthday.

"He just put that on someone?" Ford asked.

"Yeah," Dan replied. "He was laughing about it too. Apparently, the guy brought the piece in and asked to have it done."

"Doesn't matter. It's his responsibility to check," Ford said, pointing to a desk where counterculture books sat alongside a copy of Gray's Anatomy, an Encyclopedia Britannica, and Webster's American Edition.

"You ever misspell a word?" I asked.

"A girl's name," Ford replied. "I couldn't check to make sure it was right; the guy told me it was and I believed him. But he had to have it fixed after that."

"I have nightmares about that," Dan said.

Dan left, and Ford got back to work on my leg. Occasionally, he'd turn away to dip the needles in ink, and I'd lean up to check on the progress. The pain was immeasurable -- what I thought was the halfway point had actually been the beginning. When Ford took a quick break to sip more brine from his pickle jar, I stamped my left foot and flailed my left hand and waited for the feeling to return. In order to give Ford a steady surface, I'd had to remain in one position for several minutes at a time. Another discomfort I had forgotten about in the year since finishing my other tattoos.

At the three-hour mark, the pain became insufferable. My skin was working to close up the tiny wounds, but Ford's mechanical hole-puncher was still working to reopen them.

"Almost done, Ollie," Ford said, as he was dipping his needles in a small tub of colored ink.

"Good, because I'm almost burnt."

The only thing left to do was color a horseshoe in with yellow ink. But every time I thought it was finished, Ford would look down critically and find another bit to touch up. Much as it hurt, I didn't open my mouth -- it would have been rude, and it would have robbed me of the best tattoo I could get.

When Ford finally did finish, he sprayed the new tattoo with green surgeon's soap and wiped it with a paper towel. Then he beamed over it. That this was a design he'd wanted to do showed in the quality of his work.

My cover-ups were finished at last.

Pictures were taken, and I showed my new tattoo off to the customers and artists in the shop before rolling my pant-leg back down over the burning, scoured area. I felt the pride of having a new piece of permanent art inscribed on my body. And while hobbling back through the shop, I scanned the walls for my next tattoo. After all, I still have some unsightly bare skin left.

  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it


Sign in to comment