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.
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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.

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.

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?"

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