My old boss Greg had the worst tattoos I've ever seen. They were revealed to me a few years ago during my summer of manly things. I was working a construction job in suburban Chicago, scraping paint off a 100-year-old mansion with a cast of brutes. Among them were Ralph, a Vietnam vet who thought everyone was gay, and Matt, our foreman, who had a habit of pulling over to the side of the road on his way from work, drinking 20 beers in his truck, passing out, then coming back to the job site the next morning without ever having made it home.
One afternoon, I was with Greg, my constantly high boss, in his rattling, white Ford van. We were stopped at a red light on our way to Home Depot when he turned to me and asked with an uncommon sincerity, "Got any tats?"
I told him no. Nothing I could think of searing into my skin meant enough to me. "I felt the exact same way! Then I found something," he answered.
Greg excitedly ripped off his stained, yellow T-shirt, revealing an animal sanctuary on his chest and back. There was a wolf, a saber-tooth tiger, a bald eagle and an equine creature that was either a centaur or a unicorn. "They're all endangered," he said. "At least they have a home on me."
With that memory, I set out in Charlotte to find a worthy challenger to Greg's bad tat. It wasn't difficult. There can only be one winner, and it will be revealed at the end (so don't skip ahead). But since "worst" is a subjective measurement, I will touch on some sub-categories of stinkers throughout this article. For example, if worst means least original, Steve, the body-piercer from Old Glory, says all those Charlotteans with kanji (Japanese lettering) would share the title. "I don't speak Japanese, no one I know speaks Japanese. So, I don't really get it," he said.
Religious tattoos are the most-branded subject matter, with praying hands being the most popular of the genre. "It's strange because most religious people don't believe in tattoos," said William Wolf, owner and artist at Wolf's Den. "But we've tattooed preachers."
Getting a lover's name indelibly etched is a common request universally frowned upon by tattoo artists. According to Wolf, 85 to 90 percent end up getting them removed or covered with another tattoo. Scott from Cosmic Tattoos had the worst lover-name-tat story. One woman got her man's name tattooed on her sternum, like an imitation locket. Then she had his initials, CB, tattooed repeatedly around her neck like a necklace. A few days later she came back to the shop reporting that her man called her a psycho and wanted nothing to do with her.
Emily from Cosmic had a few of her own nominees. Once, Emily said, she tattooed a dollar sign between a man's eyes. Another time, a drunken guy who lost a bet came in with his friends and wanted a butterfly penis and testicles on his shoulder. Emily offered to do the tattoo for free if he came in the next day, presumably in a sober state. He hasn't shown up yet.
Wolf, who began his career tattooing classmates in the back of his middle school art class with real equipment he got from his uncle's tattoo shop, had a raunchy tale. One day he tattooed "Marquis" on the inner part of a woman's outer labia. A week later another woman came in to the shop asking for a "Marquis" labia tattoo, also. Normally, Wolf doesn't ask for a justification of a tattoo, but this new trend was too odd. In turns out the women were being branded by their pimp. Now, Wolf refuses to do names on genitalia unless you can convince him it's not for a pimp.
Script specialist Chris Stuart from Ace Custom Tattoos told me geographic location has a lot to do with what types of tattoos people want. While working in Gastonia, the most popular tattoos were feathers and other Indian symbols because everyone thought they had Cherokee blood, he said. Chris did the headdresses, but he wouldn't do swastikas or any other racist requests he periodically received in that town.
Lil' Tommy McCarter of Ace had the worst tattooing story. It was an incident that happened to a colleague in Savannah: "He was tattooing the top of a girl's thigh. She freaks out. She passes out. She pees herself. She wakes up. She realizes he's still tattooing her. She throws up on top of his head. He throws up on top of her brand new tattoo. The boss man hears all the commotion and runs in the room to find out what the fuck is going on. He smells all the vomit, and he throws up all over the fucking place."
The ugliest tattoo Wolf has ever seen was a portrait of a woman. "Her hair was going one way on one side, and the total opposite on the other side," he said. "She had cross eyes. One eye was huge, the other one was little." Typically, with drawings people bring in, Wolf retouches them. But this guy was adamant that Wolf not change a thing. The sketch was a compilation of the best physical attributes of the guy girlfriends.
If worst means most hazardous, a tattoo done by Tracy from Wolf's Den takes the cake. She put a flower on a woman who now says she can no longer wear a tank top in the summer because too many bees try to pollinate her shoulder blade.
You're wondering about the grand-prize winner for worst tattoo in Charlotte, right? It's a 17-by-11-inch full-back coverage tattoo of Mariah Carey. It took ten hours to complete, and the man who got it done made Wolf listen to the same Mariah Carey CD on repeat the entire time. All he talked about during the tattoo was Mariah, and he proclaimed he was going to be with her one day.
"I was worried for her," Wolf said. "But I did that tattoo three years ago, and Mariah is still doing OK." Well ... OK is relative.