I walked into Body Marks Tattoo and Piercing on El Cajon Boulevard, a few blocks from the 805 and right next to a strip club. At night, hookers are walking the streets. A perfect setting for ink. This is how they did it back in the day, when only sailors and prisoners got tats.
My eyes spot the Von Dutch flying eyeball. How many people have that and don’t even know the history behind it? I ask the tattoo artist, Nes, if there are copyright laws prohibiting him from inking something that is trademarked. “No,” he says, “but we can’t display them or advertise that we do, or we’d get into trouble.”
I see some amazing works of art, many of which I think would look horrible on your skin, no matter how impressive the picture is.
I look through the poster rack at a variety of symbols, animals, and nude women. I assume that animals are more popular with women, and nudes more popular with guys, although singer Amy Winehouse and writer Diablo Cody (Juno) both have old-style pinup girls tattooed on their arms.
I see a woman with a butterfly tattoo on her back looking at piercings in the display case. And a guy behind me is talking about getting another tattoo on his already-covered body. He says to two other customers, “I have my kids’ names. And Norwegian ruins on my back. My wife doesn’t mind ’em, as long as I don’t get naked redheaded chicks.”
A guy sitting there says, “So, your wife wouldn’t mind brunettes, just not redheads?”
The guy behind me laughs and says, “She’s a little Italian gal. You don’t want to piss them off. She knows I have a thing for redheads. But she’s cool about the tattoos. Even if I want one on my head.”
I hear a woman say that all the buzzing from the tattoos being applied reminds her of airplanes during World War II. She doesn’t look old enough to recognize the sounds of any war but the current one. The buzzing reminds me more of killer bees finally landing in our county, but instead of stingers and venom piercing the skin, it’s tattoo ink.
I find out from talking to the artists that it’s not really ink. “Most tattoo inks aren’t technically inks,” says Nes. “They’re composed of pigments that are suspended in a carrier solution. Contrary to popular belief, pigments usually are not vegetable dyes. Today’s pigments primarily are metal salts. Some pigments are plastics. There are probably some vegetable dyes. The pigment provides the color of the tattoo. The purpose of the carrier is to disinfect the pigment suspension, keep it evenly mixed, and provide for ease of application.”
I watch as he works on someone. He dips his needle into different inks, much the way a painter mixes colors. This is done to make some things lighter, others darker. You can get any color you can want, other than metallic colors, or glitter — which probably only affects the few women that want a unicorn picture from their childhood.
Nes says, “I can even do tattoos that are only visible under black light.”
When I interviewed Judas Priest singer Rob Halford years ago, it was the first time I had seen tattoos on someone’s head.
A guy walks in, a friend of Nes’s. The entire left side of his head says “The Price is Right” with the dollar symbol. I ask why he’d do that and he says, “Nes is the one that does all my tattoos. I wanted The Price is Right, because of Bob Barker leaving, and it’s sort of my motto, my way of life.”
“You’d surely get on the show if you showed up,” I say. But he disagrees. “They’d never let me on the show looking like this.” He holds up his arms, with sleeves of tattoos. He’s probably right. Disneyland kicked out that postal worker who has his body covered in Disney tattoos (this after he refused to put his shirt on).
In one of the books on the counter, I see that some people use their bodies’ features to create part of the tattoo. There’s a guy whose nipples are the eyes for a face on his chest. The face is surrounded by skulls.
A sign on the wall says “Notice — No ID, No Tattoo.” Aside from the obvious over-18 law, I wonder what the reason might be. Nes says, “The health department likes to be able to keep track of everything. If something breaks out, it’s all documented.”
I glance around the shop and see a huge picture of a guy with the tattoo “UN Armed” on his knuckles. It reminds me of being backstage at an Ozzy show, seeing his name tattooed on his fingers.
There are skateboards on the wall, and I’m told that once in a while, someone has a sticker on their board that they want tattooed.
As we talk, Nes pauses. He asks me to sign a form, seeming reluctant. I remember when a morning radio show I once worked for had us skydive live on the air. The form for that said: “If you die, your family can’t sue us.” It freaked me out.
This form had all the things you’d expect regarding lawsuits, hepatitis, heart conditions, epilepsy, and bleeding disorders. The part about “use of photograph of the tattoo” makes sense. Some might be reluctant. A few years ago I read a story about Detroit Pistons forward Rasheed Wallace being sued. He has a tattoo on his right arm that was being displayed in Nike ads. The artist didn’t look at this as free advertisement for his work. He was just miffed he was paid less than $500 and that he didn’t benefit from the exposure.
The form also states that you can’t have any physical or mental impairments. But is someone who’s mentally impaired even aware that they are? Does agreeing to have my body tattooed, in my late 30s, with a woman’s initials, put me in that category? I signed it.
Nes smiles. He refrains from rolling his eyes when I tell him what I want. I say, “I thought the AC/DC logo would look cool, but with my initials, and my girlfriend’s.” I beat him to the punch by adding, “I know you’ve probably done a lot of cover-up tattoos on names, right?” Nes says, “I’ve done names, and a year later, I’m doing a tattoo over that when they’re dating someone else. I say ‘I told you.’ ”
The few tattoo artists here tell me cover-ups look great. Certain things like roses work well, because there’s so much going on it obscures the original tattoo. They all agree that cover-ups of previous tattoos are among the most common thing they do.
The tattoo is going to have our initials “KB/JB” with a lightning bolt in between. I have a huge scar across my stomach, and I want the lightning bolt to start at the scar.
Nes goes in back and draws the logo, looking at one of the album covers I brought in. He draws on tracing paper, and asks me what I think, before it gets put on my skin.
He cleans the area he’ll work on and slips on latex gloves. I say, “I guess you don’t spell names wrong, if you’re showing the person it first.” He says, “No, I never have. I have heard of people that have done Chinese characters wrong, and it spells something completely different.” I mention the story of Britney Spears in 2002. She got a kanji (Chinese characters used in a Japanese form of writing) that she thought meant “mysterious.” It actually meant “strange.” No joke needed there.
A young African-American kid is standing nearby with his friend. He’s a graffiti artist that goes by “Oper.” He says, “There’s a funny clip of Tupac Shakur giving shit to someone in his posse. The guy had a Chinese character, and Tupac said, ‘You don’t even know what that means! It probably says “two egg rolls” or something.’ ”
I ask Oper if he wants to get into tattooing, and he says he does. He’s 19, and I ask how many tattoos he has. “I don’t have any yet,” he says. “I haven’t decided what I want. But Nes has tattooed my mom. She had ‘older sister’ written in Chinese symbols. I’ve drawn a few, like my cousin’s skull. It’s graffiti-style. And I did lilies for my girlfriend that he tattooed on her.”
I asked if artists like Peter Max or Banksy have work that looks nice tattooed. Neither of them know who Max is, but Oper says, “Yeah, man, Banksy is dope. He’s got great stencils.”
At this point, a liquid is smeared on my skin. It’s green soap, and every tattoo shop uses it, and smells like it. It’s used both in the prep process and to clean the area afterward. It reminds me of an aroma you’d get in the hospital.
The tattooing gets underway. Nes asks, “How is it feeling?” and I say, “Not as bad as I thought. But I’ve donated 14 gallons of blood, so needles don’t bother me.” He says, “Well, I just did a few little lines first, so we could ease into it.”
When he kicks it up a notch, I can feel a burning and pinching sensation. It’s odd to see so much stretching of the skin. I notice there’s a lot of scrubbing, too. I’ve broken my arms four times over the years, and they would do that to clean an area of the skin. In tattooing, it’s used to fill in an area with ink.
I notice the ceiling tiles all have different graphics. “That’s a good idea,” I say. “You can give people ideas for future work.” Nes laughs and says, “That’s more to take people’s mind off the pain.” I glance down and see blood, and I ask, “Do certain people bleed different than others?” He says, “Yeah. It seems red-haired guys with pale skin bleed a lot more.”
I ask about tattoos on various races, if it’s more popular in any one culture, especially with so many hip-hop artists and rappers sporting ink. “No,” says Nes. “It’s pretty much popular everywhere now. Maybe less so in Asian cultures.”
Nes doesn’t do anything racist or gang related.
Oper’s friend says, “Man, I can’t believe you’re just talking and taking notes while this guy is tattooing you.” Oper says, “Yeah. When people usually have their first tattoo, they’re clutching something or squirming a lot. But it’s good you aren’t. Nes won’t finish on someone that’s crying.”
I ask if it’s common for people to freak out over the pain. Nes says, “Sometimes. I once was doing a dolphin on this woman. She thought it hurt so much, she wouldn’t let me finish. I had just done the tail. I tried to convince her to let me at least do the outline of it, but she wouldn’t.”
One thing he doesn’t try to talk people out of is stupid tattoos.
“If people know what they want, they obviously think it’s cool. If somebody has a real elaborate picture I might [try to talk them out of it]. Not because I can’t do it, but if it’s something like a ship, with a bunch of intricate lines, they’ll eventually bleed under the skin and it’ll be mess. You won’t be able to tell what certain things are. Lines always end up connecting if they’re too close together. When you tell them it’s too detailed, they usually say that’s what they liked about it. Sometimes I’ll try to talk a woman out of having a fairy tattooed on her stomach. I tell them it’s not going to look so good after time.”
What are the most painful areas?
“Where you are getting it done, on the side and stomach, and any part that bends — like the elbow or wrist. The upper arm is probably the least painful.”
I look down again, and think he should be farther along then he is. I notice beads of sweat on his bald head and ask if I’m distracting him by talking. He says no, so I continue.
I ask if he’s tattooed his family, and he says, “Yeah, both my mom and dad. He has a yellowtail tuna chasing a lure. He’s a big fisherman. And my mom has Hawaiian flowers around her ankle. She’s from Hawaii. My sister has a small dolphin on her shoulder, but I didn’t do it.”
The oldest person he’s inked was an 83-year-old ex-Marine who wanted a panther. And regarding age and weight gain, he tells me, “You can tell an older tattoo on someone. Things have gotten so much better over the years, and yeah, tattoos do fade eventually. Weight doesn’t affect things as much as you’d think. I have tattoos I got when I was 150 pounds. I weigh 250 now, and they look the same. I did all my own tattoos when I was learning. I practiced on my thighs. I’m going to wait a bit before I do more. I have some Japanese temple guardians. I got them because they say your body is your temple.”
It reminds me of how he went with the tag “Nes.” Earlier he’d told me how he wanted something easy to remember and a name that nobody else had. It stands for Never Ending Story, which is what his body will be as he continues to ink himself.
He’s been tattooing for seven years, after being an artist and having people who worked with tattoos suggesting he get into it. “I started helping out at their shops,” he says, “and basically being their slave.”
I ask if he notices older people looking at him differently now that he has tattoos. He says, “Oh, yeah, all the time. Before they were visible, I didn’t get those looks. So I know it’s the tattoos. But then, there were girls who didn’t talk to me. After I got the tattoos, they did. So I guess there is both positive and negative.”
Regarding women, I ask if he’s tattooed girlfriends.
“Yes, but here’s the thing. I don’t like girls with a lot of tattoos.”
I feel a bit of pain, and my body squirms. I’m surprised this isn’t happening more. Mostly, I’m able to lie still. I’m also surprised my pen still writes while I’m lying upside down.
A couple comes in, and I hear the woman tell her boyfriend about each picture and why she wants it tattooed. I ask Nes if he ever saw the ’70s movie Tattoo, where Bruce Dern is a vet who kidnaps a woman and tattoos her body.
I ask if tattoo artists all get along, or do they criticize each others’ work.
“Some artists only do their own pictures and designs,” he says. “They can be elitist and think they’re better than everyone else. There are street guys that just tattoo and make money, and sort of stick to themselves. Other tattoo artists get along. I just got back from a convention in San Francisco. You end up talking about it with other artists and trying to improve.”
A friend of mine with tattoos has mentioned Angelina Jolie and singer Amy Winehouse having horrible tattoos. I asked Nes his opinion on celebrities.
“Yeah, some are really sucky. A few got them before they were famous. But once you have the fame and money, why not hire a good artist? A friend of mine, a great artist, is being flown to L.A. to do one for Sylvester Stallone. He’s going to do a portrait of his wife tattooed on himself.”
When an actor or rapper gets big, and they have ink, does it make tattooing jump in popularity? Does it make people want that same design?
“No. And it’s been pretty popular for a while now. There’s a guy here at the shop that does a lot of rappers here in San Diego.”
I’m looking at an award from Channel 10, realizing tattooing isn’t as underground as it once was. Nes says, “Well, it all depends. I know a girl, and her grandmother tells her that she’s going to hell for getting a tattoo. Oh, here’s a weird story. There was one woman I remember tattooing. She wanted the Do Not Enter sign on her lower back. I guess she thought that was funny.”
I think it’s lame when someone has their name tattooed on themselves. I ask Nes what he thinks, and he agrees.
“Yeah, someone’s own name…I wonder what the point is. I do a lot of girlfriends’ and boyfriends’ names. I get bored doing tribal signs. They’re so common.”
Since my brother started a decade ago with a few, and kept getting more and more, I wonder if people get addicted to it.
“Yeah,” says Nes. “Some people get crazy ideas on what they want. I’ll sometimes do one, and they want more on it. I want to get a picture of it before they mess up what I think looks cool by crowding a lot of stuff in.”
We’re finishing up. I can’t help but wonder what danger inks can do to the skin. I ask what the tattoo ink actually is.
“You can’t be a hundred percent certain on what tattoo ink is.”
That isn’t comforting. Nes continues.
“Manufacturers of inks and pigments are not required to reveal the contents. A professional who mixes his or her own inks from dry pigments will be most likely to know the composition of the inks. However, the information is a proprietary trade secret. So, you may or may not get answers, even from them.”
My tattoo is being cleaned with the green soap and bandaged with something that looks like a miniature diaper. There’s that hospital smell in the air, and I look down, and it’s almost like I had a bullet extracted from my side.
I’m given a card with a list of rules about washing and using fragrance-free lotions twice a day. I’m not supposed to pick or scratch it. No ointments, gels, or petroleum products. And for the first ten days, no direct sun, swimming, or soaking.
I again make a joke about having a woman’s initials tattooed on me. He says, “I’ve had some people come in and have another thing done over a woman’s name. And it is like therapy for them. Other people have bad things happen in their life, and when they come in for a tattoo, it seems to take their mind off of their problems. It’s therapeutic.”
I tell him my stepdad had the name of his first wife, “Judie,” tattooed on his arm. He married my mom, who is named Judi. The letter “e” was easily made into a heart. It helped that the first four letters were the same.
As I walk out the door I tell Nes, “If we break up, I probably won’t be back for any cover-ups. I’ll just search for a woman with the same initials.”
— Josh Board