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Point Isn't Lost on Tattooers--War Hurts

January 23, 1991|NORA ZAMICHOW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Sailors once chose anchors. Marines opted for bulldogs. And both branches of the armed forces fancied bosomy women.

Today, however, the Grim Reaper has made a comeback in tattoo parlors around San Diego County. So have patriotic tattoos. One sailor, who just returned from the Persian Gulf, created an Operation Desert Shield design--a map of Iraq with a target around it. Another sailor, before shipping out, went with his father to get matching religious emblems.

Even so, tattoo parlors are hurting--the unforeseen effect of losing more than 50,000 San Diego-area sailors and Marines to the Persian Gulf.

Business had already begun to tumble, but now it's tougher than ever, tattoo artists say. In the late 1970s, almost 20 tattoo parlors dotted downtown San Diego, known as the tattoo capital of the nation. Today, there are two downtown.

As the flood of Marines and sailors into parlors slows to a trickle, tattoo artists are welcoming more and more women, as well as increasing numbers of conventioneers, they say.

"Some people are born to want a tattoo. It's in the blood," said tattooer Kenny Ho at Tiger Jimmy's Tattoo Studio on Broadway. "And it's not like I torture you."

It looks like torture. At Master Tattoo Studio, also on Broadway, Lefty Al (who declined to give his full name) bent over Rick Stewart's right shoulder blade, etching a dragon into his flesh with an electric needle.

"It's like somebody taking a knife and dragging it across your skin," Stewart said. "Does it hurt? Not really."

But as the wing of the dragon took shape, 19-year-old Stewart reconsidered. "Yes, that hurt."

Tattoo artists have honed their skills over the years. They no longer work on people who are drunk, believing they are more likely to suffer adverse effects. They use sterilized needles. And they design anything from simple hearts to elaborate full-body tapestries.

Freddy Negrete, 34, first learned how to tattoo as a teen-ager in prison for gang-related activities. For most of the past 10 years, Negrete--who sports 54 tattoos over his body--worked designing coffee mugs, key chains and T-shirts.

"But I felt boxed in," Negrete said. "There's nothing like tattooing. You are doing something really wild. When you do some serious work on somebody's body, there's a lot to it."

Negrete works at Tattooland on Rosecrans, one of five studios outside the downtown area. Before the Persian Gulf crisis, about 75% of the clientele were military. Now, the parlor sees half that, said Negrete's colleague Neil Kotter.

But even before the major deployment, military personnel had begun to move away from tattoos--being a sailor is no longer synonymous with having a dancing woman on the biceps.

"You got out of boot camp and you were away from home, probably for the first time in your life, and a tattoo was a way of showing individualism, a way of saying I am my own person," said Cmdr. Doug Schamp, a Navy public information officer who has a red rose tattooed on his right hip. "But times change. A tattoo was the standard thing; now it's more earrings."

Schamp believes one factor may be that sailors can now wear civilian clothing on base--lessening the need for people to distinguish themselves in other ways.

Today, tattoos have become more widely accepted in the civilian world and no longer are seen as exclusively the mark of a sailor. Now, college students and adults in their 30s and 40s are drawn to the studios, where small tattoos usually start at about $25.

To accommodate this more diversified clientele, tattoo artists are coming up with more varieties of designs. One college student recently requested scenes from every war, from the revolution to Vietnam, that had involved Americans. One man had a message etched on the sole of a foot: "Dear Mr. Coroner, I think my feet smell fine--how about you?"

Lefty Al, who has plied his trade for 50 years, sighed as he explained, "There is no one popular tattoo any more--people want weird things now."

Tattoos, some say, are good markers of life changes or emotionally significant events.

"At first, it was rebellion," said Ted Winters, 25, an unemployed civilian who got his first tattoo seven years ago. But Winters was quickly hit with what is known in the business as "tattoo fever" and he now sports 10 designs.

His most recent addition--comedy and tragedy masks added after his divorce--joined tattoos of a vampire, a dagger piercing a heart, and a winged panther. He scoffs at the more traditional tattoos. "I like stuff that is unordinary, like wizards and warriors," he said. "I didn't want to get something that shows death. And tigers are ordinary."

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