Oct. 16 2013 12:00 AM

Guitar strings, toy car motors and sewing machine needles: The underground tattoo scene in Lansing

When “Trip” Davis was 17 years old, he went to jail for the first time. It wasn’t his last time there, either — in the 15 years since, he’s spent almost as much of his life behind bars as out — but he doesn’t want to get into the specifics of why. He doesn’t even want to use his real first name. He’s on probation and doesn’t want to bring any undo attention on himself.

“I’ve made a lot of bad decisions,” he mumbles, absentmindedly kicking at the front porch of his fathers house in Charlotte. We can’t go inside. His dad doesn’t think he should be talking to the press. “I’ve done stuff I’m not proud of, but that’s not who I am. I think I’m a good father and a good person and I’m trying to get past all that. And I learned something because of (my time in jail) that made my life so much better, you know? I found something I’m really good at. If I couldn’t tattoo, I don’t know what I’d do.”

Davis, 32, is a self-taught tattoo artist; he said he’s been drawing “flash art” — the pre-drawn pieces featured in binders and on the walls of many tattoo shops — since he was a kid, racking up 1,000 pieces before he was 15.

“And I didn’t even know what I was doing — I just knew I was good at drawing in that style,” he said. He whips out his phone and scrolls through his pictures, displaying 40 or so of the original pieces he’s done recently: An Art Decostyle train wrapped around a tree, Winnie-the-Pooh and friends on a picnic, a hovering Tomahawk helicopter. Crisp lines, clean colors, solid work. However, it’s more than a little disconcerting knowing where the tattoos were given.

“I do all my work from home,” Davis says. “I used to work at a licensed shop in south Lansing, but I moved to Indiana and when I came back last year I couldn’t get my old job back. I don’t have transportation, which makes it even harder, so I’ve made my living working from home.” He said he relies on word-of-mouth and Craigslist for his clientele. Most business is conducted by trade.

Home tattooing is illegal and dangerous. Besides the obvious danger of infection and blood poisoning that’s possible any time you’re piercing skin with a needle, those who opt to get a tattoo in a non-certified establishment open themselves up to a host of communicable, potentially fatal diseases, including hepatitis and HIV. In fact, body art — which includes non-ear piercings and branding — is such a hazardous industry that the licensing is overseen by not one but three state departments: the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which establishes regulations under the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs for

working conditions between owners and artists who are considered independent contractors; the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, which attends to the medical waste inherent to the industry, such as disposing of used needles and tubes; and the Michigan Department of Community Health, which handles inspections and provides federally mandated training on bloodborne pathogens.

Seems like a pretty ironclad system, but search the word “tattoo” in the Lansing-area Craigslist and you’ll find ads bartering underground ink for sellable goods.

“Tattoo for your stuff!” one screams. “No cash for tattoos? Trade” tempts another. Many, Davis included, mistakenly think that accepting goods for their work circumvents the illegality of what they’re doing. (“No cash means no taxes means no IRS,” he says proudly.) But according to Angela Minicuci, spokeswoman for Department of Community Health, common sense dictates otherwise.

“Naturally, bartering is still considered payment,” Minicuci said. “But (we don’t) make arrests. That falls to the county sheriffs, who accompany the health department whenever we investigate a complaint. We don’t police (home tattooing).”

Individual tattoo artists do not need to be licensed in the state of Michigan, but tattooing in other than a licensed shop is illegal. Body artists typically go through a one-year apprenticeship at a licensed facility that could cost the student up to $5,000. Davis underwent such an apprenticeship after he’d spent a couple of years practicing on people with homemade tattoo guns made from guitar strings, sewing needs and remote control car motors. He said he graduated to using only professional equipment, all of which is in storage at the moment.

“I use the best anti-microbial disinfectants, new needles every time, the highest quality of ink,” Davis said. “There’s a lot of scratch (low-level) artists out there, but I’m not one of them. I’ll actually contact them and try to trade my work for their equipment. I’m doing what I can to get them off the market.”

He’s not alone. Sam Perez, owner of Sin 2 Skin Tattoos on Lansing’s south side, peruses the Craigslist ads and his Facebook friends for photos of illegal tattooing and reports it to the authorities. He said in the two-and-a-half years he’s been open, he’s seen dozens of people walk out of his shop blanching at his prices, only to return within a week to have one of his artists cover up what a scratch artist has done.

“It looks like someone scribbled on them with a pencil but it’s in permanent ink on their body,” Perez says. “They didn’t want to pay $150 for a tattoo originally but now they have to pay double that to have it covered up by a professional. Plus they’re dealing with the danger of contaminated needles and unsanitary environments. I mean, look at this.”

Perez hops online and pulls up photos of a recent “tattoo party” in the Lansing area. There’s a young woman lying on a cluttered dining room table next to an open beer while a man with no gloves or mask inks her side. Perez said that these under-the-radar tattoo artists will host these parties to line up as many customers in a single night as possible. Drinking (or more) is usually involved to lower inhibitions and to distract from the poor quality of the work. He does note, however, that many legitimate tattoo artists got started by experimenting with homemade equipment. Of the three employees working in his shop recently, all started out by giving home tattoos before seeking an apprenticeship with him.

He scrolls down and shows crooked stars and blurry flowers etched into feet and shoulder blades. The skin under some of them looks raw and discolored.

“They’re poisoning themselves with this low-grade shit,” Perez says. “The body will actually reject the ink sometimes and that patch of skin will be ruined for the rest of that person’s life. It just makes no sense to me. People will spend more on their tennis shoes than they will on something that will be a permanent part of their body. It brings the whole profession down and dilutes the culture.”

But that culture has two sides. Whitney Spotts is the promotions coordinator for Schuler Books & Music in the Eastwood Towne Center by day and co-lead singer for ‘80s tribute band Starfarm by night. Spotts, 36, has tattoos covering both arms from wrist to shoulder (“full sleeves”) as well as a full back piece.

“Once you’re as heavily tattooed as I am, there’s an unspoken bond between you and other collectors,” she said, “collectors” being the common name for people who treat their bodies as fine art ink canvases. “Like any subculture, it’s kind of insular, but you start to recognize the good artists. Right now is a very exciting time to be a collector in Lansing. There are so many great places statewide, but we have three here in town — the Fish Ladder Tattoo in Old Town and Eclectic Tattoo and Local Tattoo, both on Michigan Avenue — that have fantastic artists and have achieved national attention.

I’ve seen the work of some of the lower end artists in town and I don’t understand why someone would go to them when there’s this much talent in town.”

Price and spontaneity, for two. Spotts said top-tier local artists like Chris Boilore at Fish Ladder, Geary Morrill at Eclectic and Greg Drake at Local can have waiting lists that go for up to six m o n t h s and command price tags in the hundreds for a single piece of work.

“It’s the difference between someone walking into a smaller shop, picking out a piece of Sparty flash and wanting it on their ass right away because it seems like fun versus an individual who’s done their research and wants a detailed, original work that has personal meaning,” Spotts said. “My husband researched his tattoo for a year-and-a-half before he got it done.”

Spotts credits Splash of Color in East Lansing as the base of the local tattoo art talent pool. She said owner/operator Kris LaChance fosters an “atmosphere of professionalism that sets the bar high” for local workmanship. Boilore was just one of the artists who got his start at Splash before branching off on his own. LaChance also quite literally wrote the book (well, she helped, at least) on body art safety standards: She is an authorized OSHA instructor and is the owner of Safe Art Works, which provides bloodborne pathogen training for body art professionals.

She’s also a member of the Michigan Body Art Committee, the Michigan Regulatory Waste Act Revision Committee and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health Body Art C o m m i ttee. When asked what she thinks about home tattoos, she defers to the wealth of local talent.

“People will ask me where I got my work done and I’ll say, Lansing, dammit!” Spotts said. “You don’t need to go to New York to get a big city tattoo. But home tattoos? They’re just bad news. Too many risks. I’d never even consider one.”

On the other end of the cultural spectrum is Craig Doepker, a local DJ and bartender at Mac’s Bar. Whereas Spotts embraces the counterculture aspect of tattooing, Doepker is more hesitant to be part of the group.

“I don’t like how it defines people,” he said. “I’ve heard girls say, ‘I won’t date a guy who doesn’t have at least three tattoos,’ which is ridiculous. I’m not part of that culture. It’s weird that it’s even a thing — it’s almost cooler not to have them, to show that you didn’t make a commitment in high school to permanently getting bad art or having shitty song lyrics on your body. If I could go back in time I wouldn’t have a single tattoo on my body.”

This coming from a man who estimates that about half of the 40 tattoos on his body he did himself. A recent piece is a song lyric: “How Wonderful Life Is,” from Elton John’s “Your Song” that popped up in the 2001 movie musical, “Moulin Rouge.” He said he doesn’t like the tattoo so much as he does the story behind it.

“It was like 5 in the morning and I wasn’t thinking about what I was doing,” he said. “Sometimes there’s that stupid punk rock night, but that’s not something I want to promote.”

Doepker, 32, did his first tattoo on himself with a homemade tattoo machine when he was 16.

“It was a cheesy design on my leg, definitely not something I’m proud of,” he said.

“One time I gave myself an infection that could have been very, very bad. It was the most excruciating pain. I got lucky, but you don’t always get lucky. It’s just dumb. I would never recommend anyone to do a home tattoo, but I guess I’m just not good at taking my own advice.”

He said people approach him all the time to tattoo them, but he says he does his best to discourage them.

“I have the utmost respect for tattoo artists and I certainly do not consider myself one,” he said. “They’re expensive for a reason.”

Cost is just one of the reasons that Dorchelle Goolsby, 20, turned to Craig slist to seek someone to finish her work. Initially, she said local tattoo shops werent comfortable doing it where she wanted it.

“No one wants to do work on my knuckles, which is what I want to do to complete my sleeves,” Goolsby said. She moved to East Lansing last year from Texas to attend Michigan State University. She said in Texas, a hand tat was no problem. After making “a lot” of calls, she did find a place that agreed to do the work, but at about $20 more than she wanted.

“I don’t mind home tattoos, but I want to make sure they know what they’re doing,” she said. “I’ve seen way too many people go to these wild tattoo parties and come home with something that looks terrible and watch it get infected. If I was to get a home tattoo, I would definitely want to talk to the person for a while and see their previous work to make sure I trust them.”

Christine Hendrickson, emergency preparedness health educator for the Ingham County Health Department, said that home tattooing is not on the agency’s radar as far as growing health risks. She said that cases for hepatitis B, which is most associated with body art, has waxed and waned over the last three years and is in line with rates going back for the past decade.

“In 2011, there were 76 cases and last year there were 110 cases, which is an increase, but not what we consider a drastic one,” Hendrickson said. “So far in 2013 we’ve had 48. But when the test comes back positive, there’s no indication where they got it from, so we can’t attribute any of those cases directly” to home tattooing.

Christopher Klawuhn, deputy director for Ingham County’s bureau of environmental health, said this year his department has received two complaints.

“If the state receives a complaint about a home tattooing operation, we try to go to the site to see for ourselves what’s going on,” he said. “If we see they have an ad online, we send them an email. If there’s a phone number I call them.

Klawuhn said that up until 2007, body art was regulated on a county-by-county basis. Unlicensed body art was illegal in Ingham County but not in the state, but an amendment in 2007 to Public Act 368 made it a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $2,500 or 93 days in jail.

It reads, in part: “Any tattooing, branding, or body piercing occurring in this state other than at a facility licensed under this part is considered an imminent danger under section 2251 or 2451 and the department or a local health department shall order the immediate cessation of that activity in the manner prescribed in this act.”

“So far no cases have been prosecuted,” he said. “If they don’t call me back and they pull their ad, it becomes a non-issue. One guy who had operated out of his house found a licensed place to work for, and another guy who was operating in an empty building disappeared. We don’t get many complaints, but we do take it seriously.

In Ingham County, this doesn’t seem to be a major issue. There seems to be a form of self-regulation going on.”

Indeed, it’s unlikely to be on law enforcement’s radar.

“That’s illegal?” said Officer Robert Merritt, spokesman for the Lansing Police Department. “I’ve been doing this for 23 years, and this is the first time someone’s ever asked me about home tattooing.”

Davis said in the year he’s been posting to Craigslist, he hasn’t received a single call from the authorities nor has anyone knocked on his door with a cease and desist order. If anyone did, he said he would “absolutely” stop or make a concerted effort to work at a reputable shop, or both.

“I want to get trained for cosmetic tattooing eventually anyway, so I’ll have to start working” legitimately, he said. His 3-year-old daughter suffered a severe burn when she was 4 months old, and he wants to learn how to cover it up when she gets old enough. “Right now we call (the scar) her ‘beautiful,’ but when she’ll get older, she’ll probably start to get insecure about it. I want to do what I can to help her with that. And tattooing is what I do best.”

Not surprisingly, hardly any of these other home tattooists advertising on Craigslist wanted to go on the record about their work. A quick search will yield at least a dozen home tattoo artists advertising work for as low as $5.

“I know that what I’m doing is technically illegal, but it’s my soul source of income right now,” Davis said. “But I’m really good at what I do, unlike some others out there.”

His 18-year-old niece joins us on the porch. She lifts her shirt to show a crow that Davis fixed for her after a scratch artist botched her idea.

“When I saw that, it pissed me off,” Davis said. “I have two goals: To make a living giving tattoos full time and to keep scratch artists from doing this junk like what they did to my niece. If I can do that, I’ll be happy. And hopefully, it will help me stay out of trouble.”