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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.)

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