Black Ink and Mohawks

Chapter 2

“Are You Glad to See Me, Or is That a Tattoo Machine in Your Pocket?”

“Stay on right side road, good. Stay on left side road, good. Stay in middle of road, get squashed like grape!”                                                                                                                             

 -Mr. Miyagi

There’s an old Zen thing, “Before you study Zen. A tree is just a tree. While you’re studying Zen. A tree is no longer just a tree. And when you are done studying Zen. A tree is just a tree.” 

Three weeks had gone by and I decided it was time for me to get my tattoo touched-up. It healed pretty good. except there was a spot of black missing in the “Spade” on my pinky finger. 

So once again, I ventured into the tattoo shop. I walked in, there’s that damn smell again! I was getting goose bumps this time, no, really, I was. Anyway, I walked up to the half door and this time she was on the phone, she saw me and motioned that she would be off in a minute. I was sure she recognized me. 

The first time I was there we talked about art schools and how I was attending Colorado Institute of Art, and how she wished she would have went. 

I was sure she remembered our conversation. I knew it couldn’t have been because I was the dumb-assed kid who botched his hand up with a needle and thread. It was. She told me to come on back and have a seat. 

“How’s life as an art student?” she asked. Okay, maybe it was both. 

“Pretty good” I told her. 

“I knew this would need a touch-up,” she said. “Hands are hard to heal”. 

During the three weeks it took for my tattoo to heal, I started noticing how many people have tattoos. During those weeks of healing, I also had the idea that maybe I should look into learning how to tattoo. The right way. 

If I was going to be an artist, shouldn’t I be able to use all mediums available to me? Well it sounded good on paper anyway. 

So while I was sitting there getting my tattoo touched-up, I got my nerve up and asked her how one got to be a tattoo artist. 

“Lots of practice!” she told me with a laugh. “Well, you have to do an apprenticeship. It takes about two years“. She said, “You should come down and talk to Peter. He’s always looking for new talent”.

“I probably don’t have time right now. I’m really busy with school. I go five hours in the morning and I usually have five or six hours of homework at night,” I told her. 

She finished my tattoo and told me I should come by and talk to Peter anyway. I told her I would try. I never did.

  The next day at art school, a fellow student and I got to talking. He had several tattoos and I told him I wanted to learn how to tattoo. But that I didn’t have time to do an apprenticeship. 

“You don’t have to go through all that,” he said. “Why don’t you get a ‘tat gun’ and you can practice on me!”

Looking back, I see now that my path had already been chosen for me. And I took it, hook, line and sinker! 

I pulled out my stack of “Easyrider” magazines and started looking for tattoo equipment advertisements; I knew I had seen them before. I found several, but one stood out more than the rest. 

“Spaulding & Rogers Mfg. Tattoo supplies and Designs. Send Five dollars for our brand new catalog of revolutionary tattoo machines and designs.” 

I sent my money away and waited impatiently for the mail to arrive. 

Two weeks later, on a Saturday morning my “Spaulding & Rogers” tattoo equipment catalog arrived! 

I tore into the big manila envelope with shaking hands and perspiring forehead!  I opened up the catalog and saw to my artistic delight all the cool “thing-a-ma-jigs” you can use to tattoo with.

That square chrome contraption thingy is called a “Tattoo machine head” and that needle part that she put into it, has two parts, a “Needle tube” and a “Needle bar”. 

All the tattoo designs on the walls of the studio are called “Flash”. And the little plugs she put the ink into were called “Ink caps.” That made sense.  

“Spaulding & Rogers” had everything I needed to start my tattoo career. Or so they claimed. I figured out what I needed to practice my new found art medium with. Then I pulled out the price list. 

“HOLY SHIT” I yelled “$160.00 for a Tattoo machine head. $25.00 for a needle tube!” No needle bar. Just the tube, the needle bar would cost me another $5.00! 

And so it went. A bottle of black ink, or “Pigment for outlining” was $12.00...per 2 ounces! 

Well that is that, I thought. There is no way I can afford this stuff. And just like that, my dreams of tattooing came to an abrupt end.

I went back to school on Monday and told “Grasshopper” how much a “tat gun” was going to cost. 

“There’s just no way I can afford this tattoo thing,” I told him. “The government is paying for my schooling, my parents can hardly afford all my art supplies, and I don’t have the time to work a job to make any money. So I guess I have to put this off until I finish school,” I told him. 

A few days later, I went down to the drug store to get the new issue of “Easyriders”. I never missed an issue back then. The magazine sure isn’t the same anymore. Now it resembles an issue of “GQ” for Harley-Davidson “Riders”. 

Gone now are “Miraculous Mutha” and even the David Mann centerfolds. Choppers aren’t even the same anymore either. Now they all look like pimped out police bikes that are painted by the same company that makes “Skittles” candy. 

I knew things were going to change when Haley-Davidson started selling tennis shoes! Tennis shoes for the Christ’s sake!  

I went home and settled in to read my new issue. I got four or five pages in, and there it was! 

“How I built a homemade tattoo machine and tattooed my friends. 

by: Stinky Pete” 

I read the damn thing eight times. It even gave instruction on how to build your very own “tat gun” so you could tattoo your own friends:

“First take apart your old worn out cassette recorder, find the motor and detach it from said cassette recorder. Take apart an old used “Bic pen“. 

Cut the pen as shown in diagram A. DON’T cut all the way thru or you will have to start all over again. Melt the pen, flatten and bend it as shown in diagram B. 

Now attach the bent and flattened ‘Bic’ pen to the cassette recorder motor as shown in diagram C. It is best to use electrical tape, you’ll need more later anyway, but duct tape will work in a pinch. 

Now dig out the ink cartridge from the trash that you carelessly thru away and cut off the ink tube from the tip, save that ink tube, that‘s good tattoo ink in there! 

Now take a pokey thing, anything will work, just so long as it will poke out the ball in the end of the “Ball point!” 

This all sounded simple enough. The article continued.

Poke out the ball, be careful. This is the tip to your  “Bic pen needle tube” and is a very important, so don’t muck it up! 

Now jam it back in the end of the bic pen as shown in diagram D. 

Now go out to the garage and find your Aunt Donna’s old Spanish guitar, and hope it has the E-string still attached.  Now take it off the said Guitar. Be very careful not to bend it, as you will be making all of your tattoo “needles” with it, so keep as much of it in tact as you can. 

Go back in the house and take a break, you’ve worked hard up to this point and you probably need a beer” 

I really did need a beer.

Now that you’ve had a beer and can concentrate again, find a pencil, an old yellow number two with a new eraser will work best. Now take your buck knife and cut off said eraser. 

Now go get a band-aid! 

Now that the bleeding has stopped, take the eraser; wash it off if you got any blood on it. Blood all over your new “tat gun” will not look good to your friends, especially if they see it before you start their tattoo.

Again, that made a lot of sense. I could tell this “Stinky Pete” knew his shit.

Now take said eraser and attach it to the cassette motor as illustrated in diagram E. Unroll  the E sting you got off the guitar, DON’T cut it yet! Take one end of it and bend it like the letter L. 

This next part is tricky, so you had better have another beer handy!  

I went and got another beer. 

Now you have to measure how far you want the E string, your ‘tattoo needle’ to come out the end of the ‘bic’ pen, your ‘needle tube.

What? Okay he was right it is getting tricky. So I drank the other beer and read that last part again. Then I plodded on.

Measure down about seven inches from the end you bent into an L. Most of you will need a ruler or tape measure. 

I don’t care what your ol’ lady told ya, so pull up your pants. This needs to be fairly precise, so measure it! Now cut the E string off. Slide the portion you cut, down the bic pen and shove the L part into the bottom third of the eraser, refer to diagram D.

Okay I get it now, the eraser acts like a cam making the needle go up and down. Ol’ Stinky was on the ball here! 

Now let your ‘needle bar’ hang out the end of your ‘needle tube’ you only need about a quarter of an inch. Cut the E string. Now your ‘needle’ should go up and down and only come out a quarter of an inch or so. 

            Throw that one away because I know you screwed it up! You should have plenty of E string left, so just make another one. 

Now take the E string out of the ‘tat gun’ so you can sharpen your new ‘needle bar‘, you’ll need the matches you used to melt the pen. See the part where you strike the matches, sharpen your ‘needle’ with that. 

If you threw your matchbook away, don’t stress out! You can always use the smooth concrete floor in your garage. Pick a clean spot! 

Now that your “needle is nice and sharp, slide it back in your ‘tat gun‘. Be very careful not to ‘hook’ your needle.

I see how it works now. This was not as hard as I thought it was going to be. I ran out to the garage and “found” an old cassette recorder. Well, it was old to me. I took it apart and got the motor out of the thing, without to much trouble and thank God no blood. Then I went in and got another beer and read some more.

Now that you new ‘tat gun’ is done, you need to find a ‘Power Source‘. Go back out to the garage and find your old train set that you had when you was a kid. 

If you didn’t have one, perhaps your older Brother did or maybe even your Dad. 

Now dig around in the box and find the power unit, you can tell that’s what it is by the plug cord hanging out of it. While you’re out there, you might as well get some electrical wire too, no sense making more trips than you have to. 

           Cut the electrical wire into two pieces, they should each be about four to five feet in length. Strip the ends, put one end into the power box where it says “to track” now use the left over electrical tape, and splice the other ends to your “tat gun” now plug your “power box” into the wall. You can use that dial on the box to control the speed of your tat gun.

So that’s how that works. This was making more and more sense to me.

You can use the ink in the old pen you took apart or better still, use what the pros use and go to the art store and buy some “India” ink! 

Now you’re ready to tattoo your friends! 

And don’t forget to tell them that it was ol’ Stinky Pete who got you started on you new found career as a tattooer!

Luckily I had a train set when I was a kid. I dug around in my closet and found the old transformer for it! I had the cassette motor and now I had the power box. My friend “Grasshopper” would soon have a new tattoo. 

But why stop there I thought, I could tattoo all my friends! Dollar signs were appearing before my eyes!

Black Ink and Mohawks

Chapter 1

Ah, the smell of green soap

       in the morning.

“You want to tattoo?

You’ll never make a living doing that!”

- My Friend Al

I knew as soon as I walked in the door and smelled the green soap and the alcohol it was all over. Or in my case, it was just the beginning…

I dipped the thread wrapped sewing needle into the Pelican India ink and proceeded to start the tattoo on my left hand. 

I had seen a painting by David Mann in an issue of Easyriders magazine, and the biker in the picture had all the suits of playing cards tattooed on the fingers of his hand. I knew that was the tattoo for me, I don’t know how I knew, I just knew.

A month or so earlier a friend of my best friend, was showing me his tattoo. It was the Zoso logo from Led Zeppelin, he told me that he did it himself. Amazing I thought. 

“You did this yourself, with a needle and thread? By hand? How long did it take you?” I asked him. 

“Couple of hours” he told me. 

“You’re an artist Frank, you think you can do one on me,” my friend Al asks me.

“Sure I’ll give it a try, it doesn’t look so hard,” I said. “What do you want me to tattoo on you?” I asked. 

“A little “Z” right here on the side of my calf. Think you can do it?” asked Al. “Yea I can do it,” I told him. Amazingly I wasn’t at all nervous about tattooing him, I should have been. I guess I wasn’t really getting what I was about to do to my best friend. And a couple of hours later there it was, a little Z on the side of Al’s calf. The first tattoo I ever did, on my best friend, that will last forever and never come off. He’ll never forget me, I thought. And he hasn’t. A month and a half later, it was my turn!

I started with the first finger on my left hand, the diamond. Now I was nervous. My hand was shaking, my forehead was wet with perspiration, my stomach was flip-flopping, but I held on and started pushing the sewing needle wrapped in thread into my flesh, one dot at a time.

It felt like that first line took me an hour, but I persisted and finally got half of the diamond done. Only three and a half more to go, I thought. Easy.

Poke poke poke with the needle, one little dot at a time. “Oh this isn’t going so well” I said to myself, still shaking and sweating. By the time I got half the outline done on my middle finger, the spade, I knew I couldn’t finish it. I got out the yellow pages and looked up tattoo parlors, the next day I was walking into Peter Tat-2’s.

There I stood at the door of Peter Tat-2 not knowing that as soon as I opened that door, my path would change forever. I pulled the glass door opened and walked in. 

The smell of green soap, vitamin A&D ointment and 70% isopropyl alcohol hit me in the face, my head started to swirl and… 

No. Not really. 

   But that sounded good. I still love that smell though, if they made an after-shave that smelled like green soap and A&D ointment, I would be the first in line. Note to self: Develop after-shave for tattoo market!

I started looking at all the tattoo designs in plain black frames mounted on the walls. Harley- Davidson designs, black panthers, skulls, dragons, flowers, black panthers with skulls and flowers, roses with skulls, skulls with roses shaped like skulls. They sure have a thing about skulls in tattoo shops. And they had tattoo designs of just about everything else, and skulls.

The tattoo “artist” sat in the back room watching TV. And smoking a cigarette, so I waited… and waited. And then I waited some more. I finally got up the nerve to go to the half-door and get her attention. 

“Excuse Me,” I said. 

“Can I help you?” she answered as she blew her nose into a paper towel.

“Yes” I said, “I would like to get a tattoo fixed”. 

“Come on back here and let’s have a look,” she said, still sniffling and whipping her nose with the snot soaked paper towel. 

I showed her my hand. She looked down at my half tattooed fingers and with a puckered look on her face said 

“WOW! Who did THAT to you?” Now I know this was only my second try at tattooing, but I didn’t think it was THAT bad. 

“Umm…I did it myself, with a needle and thread.” I told her, thinking that maybe if she knew how I did it she would give me a break on the artisanship. Not a chance.

“Well we really don’t tattoo hands here,” she shot back. 

“So you can’t fix it “I said. Always go for the ego when dealing with tattoo “artists”. 

“OH I can fix it. Did you want to do it today?” she asked. I know. If you have to ask how much, you can’t afford it. But I was a poor collage kid on a limited budget going to an expensive art school.

”How much will it cost to fix?” I asked. 

“Well our minimum is fifteen dollars, but hands are hard to do…so how does forty dollars sound?” 

I had forty dollars, and I mean exactly forty dollars. Twenty single dollar bills. And twenty dollars in change. I hope she needed quarters for the soda machine. 

“Okay. Can you do it now?’ I asked. 

“Sure come on back and have a seat while I set up.” I walked back and sat down in what appeared to be a beauty salon chair. 

“Sorry, but I have a cold from hell” she said. “I really shouldn’t be working, but I have a kid to feed“. Did you know that the health department says it’s illegal to tattoo while you have an infectious virus going on? 

I know that now, I didn’t know it then.

She pulled out a bath towel and laid it over her lap, and then she reached in a metal tray, pulled out the needles, and began to put them into this square chrome contraption thingy. 

“Is this going to hurt as much as when I tried doing it myself?” I asked. 

“It won’t take me as long as it did you” she said “But it’s going to hurt, hands are pretty sensitive.” So much for bedside manner.

The walls in the tattoo room had picture frames all over too, but these were pictures of tattooed people, actual tattoos on people and what looked like awards for tattooing. 

Plaques with the same chrome contraption mounted on them, only these were gold and had the name Peter Poulos engraved on them. There were six or seven of them all around the room. This Peter Tat-2 guy must be pretty good.

She put her chrome contraptions down and started to wash my hand. There’s that smell again. 

“What’s that?” I asked her. 

“It’s called ‘Tincture of Green Soap‘ we use it to wash the area to be tattooed,” she told me. She pulled out a pen and started drawing on me. 

“Do you want these colored in or just black? Colors are going to cost you more.” She said. 

“No. I just want them black,” I told her.

She reached in a small round metal container and pulled out what appeared to be a plastic plug they use in copper tubing. She wiped some Vaseline on the bottom of it and stuck it to a paper plate. Then she reached over and got a bottle of black ink and poured some in the little plug. Then she picked up the square chrome contraption thingy and plugged an electrical cord into it.

She stepped on a pedal and the chrome contraption thingy started to buzz! Sparks were coming out the top of the damn thing! 

And I thought ‘HOLY SHIT!  This is going to HURT!” She glopped some Vitamin A&D ointment on my finger and put the tip of  the chrome thingy to my skin. 

“Are you ready?” she asked. And before I could reply, away she went!

I held my breath and prepared for the worst. She finished the first line and started in on the second one. Is she going to stop, I hoped. But the more she tattooed, the more I relaxed Not so bad, I thought. I can deal with this. 

“Okay, there’s your outline. Now we’ll fill it in,” she said. The whole tattoo didn’t take fifteen minutes from start to finish.

When she was finished she washed my hand off with some more of that green soap. Love that smell. And 70% isopropyl alcohol, slathered some Vitamin A&D ointment on my new tattoo and called it done. 

“Keep it dry and out of the sun” she tells me. “Put some skin lotion on it a couple times a day and don’t let it scab over” And then she advises me to come back for a touch-up in two or three weeks.

I paid her my money, there’s that puckered face again. I guess she didn’t need quarters for the soda machine after all. I thanked her and walked out the door.

I had my very first tattoo, and my last I told myself. Little did I know, that tattoos are just like potato chips, you can’t have just one!

Continued next month!