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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.

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