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At the age of twelve, Brad Fink was struck with a rare genetic malfunction that attacks the autoimmune system. Within two weeks, all his hair was gone, from head to toe. Not even an eyelash or nose hair was spared, the consequence of a disease called alopecia areata. One day, an average brown-haired boy -- "a real hairy kid," Fink recalls -- the next, a circus freak by schoolyard standards.
"I hated it. I hated it before I lost my hair, but then after I lost my hair, my two years at DeSmet were just miserable," says Fink. "If I were born bald, that'd be fine. If I lost my hair in my thirties, I'd be fine. But when you're in eighth grade -- it was the biggest thing in my life."
Today the 34-year-old Fink remains hairless, skin as smooth as a summer pond. An ink artist would kill to tattoo Fink; his body's a perfect canvas. Time has helped heal the sting of preadolescent humiliation. As it turns out, in fact, it's worked to his advantage. Listen to him: "Every girl I've ever dated loved it. My wife loves it. And now, even if I did grow hair, I'd shave it off. In the tattoo community, people know me as 'that bald guy.' It has helped set myself apart from the rest."
At twelve, of course, no one is looking to be different. "You're going through puberty. You're starting to become interested in girls," Fink says over a burger at Blueberry Hill, a number of whose employees have surrendered their skin to him. "All of a sudden, my hair was gone."
Fink retreated to his bedroom at his childhood home in St. Charles. He started drawing and listening to punk rock. It was the mid-'80s, and like the Hell's Angels and sailors of bygone days, he grew to appreciate the rebellion and beauty inherent in skin art. His mother, eager to placate an angry son, took him to get his first tattoo when he was fifteen. Fink chose a comedy mask and a tragedy mask.
He began studying the history of tattoos in America. He learned about the Japanese yazuka, gangs of miscreants whose honor and rebellion mirrored the samurai. He started mimicking their style and now draws waves that roll chaotically, as strong and fluid as those in a Japanese watercolor; he carves dragons with lithe bodies that glisten as though woven from silk.
As St. Louis' pre-eminent tattoo artist, Fink has garnered national acclaim for his parlor magic. He's been on Late Night with David Letterman, featured in the top tattoo magazines and co-owns two of the hottest tattoo parlors in New York City.
"He's good. He's a good technician," says Lyle Tuttle, the storied 74-year-old San Francisco tattooist. "His lines are good and true and straight. His fields of color are good, and it's got an artistic flair to it." Tuttle cites a classic tattoo -- an eagle -- that Fink has put in his online portfolio (www.ironagetattoo.com) as an example.
"Look at that line, the quality," Tuttle says. "You can do an eagle head various ways, but his has flair to it."
Fink and his business partner, Mark Andrews, own Iron Age Studio on Delmar Boulevard in University City, one of the most distinctive shops in the nation. Fink's Manhattan studio, Daredevil Tattoo, was cited by the Village Voice as one of the city's best. The shop, buried in the heart of the Lower East Side, is co-owned by St. Louis transplant Michelle Myles Steckert. In its cozy confines, Steckert and crew have branded the likes of Vincent Gallo, David Lee Roth, Janeane Garofalo and Joan Jett. Fink and Steckert's second shop, the recently purchased Fun City, is legendary for inking such tattooed luminaries as Iggy Pop and Marilyn Manson.
Notoriety and tattooing go hand in hand, and the business draws its share of larger-than-life characters. Early tattooists traveled with freak shows. Bert Grimm, a St. Louis tattoo legend who worked during the 1930s and '40s, photographed everything he scratched. The late south St. Louis tattoo artist Mike "Mitch" Mitchell is honored on a memorial Web site (www.legionofmitch.com). And Mitchell's protégé, Brad Fink, is a singularly striking St. Louis presence with a huge, dramatic -- and sometimes overbearing -- personality that has earned him his share of animosity, especially from former employees.
As one former Iron Age tattoo artist puts it, "When you walk in [to Fink's studio], it's like jumping out of an airplane."
Walk into Iron Age's waiting room and you'll find fidgety clients staring at the walls or perusing magazines as AC/DC's "Hells Bells" wails in the background. A receptionist greets visitors, checks their name in a reservation book and tells them to have a seat. Deeper in, men and women wearing rubber gloves attend to people reclined in dentist's chairs.
Just past the receptionist, a blood-red mosaic explodes across the floor; written on it is the word "Mother." A glassed-in Art Deco cabinet houses vintage tattoo guns and fading tattoo designs.