King Ink

Meet Brad Fink, a man of color whose body is the perfect canvas for his work

Tucked away in the back is Fink's workspace. He's reupholstered his vintage dentist's chair with sparkly red, white and blue stars and stripes. Fink's wearing six-inch cuffs on his deep-blue Levi's, and he's got on a pair of black throwback Adidas. He's an imposing, handsome figure, sturdy and angular, weighing maybe 200 pounds. Gregarious and theatrical, Fink wears black plastic-framed glasses that cover the middle third of his face. When he smiles, a skull-shape silver cap sparkles under the bright spotlight.

Fink's arms and legs are strewn with tattoos, as are his neck, hands and feet. Two years ago he began the painstaking process of having the tattoos on his right arm removed -- so he could start over again. "I got so many bad tattoos when I was young," he says. "Tattooing is a real commitment and, having gotten so many, I'm very cautious about what tattoos I get."

By now, Fink has wet my right triceps, shaved the tiny hairs clean with a disposable razor and washed the area with antiseptic soap. He activates the machine with a foot pedal, and the needle screams like a cicada. On the counter behind him sits a spectrum of inks in clear-plastic ketchup bottles. For my tattoo he's using only one color, a Japanese black that he's poured into a tiny plastic cup. He pulls a needle from a box, takes it out of its wrapper and slides it into the machine, and the drilling begins.

"Tattooing is a real commitment."
"Tattooing is a real commitment."
Brad Fink works the needle like a seasoned surgeon.
Jennifer Silverberg
Brad Fink works the needle like a seasoned surgeon.

Working along lines he'd sketched with a soft-tipped red marker and refined with a black one, the tattoo artist gracefully maneuvers the needle with his right hand, following his rough draft. He's creating a vista in the style of genius comic artist George Herriman, whose Krazy Kat comic ran in newspapers from 1913 to 1944. Fink laid Krazy Kat getting hit with a brick on my arm nearly a decade ago, and I've decided to augment it with a landscape.

Fink works with the pure confidence of someone intimately familiar with his craft, which, in essence, boils downs to creating wounds and filling them with ink. These thousands -- sometimes millions -- of individual punctures scar over, locking the ink into place forever.

His two portfolios are crammed with photos of his ink work. On one, which consumes an entire chest and stomach, a Japanese geisha rides the back of a swan. Behind her is a jagged branch of a flowering tree, which bids her farewell as she's taken into rough ocean waters toward a writhing dragon. Another is a spitting-image rendering of Hank Williams carved into an inner forearm. A vibrant red-and-orange dagger cuts through a blue rose. A 1950s-era robot races through space. A jagged skull with diamond eyes chomps on a bone below the word "REVENGE."

"Tattoo artists used to be more craftsmen than they were artists, because they worked off of stencils," explains San Francisco legend Lyle Tuttle. "There wasn't a call for custom work like there is today, so a better grade of artist was brought into the industry."

Wall Street hasn't assigned anyone to keep close tabs on the industry, but in 1997 U.S. News & World Report stated that there were nearly 3,000 tattoo studios nationwide and that the studios were the nation's sixth-fastest-growing retail business (after Internet and pager service centers, bagel shops, and computer and cell-phone stores).

When he had a shop in San Francisco, Tuttle tattooed Cher, Peter Fonda, Joan Baez and, perhaps most notably, Janis Joplin. "I did a bracelet on her wrist and a heart on her titty," he recalls. "The bracelet was for everybody, and the heart on her breast was for her friends."

Tuttle will be in town this week, scouting downtown locations for an upcoming national tattoo convention to be held in St. Louis.

"Tattooing to me is a forgotten folk art," says Fink. He's carving sunbeams into my skin. "It's like being a blacksmith or something."

Fink has no idea how many tattoos he's done in his seventeen years. He used to do about fifteen a day but has scaled back to tackling maybe one or two bigger pieces. The most popular tattoo request, Fink notes, is a rose, followed by hearts and names of loved ones. "On the south side I used to do a ton of unicorns," he says. The cost: $100 an hour in St. Louis, $150 an hour in New York. It's been a lucrative practice, enabling him to buy three houses in the area (including one for his mother, whose rheumatoid arthritis keeps her confined to a wheelchair), four cars (including a vintage 1961 Cadillac convertible) and one of the best collections of tattoo memorabilia in the world.

Fink runs the needle through my skin like a seasoned surgeon, and each line, each curve, moves with grace. A decorative filigree rolls around my triceps muscle with perfect, fluid symmetry. Two rocket ships fly through the nighttime sky. Birds on a wire stare calmly into the daylight.

He finishes the sun and turns to the jutting rock formations that characterize much of Herriman's work. Fink then moves to a few puffy clouds, each needle movement firm and confident. When he's done, he rubs the area with antiseptic ointment and covers it with gauze. After two weeks of TLC and lotion, the wound is healed, but the ink remains.

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