Addicted to ink

| June 01, 2007

Tattooed truckers – living canvases for skin art.

George Carter is a big, bad truck driver turned tattoo artist.

Wearing a camouflage Harley Davidson T-shirt and with multiple 20-year-old tattoos displayed on both arms, he shows off his recent motorcycle injury – a thumb rendered nearly immobile after months spent in a cast. Carter wrecked the bike and has been out of work for a while, but he plans to return as soon as he can bend his thumb enough to draw a decent tattoo. He’s already gotten back on the bike.

Transcend Tattoo in Branford, Conn., is a hub for well-known artists. Unlike the small, neon-lit shops on seedy beach boardwalks and in small-town strip malls, Transcend is a skin-art studio. The walls are warm, painted gold, and large windows let in light from the second floor. Leopard-print couches, jungle plants and a variety of playful and frightening works of art hang on the walls, both warnings for the hesitant and invitations for body-modification veterans. Behind the front desk, a tatted guy in a baseball cap with stretched earlobes tends to the daily paperwork.

Each artist has his own room in which to work and decorate as he pleases. Carter’s room, which a colleague is using until he returns, is a small square with a few works of art on the walls and a leather chair for customers.

Carter drove a truck for a friend’s company for three years, delivering sporadic loads and never knowing exactly when he would be home again. The last haul he did was a shipment of potatoes in northern Maine, and he credits the inconsistencies of the job to his friend’s management – not to trucking overall.

“I was spending a lot of time on the road and not making enough money,” Carter says. “If I hadn’t discovered tattooing, I would still be driving a truck.”

In 1987, Carter met a tattoo artist in a bar. He spent six months persuading the guy to teach him how to “push ink” until one day he finally agreed. He started doing small tattoos at first and took a job at a shipyard to make up for lost income. But after an injury sustained at the shipyard in 1992, Carter decided to pool his money and open a tattoo shop. He sold it several years ago and moved with fellow artists to Transcend.

After 19 years, Carter is still drawing. His specialties range from black-and-white tattoos to portraits of animals, and his favorite piece is one he calls “Warrior Girl,” a black-and-white rendering of a woman wearing a leather mask.

Like Carter, “Trucker Tom” Wiles, the host of his own audio show podcast from the cab of his truck, is addicted to ink. He doesn’t want the kind of tattoo you can hide under a suit and tie.

“For me it’s just not as much fun to get a tattoo in an area that’s covered with clothing most of the time,” Wiles says.

But nearly every inch of his body is inked – his recent addition was a skull tattoo on the top of his bald head. The back tattoo alone cost about $1,500, and he estimates that he has spent thousands of dollars on tattoos since his first one in 1973.

“The fascination I have with tattoos is more or less an obsession,” Wiles says. “Most people are obsessed with one thing or another, and I just happen to be obsessed with tattoos.”

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