The closest I ever came to getting a tattoo was when my girlfriend offered to put up $500 for one, so long as it had her name in it. Long before that, I’d sailed the oceans with the U.S. Navy and spent many an hour waiting in alleys of “gut” districts in the sooty port cities of the Mediterranean while my buddies got marked with roses, Coppertone girls, and the name and hull number of our ship, U.S.S. San Diego AFS-6. In the same alleys I waited for the same buddies to take a few minutes with the ladies of the flesh economy, another indulgence I miraculously avoided.
In the ’90s, I toured in rock bands, and a day off in Boston could mean a band road trip to Providence where, again, I would sit around flipping through hot rod magazines while my bandmates got inked by some guest-spot, hotshot tattooer from the West Coast.
So, when my editor said he needed a story on the tattoo scene in Charlottesville, I said, “Yeah, no problem.” Finally, all those hours hanging around tattoo parlors would get put to use. A few weeks into the assignment, I had done nothing toward the story because I had no idea how to get interested in the subject. I had always avoided getting a tattoo like I avoided Brussells sprouts and hornets nests. How could I know when I was going to have kill someone on a beach one day, in broad daylight, wearing only a bathing suit? Anyone could identify me as the guy with the Vargas girl tattooed on his shoulder blade.
After some thought, I realized I had never gotten a tattoo for the same reason that tattoo artists devote their lives to making them. They’re permanent, irrevocable symbols of what you believe in. Contemplating that commitment, and the related responsibility unique to the tattoo artist, made me realize that I actually wanted to hear what they had to say about their world.
So I went out and talked to Lacy Weeks. In 1982, Weeks opened what was, as far as he knew, the first tattoo parlor in Charlottesville. It was on Water Street. He was not allowed to have a sign. There was little or no regulation in the tattoo business, and his clientele was comprised of bikers and fringe elements. There were no tattoo TV reality shows. Body piercing was still isolated to places like San Francisco and Central Africa.
A couple years later, because of the paucity of tattoo seekers in C’ville, Weeks moved his business to Roanoke and then to a very small town in West Virginia where he cared for his ailing mother. He landed back here a few years ago and now runs Mystic Tattoo and Piercing at the bottom of Pantops. In a way, he was the trailblazer for tattoo artists in Charlottesville.
A lot’s changed since 1982. The tattoo business is feast or famine. Through the ’90s everybody, their brother, and their mother wanted to be inked. The hippies got dolphins and unicorns. The tough guys got barbed wire and tribals. The gangsters got their sons or the names of their homies. Remember the Chinese characters? Oh, yeah, sorry to bring that up. It means rice noodle not eternal dragon.
Anyway, these days the masters of ink spend as much time fixing art as making it, but the path of the tattoo artist is the same as it’s always been. People drawn to using the human body as a canvas, wanting to make art their lifestyle and celebrate the impermanence of the flesh.
I chose the three artists profiled here because of their reputations and, at least in one case, just because I wanted to talk to the guy. I asked girls around town sporting conspicuous and eye-catching work where they had had it done. I cruised work posted online by these and other artists. I went to their shops and perused their wall flash and thumbed through their portfolios. These are the three who stood in stark relief from the rest of the pack. They are all committed body artists and each holds a deep reverence for the history, mystique, and deeply personal nature of their ancient craft.
Flash Gordon, jeans tucked into boots, wearing a ballcap that has shaded him from many a summer sun, in the middle of yard chores and reluctant to meet the press in his day-off duds, collared his eager dog and scoped me with a jaundiced eye as I stepped out of my car at his studio, Flash Tat-2, a few miles south of town on Route 20. Among the not-yet-fixed-up antique American sedans scattered about the property was a styling, black, early ’60s Cadillac limo, which, according to information Flash pulled from the DuPont registry, was once owned by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.
“Glad to see you’ve got some frost on the roof,” he said, turning his eye to my gray hair. “If they had sent some kid out here I probably would have run him off.”
Among the numerous interviews and feature offers from local press he has declined, Flash claims to have spurned Channel 29 three times over the years.
“One of the old time tattooers told me that in the tattoo business the best press is no press at all,” Gordon said.
Flash migrated to Albemarle County from Northern Virginia in 1978.
“There wasn’t but three tattooers in the state of Virginia, that I was aware of. You pretty much had to be near a military base to make a living tattooing. You couldn’t give a tattoo to a college kid back then,” he said. “It was very rare to see anybody who wasn’t from what we called the bread and butter list.”
A list made up of bikers, GIs, and hot-rodders.
Flash held various side jobs and tattooed at different places in and around Charlottesville, even returning to Northern Virginia parlors for weeks-long guest spots. He eventually set up his own shop at his county home 20 years ago.
“I’m the only one here,” he said. “No flunkey tattooers, no walk-in clients. I work by appointment only.”
In a way, Flash is connected to tattoo royalty. He did his first tattoo on himself with a sewing needle and ink.
“And it wasn’t bad,” he said. “But, I got my first professional tattoo from Carol Nightingale in D.C.”
Nightingale is renowned for receiving a patent on a tattoo machine in 1979—the first patent issued for such a device in 50 years—and for writing the novella, The Tattoo Baron. The next time Flash went back to Nightingale’s shop it was closed for the night, but he was directed to a studio around the corner where he got a tattoo from Joe Farrar, a partner to Johnny Walker who had worked in Hawaii alongside legendary innovator in the Traditional American style, Sailor Jerry Collins.
Traditional American is the name for the art sailors and bikers used to sport: pin-up girls, hearts, eagles, a bottle of booze with a pithy phrase like “My Ruin,” or Betty Boop. It is distinguished by simple, bold lines, black shading, and concrete images, done in high-contrast colors, like primary hues of red and green.
“I feel fortunate at my age to have experienced the tail end of the old school tattooers,” Flash said.
Flash started hanging around the seedy D.C. tattoo shops where the likes of Farrar plied their trade, trying to learn the craft through dogged observation.
“The old timers wouldn’t show you much because it was such a closed world,” he said.
Flash also prides himself on being a pioneer in tattoo hygiene and health standards.
“I started wearing gloves and using disposable, cross-contamination barriers about five years before the dental industry used the techniques as common practice,” he said. “That was a bigger contribution to tattooing and dentistry than just about anything else I ever did. I should have figured out a way to patent the technique.”
A lot of the work Flash does now is cover-ups of poorly-done tattoos that people are tired of living with. The advent of digital photography has made it easier for guys like Flash to cover a shoddy or regrettable work. By being able to see a high-definition photo of a tattoo instantly, Flash can, before the customer comes to his appointment, examine it thoroughly before developing a strategy to cover it, “like it was never there.”
“I’m not a custom work snob,” said Flash. And he has an extensive collection of flash art, almost all of which he painted himself. His own portfolio is a mixture of ingenious cover-ups and a wide-ranging array of styles from Traditional American to detailed renderings of tribal texts and symbols.
“I don’t post photos of my work online because there is so much piracy,” said Flash. “I’m protecting my customers, so that they don’t have to go out and see 20 other people with their tattoo. I strive for perfection. I put my best effort into even a dime-sized tattoo.”