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Tattoo shops flourish in San Diego, and pretty much always have. Customers used to be perceived, correctly or not, as coming from predominantly military, blue collar or “outlaw” (bikers and ex-cons) backgrounds. In actuality, practitioners and aficionados come from every conceivable social strata, though the clientele for these highly regulated businesses has shifted sharply toward a young, non-military rock and roll demographic in recent years.


Heavily inked bands like blink 182, Limp Bizkit, Suicidal Tendencies, Motley Crue, Pantera, Biohazard and Bad Religion are poster children for the growing new tattoo nation and skin art has already surpassed fad status and is practically a mainstream form of expression among 18-25 year olds. tat2

Images used most often are stock (predesigned) rather than custom (based on a client’s design or request). Flash sets, collected sheets with design illustrations, are sold and traded among tattooists and customers looking for the ideal mark, as well as being available from several catalog sources. tat5

Color sets are usually most expensive at a couple hundred dollars per twenty. The same money will get you around thirty or more black and gray design sheets. One set usually includes images grouped by themes, such as “reapers, wizards, fairies, moons, lizards, Egyptian eye, demons, tribal, dolphins, angels, mermaids and fire dragon.”

You can find collections of these flash sheets in bound books and hanging on the walls at most tattoo shops, and most include rock related images like guitars on fire, band logos, intricate copies of album cover graphics and similar iconography.

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San Diego native Judy Parker of Pacific Tattoo on Main Street has been creating tattoos for twenty two years, having begun as an apprentice downtown where tattoo parlors have long been concentrated. “Everyone has flaming guitars, drums, bass, all kinds of instruments. Mostly I just do people’s favorite groups like Kiss, Ozzy Osbourne, things like that. I do the word Kiss with the images of the faces of the characters in each letter.”


She’s also recreated album covers for fans of various bands. “Right now I’m doing one of Great White where I’m changing it so it’s more military. It has a mermaid being pulled up on a fishing hook but I’ve changed it to an anchor.” She mentions a tattoo version of an Ozzy Osbourne cover, but almost reluctantly. “I mean it’s okay but it’s not one of my favorites. I prefer underwater scenes but I do what I’m told because that’s how I make a living.”

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Parker has inked for several local musicians but most of her rock tats are done for fans. “I did a Stevie Ray Vaughan portrait. Kiss and Rolling Stones tattoos probably are the number ones I would say. But I get the newer ones that I’m not even familiar with because of my age group. I’m forty and I’m doing things with Bush, bands like that.”


The Ink Spot in Pacific Beach offers sample designs like a skeleton playing guitar, a mouse playing a flaming sax, a flaming skull with crossed guitars, a flying drum, WB’s cartoon Tasmanian Devil bursting through some drums, a skeleton playing a fiddle similar to Phil Garris’ album cover for the Grateful Dead’s “Blues For Allah” and bloodshot eyeballs popularized by 60s poster and album cover artist Rick Griffin. There’s also an iridescent scarab logo made famous by concert poster painters Mouse And Kelley (on albums by Journey and others), variations of which seem to appear at most tattoo shops.


The Inkers Tattoo Company on El Cajon Boulevard near College Avenue has sample sheets which include the usual comic strip swipes and tribal logos as well as some standard rock icons - a flaming guitar, a flaming skeleton playing guitar, flaming music notes, another Journey scarab (yes, with flames), a dragon wrapped around an electric guitar and an old bluesman wearing a long trench coat and playing. Brooklyn transplant Hammer says custom jobs are more popular at his shop than generic stock designs. “For awhile we were doing Social Distortion with the skeleton, that was happening all the time.”


He shows me a striking recreation he did of the album cover for Jethro Tull’s “Broadsword And The Beast,” featuring a Tolkeinesque Ian Anderson wearing Robin Hood tights and sporting butterfly wings, draping his wizened hands across a jewel encrusted sword. “The guy’s in the army, I’ve done a lot on him. That took over three hours and we charge around a hundred dollars an hour.”


He’s also done tattoos for members of Epitath and Sledd while others in the shop have worked on the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Regarding Sledd, he says “I did a drum set for Dino [Deluke]. That’s actually his drums, right down to the nuts and bolts. You can see the wing nuts on the adjustable stands.”


Asked how he got involved in tattoing, Hammer says “Like most people I guess. I was in construction at one time and I managed a titty bar, but I used to do [tattoos] as a hobby, kind of a side thing. When I got to the point where I could do it pretty well, people said ‘hey, you should get a shop.’ So I got some equipment, got some inks and started working for the guy who used to own this place. One thing led to another and I ended up buying it.”


He says that few local tattoo artists are formally trained in art and that it’s very much a self taught and apprenticed profession in most instances. “Some of these kids that get into it now, they’ve done three tattoos or they’ve worked out of their garage and they think they can open up a shop. They may be able to do a tattoo at half the price we do but it’s half-assed work. Their shops don’t last long.”


Jonathan Loveless at Escondido’s Art Throb Studios reports that logos are popular with his customers. “Kiss, Korn, Aerosmith, Van Halen. One guy got an Eagles tattoo, the cow skull from their greatest hits album. Someone else got the Boston album with the spaceship on it. A Yes album, many Metallica albums, where we use the skulls, and a lot of Judas Priest.”


Some clients want to imitate the look of a specific rocker. “At a shop I used to work at, a guy came in who wanted the exact same sleeve as Nikki Sixx. They had a pictorial done in a tattoo magazine they wanted to copy. The Chili Peppers armband, Anthony’s, I’ve seen that done many times, or the thunderbird on his back.”


Downtown on Broadway for years, Superfly Tattoo’s display books had wide array of designs and photos, including some nicely rendered music notes done in pointillistic fine dot patterns and designed by Tom Donovan. A photo of one custom job showed an impressivley realistic electric guitar owned by the customer and rendered by Berny Fortini with a colorful flaming sun background and flashing lightning bolts. “This tattoo was a lot of details,” she says with a rich Italian accent. “It took me three hours and a half.” She mentions having done a Guns ‘n Roses logo back in Italy.

Master Tattoo - for years operating on 5th Avenue - was a local fixture since just after WWII, calling itself San Diego’s Oldest Tattoo Parlor. In the late '90s, their shop selections included the ubiquitous flaming guitar, a singing Tasmanian Devil, a skeleton playing an ax-shaped guitar that drips blood, a drum set, music notes set against a rose background, more Rick Griffin eyeballs and Journey scarabs and a buxom half naked woman playing guitar and wearing black tights.

Hiro Lynch’s father founded Master at 317 F Street in 1949 and now, several downtown locations later, Hiro ran the venerable shop with his brother Maurice. “We worked on Rob Halford, the word ‘pain’ right across his belly button. He was doing a concert at the time and came in,” he says, showing me a photo of the former Judas Priest singer. The gray haired Lynch says he had no idea who Halford was but that his nephew Gilbert, who did the tattoo, clued him in. “He’s 32 and he’s hep to all the modern music. [Halford] had a nice visit, he’s a real swell guy.” He says that around eighty percent of his shop’s business is military, due to his downtown location and large selection of service related designs.


Most of the business done at other parlors involve civilian trade - males and females (evenly split, many shops report) in their late teens and twenties. At Ace Tattoo in Ocean Beach, a store name which dates back nearly as far as Master’s, current owner Gary Hoag says “I did a lot of rock and roll stuff in the eighties. A lot of guitars, a lot of drumsticks.” He’s done a Rat Fink tattoo (by legendary hot rod cartoonist Ed “Big Daddy” Roth) for Buddy Blue, who then wrote a song called “The Inker Man” for Hoag.


“You know what the biggest logo for tattooing is? Got to be Led Zeppelin. I’ve done the Man On The Hill [from Led Zeppelin #4 aka ZOSO]. In the 80’s when we were in downtown San Diego, nine out of ten guys said ‘I want the [Led Zeppelin] Swan Song logo.’ And the Rolling Stones tongue. I’ve done Prince’s logo a couple of time.”


One of his past clients is the late comedian Flip Wilson. “Believe it or not, I tattooed the head of his [penis].” Somehow, I manage to resist asking how many penises he’s done.

Hoag has also been asked to immortalize revered real life instruments as tattoos but this isn’t his favorite gig. “It’s really hard to do a guitar because of the strings. I try to talk them out of it, I tell them the strings are transparent anyway, but people still want it.” He does enjoy reproducing album graphics. “I’m getting ready to do Iron Maiden right now, ‘The Number The Beast’ on this guy’s back. We get a lot of people who want their zombie character, Eddie.”

I talk to Casey Loewen after his nearly three hour session with Hoag (he estimates two more rounds before the tattoo is finished). “It’s Eddie standing over the devil, and he has him on puppet strings, and then the devil is standing over a little dude and he’s on strings too.”

Located on his mid-back and the same size as the original LP cover, he says this is the first tattoo he’s gotten in ten years. Both of his older tats are rock inspired. “I was listening to Guns ‘n Roses so I’ve got this cowboy skull with a gun and on the other side of my arm and I have Bon Jovi’s tattoo, the cow skull with the feathers hanging off it, the same one he has on his shoulder.”


So why, after ten years with no new ink, Iron Maiden’s “The Number Of The Beast”? “It just popped in my head one morning, ‘I’m going to fill my back up now.’ ”

The most up to date information about the business of skin art is circulated via newsletters like Skin Scribe from the Alliance Of Professional Tattoists. Topics covered include legislative attempts to ban tattoos (usually for health related reasons - tattooing is still illegal in several states), tax information and financial shelters, disease prevention and ways to limit liability in the event of accidents or lawsuits. The APT in fact offers its members a group insurance program which covers things like negligent scarring and other liabilities peculiar to the profession.

tat1 As often discussed in tattoo literature, there are risks associated with tattooing. Complications can include allergic reactions to the ink, existing skin disease flare-ups and keloid scarring. There’s also the risk of infectious disease, to both the inker and the inkee.

In 1987, The Journal Of Applied Bacteriology published a study which identified twenty-two different diseases which can be transmitted with needles, such as syphilis, malaria, tuberculosis, leprosy, blood poisoning and both hepatitis B and C. Becoming wiser about sanitation and disease control, conscientious tattooists had already long since stopped using the same needles on multiple subjects and had been sterilizing all instruments.

According to the Center For Disease Control, there has never been a case documented where someone contracted AIDS as a result of getting a tattoo, with the exception of some prison applications where no sterilization occurred and pigments and needles were re-used and contaminated (prison “ink” is often comprised of little more than burnt checkers and cigarette ashes).

Those applying the tattoos don’t seem to be much at risk of contracting HIV from a customer. “It takes 100 microliters of blood and intramuscular punctures to transmit the HIV virus,” says the APT. “Since the needles used in tattooing are ‘solid core’ (not hollow like a syringe) and HIV doesn’t live outside of our bodies too long, [HIV transmission] is unlikely.”

Statistics reported in the Journal Of Infectious Disease suggest that the odds of getting AIDS from an accidental needle puncture are one in 50,000 - a tattooist would have to stick himself once each time with that many customers to be sure of contracting the virus.

Steve Gilbert, a veteran local inker, says “A friend of mine who had worked successfully as a tattoo artist for over eight years recently quit tattooing because she was afraid of getting AIDS. She had tattooed a man who later died of AIDS...she had accidentally scratched herself with a contaminated needle.”

Though the woman tested negative for HIV, Gilbert says that “The doctor, who considered tattooing an abomination, did his best to frighten her by telling her how dirty and dangerous it is.”

“In spite of popular concern about AIDS,” says Gilbert, “the most serious potential complication of tattooing is still hepatitis B,” a much more virulent and infectious disease. It was in fact a hepatitis B epidemic (supposedly from improper sterilization and contaminated pigments) which caused the New York City Board Of Health to spearhead a successful effort to outlaw tattoos there in 1961.

Most everyone in the tattoo community agrees that the safest way to go is to have an autoclave, a sterilization machine which kills infectious organisms by using heat, steam and pressure at over 270 degrees Fahrenheit. Other accepted methods include gas (ethylene oxide) and dry heat sterilizers.

In addition, licensed shops offer “Single service,” which means that each needle and tube set to be used has been individually packed, sealed and sterilized. All materials used in the process including gloves are disposed of immediately after use, usually in a puncture proof plastic container.


The lingering social stigma and slight medical risks of getting a tattoo can be daunting enough for a prospective client. Taking off a tattoo however has become much more simple thanks to advances in laser treatment. Laser removal can be done as an outpatient procedure and it usually leaves very little scarring, though color variations usually remain. A successful removal depends on factors such as the age of the tattoo, the depth of the ink, the kind of ink used, tattoo location and the individual’s healing abilities.

Smaller tattoos can be removed with excision, where the tattoo is surgically removed and the surrounding skin is pulled together and sutured. Larger images can require skin grafts from elsewhere on the body to fill in the excised area. Other methods include dermabrasion, where the skin is frozen and then peeled down and “sanded” with an abrasive rotary instrument.

Cover-ups with additional images and pigments can also be done in nearly all cases, limited only by the imaginations of the tattooist and the customer.

tat9 Marc Herer is not a professional tattooist but he owns a tattoo gun and says he’s done over twenty tattoos on various friends, each of them the exact same design - a Suicidal Tendencies logo. He shows me his own, done on his lower left calf - deep blue interlocking letters rising in 3D relief from an oval metallic base. “A Suicidal tat is the first one a lot of people get,” says Marc. “It kind of introduces you to the culture. Anyone who sees it and is into it, they say something to you, and the next thing you know it’s like you’re in a club and everyone in the club is getting ink done.”

I mention that out of five people I’d met with Suicidal Tendencies tattoos, three of them said it had nothing to do with the band. It was a prison gang mark. “That’s a fairly recent thing, I think. I didn’t hear of that until around last year and I’ve been doing Suicidal tats for five years. I do know that they’ve got a program now where they have volunteer plastic surgeons do free removals or cover-ups if someone’s in jail or they want to get a gang tattoo off them.”

“There’s a big convention downtown now,” he says, referring to Steel-N-Skin, a skin art and piercing showcase event occasionally put on at the Concourse Convention Center by PB’s Ink Spot. “There was a guy in the contest whose whole back was Suicidal stuff, with a border made of bones and something like fifty different individual images in there. It was cool but he was this little guy, really short, so you had to squint really hard to see them.”



Cure tribute band the Cured have spun-off a second homage group, Still Ill, performing the music of Morrissey and the Smiths.

Singer Virgil Simpelo (aka Voz) is a Morrissey look-a-like, who also creates comic books published by locally-founded Sypher Art Studios. “I think I have somewhat the same skull structure as Moz has,” he tells me, “and the same eyebrows that help me produce a similar voice…yes, eyebrows play a key role.”

Tony Montegu, bassist for the two groups, says “I knew that the Cure and the Smiths would be a great match for gigs.” Each band averages $1000 per show, with most venues willing to book both tribute acts on a single bill.

Though just recently formed, Still Ill has already seen lineup changes. “The lead guitarist was too young and inexperienced,” says Montegu, “so he moved behind the drums. But then he had too much conflict with Voz and was let go…I asked another friend to play drums, and here we are.”

Still Ill appears November 3 at 710 Club, which frequently books tribute-themed events. The band hopes to attract Morrissey fans disappointed by the singer’s June 3 Viejas concert, which ended early amidst audience jeers. “After Morrissey's last appearance here,” says Simpelo, “I think his fans deserve the encore they paid for.”

Within hours of that June show, fans at Morrissey-solo.com were ripping the former Smiths singer a new one for cutting his set short, leaving the stage without a word to the crowd, and skipping out on encores (for the only time so-far this tour).

“How Soon is Now is the most over rated Smiths song, and to end on that just plain sucked. I've seen Moz many times since ‘91, and this was the least entertaining. He was booed after the no-show encore.” (Bob)

“Tonight's performance just plain sucked…I think his ego is starting to affect him, he has no respect for his fans.” (Tuvok)

“The security was moronically tight and the sound was a nightmare, it sounded like an alarm clock stereo.” (Anonymous)

“He seemed like he was pissed off all night…like he hated everything.” (VK)

“He left in the middle of a song, the lights came up and Frank Sinatra started playing…I want my money back!” (Mel)

“Who the hell does this guy think he is?” (Anonymous)

One fan, Xrebirthx, blamed San Diegans for the poor performance. “I think the crowd was really harsh by booing him and chanting, ‘culero, culero, culero.’”

According to Encarta, “culero” is “a highly offensive term for somebody viewed with dislike or contempt.” It's also slang for homosexual.


Some local venues have earned bad patron reviews at user-written websites like clubzone.com and bookit.com. Please note these are unsubstantiated claims made by anonymous club patrons, and so should be taken with a grain (or pillar) of salt:

Pacific Beach Bar and Grill: “The place reeked of testosterone. Fights were breaking out everywhere, and my girlfriend got grabbed by the neck and some guy tried to force her to grind him. He got beat up [be]cause of it and we didn’t stick around any longs [sp].” (bookit.com)

“Their music sucks, DJ can’t even mix the music well. Floor near the bar was sticky!” (bookit.com

Typhoon Saloon: “Overflowed toilet, sticky dance floor, weak drinks, ugly dudes, dorky girls.” (clubzone.com)

J Bar, downtown: “I…was viciously assaulted...at the bar. I was accused of fondling some guy’s girl on her left butt cheek. The mix up was cleared up after I took the beating.” (bookit.com)

Stingaree, downtown: “On Saturday January 27, I was beaten up outside the Stingaree nightclub...we used their limo service, ate at their restaurant, and reserved a table at their club. [They] dragged me outside away from the cameras and beat me senseless. They sent me to the hospital with lacerations on my face that were stitched up. They also fractured some bones on my face. I have bumps and bruises all over my face and head.” (bookit.com)


Some of you may be aware, from my past Reader features, of my girl Danielle (aka Dee), convicted in Vista for being an accessory to an Escondido murder and currently serving a life sentence in Chowchilla prison.

Seeing a loved one on trial for her freedom – losing – and then choosing to stick by that loved one, you can’t imagine what this is like just by reading what some reporter writes or from watching TV courtroom and prison dramas.

The first women’s prison I had occasion to visit was CIW, California Institution for Women, just under two hours north, in Corona. A lot of longtime lifers are interred there.

I was startled the first time I turned around in the visit room to find myself face to face with Manson family killer Leslie Van Houten, whom I recognized from a TV special I’d seen just a few weeks before (when a loved one is imprisoned, you watch a lot of documentaries about prisons).

Van Houten’s mom visited often and I talked to the small, fragile woman a few times. Inmates aren’t allowed to handle money and the old lady had arthritis and couldn’t get coins into the vending machines, so I’d help her out. We’d chat while the inmates lined up for periodic restroom breaks (taken all together, under a watchful guard’s eye).

Van Houten’s mom fascinated me – what must it be like, I wondered, to live every day knowing the rest of the planet thinks of your loved one as a notorious murderer, a monster?

Van Houten’s mom never revealed much insight into anything other than the best bus station cafeterias, but we had commonality and instant rapport as if we were kin in a big cozy clan, attending these weekly family funerals.

The first time I saw Susan Atkins at CIW, I was displeased to find myself sitting across from her as we ate our hot lunches. I kept recalling the unspeakable bloody crimes committed in the name of her onetime god Manson - I did not pass her the ketchup.

Atkins (now 52) claimed to become a "born again Christian" in 1974 and has since married a Harvard-schooled lawyer, often seen in the visit room with her, and she even has a website where supporters (??) and admirers (?!?!?) can email her.

She’s been turned down for parole ten times (her lawyer-husband represented her in 2000). In June 2003, Atkins petitioned the state to reduce her sentence because over the years she’s become a “political prisoner.” Her petition was denied. Van Houten has had fourteen parole denials.

Remind me to tell you some other time about my encounters in the prison visit room with husband/mistress killer Betty Broderick ------

Like this blog? Here are some related links:

OVERHEARD IN SAN DIEGO - Several years' worth of this comic strip, which debuted in the Reader in 1996: http://www.sandiegoreader.com/photos/galleries/overheard-san-diego/

FAMOUS FORMER NEIGHBORS - Over 100 comic strips online, with mini-bios of famous San Diegans: http://www.sandiegoreader.com/photos/galleries/famous-former-neighbors/

SAN DIEGO READER MUSIC MySpace page: http://www.myspace.com/sandiegoreadermusic

JAY ALLEN SANFORD MySpace page: http://www.myspace.com/jayallensanford

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