A trip into the Massachusetts tattoo underground reveals that it isn't so far under ground after all
By Camille Dodero
OCTOBER 18, 1999: A tattoo wound oozes like cut fruit, and right now Andy Biagini's right shoulder has the complexion of sliced watermelon. It's a glossy mess of crimson ink, irritated skin, and microscopic punctures. Over the next few days Andy's upper arm will flake and peel, and in a few weeks his skin will have healed into the image of a bursting sun. At the moment, though, Andy's shoulder is still fresh and goopy.
But he is not behaving like someone with an unbandaged abrasion. Sitting in his kitchen, the 30-year-old is twisting around on a stool, cracking open a can of Red Dog, talking to his friend Tom, and generally playing the role of a party host, which in fact he is. He and his wife, Sherry, are having a tattoo party, and there are 12 guests milling around their house, several of them eating chips, drinking beer, and waiting to do something completely illegal.
One of them, Andy's 23-year-old brother Steve, is having that illegal thing done right now at the dining-room table. One sleeve of his MARTHA'S VINEYARD CREW T-shirt is scrunched up to his shoulder, '50s greaser style. His exposed triceps is being cupped firmly by a hand in a latex glove; another gloved hand holds an electric tattoo machine above Steve's arm. The hands belong to a ponytailed man who calls himself Tex, who three hours earlier used the same machine to make hamburger meat out of Andy's shoulder.
Tex dips the ends of the machine's needles into a rubber thimble of black ink that rests on the table. Then he uses the machine to trace the outline of a flag on Steve's arm, the plunging needles injecting black pigment into Steve's epidermis. Tiny dots of blood bubble up through the skin's surface. Tex lifts the needles to wipe away the clotting blood with a cotton pad. When he looks up, Sherry is pointing to her husband's gooey shoulder and making a face.
"Andy, go wash it now," Tex says.
"Okay," Andy answers dutifully. He stands up, sees Steve's pale face, and can't resist teasing his brother a little.
"Why're you so quiet?"
Steve sighs. "I really don't feel like breaking out in song."
When I first heard about tattoo parties in Massachusetts, I didn't know what to expect.
As trendy as tattoos are, they still carry the scent of the outlaw -- the accumulated outsiderhood of generations of inked bikers, sailors, and convicts. And that scent is particularly strong here in Massachusetts, where tattooing has been against the law for 37 years. The nearest legal tattoo parlors are over the border in New Hampshire and Rhode Island, and considering that many of these establishments are pretty sketchy -- even though they're regulated by the Board of Health and employ licensed artists -- I figured that underground tattooing would be, at the least, extremely seedy.
Except for one thing: the people who kept telling me about their tattoo parties weren't bikers. They weren't even edgy urbanites. They were friends of my family -- suburban folks with mortgages hanging over their heads and swing sets in their South Shore backyards. These people, as far as I knew, weren't into amphetamines or scarification. They had kids in dancing school and dogs named Pal. And they lived in residential neighborhoods like the one I'm driving through on my way to the Biaginis' tattoo party.
It's about 10 minutes past three on a Sunday afternoon in early September, and I'm following a 35-year-old father of three in his pick-up truck. He's leading me to the tattoo party -- an event Sherry and Andy have agreed to let a reporter observe. The scenery makes me feel as though we're paying a visit to Old MacDonald: cows grazing by an eroded silo, two SLOW CHILDREN signs, a blinking yellow light, a farm stand, and, nailed to a roadside elm, a wooden sign bearing the hand-painted word ANTIQUES.
Accidentally driving past the party location, my guide turns around in the driveway of a church. We finally pull into a yard with a streetside red-flag mailbox. There are three cars and a mini-van already parked here. The air is fragrant with fresh-cut grass.
At the front door, I'm greeted by a pierced bellybutton. It belongs to Sherry, a petite blonde. Finding a piercing here in Pleasantville is like being in a foreign city and spotting a Red Sox cap -- it's the familiar among the unfamiliar, a wink of recognition. And, to us, it's a sign that we're in the right place.
I follow Sherry into the vestibule of the split-level house and up a set of stairs. She points diagonally behind a grandfather clock, over to the dining-room table, where Andy and Tex are seated. Andy has gelled black hair, is bare-chested, and looks like a Grease-era John Travolta. Tex has a silver handlebar mustache, more salt than pepper in his ponytail, and a weathered face that reminds me of actor Tom Skerritt. In his right hand, he holds what looks like an electric fountain pen but sounds like a drill; with his left hand, he cradles Andy's upper right arm. From my angle, it looks as if Tom Skerritt is tightening Danny Zuko's shoulder.
Pointing to the man on the receiving end of the drill bit, Sherry does the introductions: "His name's Andy, and he's wincing in pain."
Then she motions to the ponytailed man with the tool and says, "You know Tex."
Tex knows a handful of other underground tattoo artists in the state, but he can't think of anyone else who does it as a full-time job. For him, he says, the journey began with a bad tattoo that he got in his Nova Scotia hometown when he was a teenager. That's when he decided he wanted try his hand at ink slinging. So he paid monthly visits to a shop in Toronto, hoping to learn the trade. And within a year, the shop's owner took the 18-year-old under his wing as an apprentice. Eleven years and thousands of customers later, Tex worked his first tattoo party in the Bay State.
"I met some guys off the Bar Harbor ferry," he says, "and we all got along well. They hung around for a few days and then they invited me down to Massachusetts to visit the Wareham area. So I made a trip down the following spring and then started coming down two or three times a year, doing these tattoo parties for just a handful of guys and their friends. They kept wanting me to come back."
At that point, Tex did what any businessman would do: he recognized an obvious demand and met it. He moved to Massachusetts 17 years ago and soon established his own business as an underground tattoo artist. His business even has a name: Clean and Sober Tattooing.
Legally or illegally, Tex has been involved with body art for 31 of his 49 years. In the world of tattooing, he's considered an old-timer, a "grandaddy": he's been in the trade for all these years, he's spent time working in shops all along the East Coast. He's also a member of 12 tattoo associations. He's been a judge at "Marked for Life," the annual convention of female tattoo artists held every January in Orlando.
These days he does four or five parties a week. And he's booked solid through next February, with a long waiting list of people hoping to get in sooner than that.
"Ninety percent of my business," he says, "is repeat business. Word of mouth, that's all it is. When people see the work, they're like, 'Wow.' They're happy with it."
And the people at the party seem to agree. In the middle of the afternoon, Tex beckons Sherry over to the dining-room table. "Sherry, I've been tattooing your family for what, about five years?"
Sherry: "Yep, it's been at least five years. And we've had you do body-piercing, too."
Tex: "And you've never had a problem with anybody or anything, have you?"
Sherry: "No, that's why I have you do it. Everybody's always been happy with their tattoos."
Tex: "It makes a big difference who does it."
Sherry: "I know. I've been very, very faithful to you, Tex." She turns to Cheryl, a mother of two, who got the cartoon character Ziggy tattooed on her ankle at the party. "Tex's done all four of my tattoos."
Cheryl: "He should have bumper stickers that say, 'Tex is the best!' "
Tex: "I do."
Actually, his bumper stickers proclaim that TEX IS THE TATTOO GOD, but the gist is the same. Tex has a loyal clientele and, like any businessman, he's not shy about self-promotion. He's got business cards. Bumper stickers. Refrigerator magnets. And if you reach his answering machine, the message is clear:
"Hi, this is Tex. Sorry I'm not here to take your calls right now, but I'm somewhere on the road pushing ink."
Not everyone's work is all that good, however. With no state sanctions or Board of Health inspectors monitoring the field, tattooing in Massachusetts is extremely inconsistent -- and potentially dangerous. For every Tex, there's a fistful of mediocre tattooists, people either who have little training or are entirely self-taught.
An untrained tattooist is known in the business as a "scratcher," the industry's equivalent of "hack." Despite the unseemly reputation of scratchers, people go to them for various reasons -- primarily because they're cheap. Tex's rates, for instance, aren't too different from those at a legal parlor in Providence: at the party, he charges $90 for a three-inch shamrock on a forearm and $35 to retouch two faded flags on a biceps -- in general, just a shade less than what you'd pay for similar work in Providence. A scratcher can and will dramatically undercut both prices. But, of course, there are risks involved.
"They order equipment out of the backs of tattoo magazines," says Shana Simpkins. "And they don't know what they're doing." She's not speaking just from the perspective of a paid artist, but also from that of a customer. "It's short money, real cheap, and they [the customers] will see [the tattooist's] work on somebody else and figure that the guy's all right. That's what happened to me.
"I went to this guy in Lawrence who works out of his house. And you know what his cards said?" She pauses, and then bursts out, " 'Big Daddy's House of Pain'!
"But everything seemed right. I had seen his work on a friend from college and it was pretty good. He seemed cool, he had an autoclave and a copy machine. It was a good deal, real, real cheap.
"I had two silhouettes of a cat done on my shoulder blades and it didn't hurt at all. I had them for a while and then I realized they were totally off-center. Then when I started learning more about tattooing, I realized that it [the procedure] didn't hurt because the guy used the wrong set of needles on me."
Simpkins says, "People just figure a tattoo is a tattoo, but it's not. And that's why people get fucked."
At the Biaginis' party, during a conversation about tattoo prohibition, a woman named Leigh interjects: "Wait, you're not supposed to get tattoos in Massachusetts?"
There's a prolonged silence, and no one seems sure how to respond. Finally Kurt, an employee for the town of Hanover who has stopped by to book his own party for February 2000, coughs. "Well, there's no tattoo parlors."
"Does that mean it's illegal?"
Yes, Leigh, tattooing is illegal. But clearly there are degrees of illegality. A drug dealer who operated like Tex, with an answering-machine message that told callers, "I'm out on the road pushing crack," wouldn't be on the road for long. Tattooing is more on a par with, say, fireworks: you can drive over the border to get one, and there's little crackdown on illegal activity.
There's so little crackdown, in fact, that when I call a court employee to ask if anyone has been prosecuted for illegal tattooing in Tex's jurisdiction, she laughs. "I don't know how you'd find that out," she tells me. "Maybe it would be under 'prosecution of obscure laws.' "
Marie-Eileen O'Neal, a house policy coordinator in the Massachusetts Bureau of Health and Quality Management who has been dealing with tattooing for the past year, hesitates before responding to the same question. "You've got me," she says. "I've been asked a lot of questions about tattooing in the past year and that's the first time I've been asked that one. I've never heard of anyone being prosecuted. If there is an underground practice, it's itinerant, so law enforcement would only get involved if someone complained about it while it was in progress."
But according to Tex, Massachusetts law enforcement is involved. Very closely involved: sometimes they're the ones getting inked.
"I've tattooed police chiefs in the state of Massachusetts," Tex says. "I've tattooed a couple of staties, but they've got too much cornstarch up their ass. I even did a couple of federal agents, and they're not supposed to have any [tattoos]."
"The cops know all about these guys," says Shana Simpkins, "but they don't care. They know it's a retarded law that shouldn't even be on the books anymore." She hesitates and then admits, "Even a cop I knew wanted me to tattoo him here in state, but I never drew him up anything."
As for Tex, he'll even go so far as to alert the cops he's coming to town. "Usually, before a party, I'll phone the police department or one of the guys on the force and say, 'Hey, I'm working such and such.' Yeah, why not?
"In Weymouth one time, I did a party for a whole family of brothers. One of the guys asked me, 'Do you mind working on police officers?' And I said, 'No, not at all.' He said that some of the guys who worked at the police department, which was across the street, wanted to get work done. So I said, 'Holler out the window and tell them to come over.'
"So they called over. One guy came over to watch me work. He was in uniform and on duty. His wife wanted one. He was asking the normal questions, 'Is everything clean?', all the worry questions. Then he called his wife over, and she got a peach from an Allman Brothers album cover. She was real happy with it. He wasn't. He really didn't want her to get a tattoo. He had called her over figuring that once she saw the operation, she wouldn't get one done.
"I do several parties for these same people. Next thing you know, I've got a sergeant there, getting one that he got in the Navy redone. And I've got a lieutenant standing there, next in line.
"Then this guy who was upset with his wife [for getting the peach tattoo] comes to the door. He's joking around with the guys, but he's not crazy that his wife's got the tattoo. He looks at me and says, 'Well, what would you do if I was to bust your ass?'
"And I said, 'You're going to have to wait for me to finish the sarge first. Then, my gear is safe here, I've got a houseful of cops, so I'm going to walk across the street, I'm going to pay my fine, and I'm going to come back here, and I'm going to say, 'Next.' "
Some guests, like the Ziggy woman, show up with their own tattoo designs in mind. Others find their tattoos by flipping through Tex's dog-eared portfolios, a series of leather-bound booklets with hundreds of laminated design sheets displaying a vast repertoire of possible images: suns, dragons, butterflies, coyotes, tribal art, buxom nude women, zodiac signs, animals with horns, fangs, and pitchforks. There's a demonic Sonic the Hedgehog, a blood-soaked Michelin Man, and -- my personal favorite -- a Big Bad Wolf sodomizing Little Red Riding Hood.
And all the while there's somebody glued to the kitchen chair, biting his or her bottom lip, silently praying to God (or, in Andy's case, "the gods"), and pretending not to be fazed by the permanent staining of his or her skin. Gradually, partygoers become desensitized to the tattooing procedure, and by nine or 10 at night, the person in pain is peripheral to the party itself.
Over the course of the party, 25 people stop in, 11 people are tattooed, and more than $650 in cash changes hands. The police don't show up. The most excitement comes at 9 p.m., when a woman drops her can of Red Dog on the floor. ("She's a three-beer drunk; she'd be a cheap date," Tex later jokes.)
There has always been a social element to getting a tattoo, so on some level it makes sense for illegal tattooing to take place in this setting: in a house, at the dining-room table, among friends and family. And for the most part, a home is more comfortable and less intimidating than a cold, stale legal parlor.
Given the intimacy and aesthetics involved in getting a tattoo, choosing a tattoo artist is analogous to choosing a beauty salon: people take their business to the places their friends and families recommend. And that's why Tex doesn't worry about competition or legalization. As long as he's left alone, illegality doesn't constrain his lifestyle or his grassroots enterprise. And the arrival of legalized shops wouldn't remove the engine that drives his business -- his word-of-mouth relationships with people. Considering the permanence of a tattoo, that's more important than a license.
"I do what I want to do," he says, "and that's that."
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