Wise Blood

Drawing on the right side of the hip

The only difference between the tattooed crowd and someone like me was that the evidence of their shortsightedness was more apparent.

I wondered if the kid with the four-inch holes in his earlobes and the "Freedumb" tattoo across his chest would still feel that "flesh manipulation is the best form of entertainment for human beings" years from now. He was part of the sideshow organized by Boca Raton's 23-year-old body-modification guru, Joe Amato. Beneath the plastic tent in front of the band stage, the kid introduced himself as 21-year-old Alex Word. He was about to be part of a suspension show.

While a girl and guy played tug-of-war with a rope fastened to two hooks through the flesh of their backs, a guy with dreadlocks, lots of tattoos, stretched lobes, and one orange-and-black sock elevated Word with ropes attached to four-inch hooks in his chest and thighs and held him aloft. To hooks in Word's back, another guy with hooks in his back was suspended and spinning beneath him. Rivulets of blood began their journey to the plastic covered floor.

Inside, in the comparatively tame world of tattooing, I admired the nostalgic motivation of a 28-year-old Tequesta massage therapist; Amy Lachance's baby son's footprints adorned her abdomen. And I marveled over the fine detail of the classic image of the three graces on the back of 24-year-old family services case worker Cassie Lowrie. They'd found inspiration, but nothing spoke to me.

At the booth for Lucky 7, a tattoo shop in West Palm Beach, an artist was working lots of black ink into angular, tribal swoops on his client's shoulder. Kenny Dick, a former electrician, said he became a tattoo artist after a motorcycle accident caused him debilitating and disfiguring injuries. He said the work he'd done on a woman who'd been ashamed of her arms allowed her to wear a sleeveless shirt. "I gave her her femininity back."

I wondered aloud if he could transform the ugly scar on my calf, what remained of a nasty dog bite. He said he could.

"These days, there's no excuse to get a bad tattoo," said Dick's colleague, artist Jason Ackerman, citing the availability of online portfolios to assure the quality of the work and reputation of the artist. He himself had refused to do certain tattoos, he said, like a tulip under the eye of a preppy Boca kid. "I have a responsibility to the client to protect them from themselves."

Ackerman, art in motion himself, had just finished one of his signature "creepy little kids," part whimsy, part horror, on the upper arm of Jessica Gardner. As plasma oozed from the needle-traumatized skin of the 22-year-old's colorfully cartooned upper arm, she explained that she'd come up with the phrase "Forget Regret" and then left the rest of the design in the hands of her handsome, 32-year old artist. Her phrase had inspired the image of a bubble-eyed girl in a pink dress with mutilated stuffed animals at her feet and the offering of an apple in her hand.

Ackerman was so charming, earnest, and able that I was almost willing to let him shebang me all night long. But my own admission ended what could have been a beautiful relationship.

"If you have problems with commitment," he said, using my words against me, "a tattoo is definitely not for you."

Anyway, it was about time for my hosts, Slip and the Spinouts, to rock the rafters — or in this case, the suspension beam and the tent posts. Outside, I was re-united with Isola, who peeled back her pants to reveal a bandage, proof that she'd gotten her cherries. While my buddies rocked it I admired what had been done unto others — old school and new; the classic, tribal, morbid, divine, floral, and fantastic; the originals and reproductions; the colorful and the black-and-white. And suddenly, all the potential in what the art world would call my "negative space" seemed like a positive thing.

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