By Morgan Elmslie
With $250 in hand, he laid down a stack of cash — “I didn’t want my parents to track my charge,”— and lifted his khaki pant leg. “I figured, if I hated tattoos, I could wear pants for the rest of my life, and it wouldn’t even matter.”
His artist transferred a sketched image of a hooded grim reaper on to Sam’s freshly shaved calf and they began the process. “I was feeling utterly dead inside. I thought it’d be poetic. I wanted to spice my life up. I guess tattoos do that,” This was his last moment of being an ink-free man. He hasn’t looked back since. Now, actually, he works here himself.
Local to the West Bank, Sam wears his home turf’s name with insider’s pride, “It’s New Orleans, but only if you really know New Orleans.” Not even his cloth mask can conceal the city spirit that lingers in him. Life has always been and will always be here.
“I’ll reside in the South forever. New Orleans is one of the only unique cities. Everything else is a carbon-copy regurgitated version of the other. I’m staying put,” Sam says. He enjoyed summer temperatures year-round and familiarized himself with these local streets.
“I was what I would call a ‘weekday customer,’” A common crowd kid, Sam stayed close to the shop and snuck glances at older clients’ new work. It was here, at Electric Ladyland, that a clear-canvas-boy grew into a near-fully inked man. Sam—curious by nature, an artist by birth, and an admirer of craft—always wanted complete armor. In this one particular parlor, Sam got his first tattoo, and, years later, gave his first tattoo.
“I feel more like myself wearing tattoos,” he says. “It’s a real confidence booster.”
He’s a collector. Soon he’ll run out of space, but still, he continues his nightly iterations of sketches for a new back-piece. It’s his last blank canvas. “When I look at myself in the mirror from behind, I don’t have anything, and it’s embarrassing.” Six years in the studio has left him thoroughly decorated, inspired, and eager for more.
“I look at my tattoo choices and I’m like, yeah, I can definitely tell I did that when I was 18,” Sam, now 24, doesn’t lament. “I wouldn’t do that style today, but I don’t regret it. Like with anything, there’s a learning curve.”
His body art grew with him; “There’s tons of tats I regret,” With an artist’s critique, Sam plans to recover, redo and renovate many of his deceptively permanent installations, because he “can.” “I’m gonna laser it and throw something else on it one day.”
That day lies ahead in a future that’s uncertain for us all. As of now, the store sits quietly with a constant hum of needle-to-skin contact. All clients are, of course, appointment only. Sam admits, following a heavy sigh, that he misses the spontaneity of visitors peering through windowpanes and wandering in for a new piece. He misses the strangers who become friends. He misses pre-pandemic life.
Things are weird. “No face tats, no hand tats, mask on.”
But artists invent and tough times have dampened profits, but never dull the imagination; “I create daily,” he says. Mediums: skin, sketchbook.
Sam is sweet, professional, and covered in tattoos. He hopes that with new generations of people in charge, we’ll see more folks who accept an overlap among those characteristics. But there are those who won’t.
On any given day, interactions oscillate between looks of horror and stares of admiration. Some people see desecration where others see art, and even then, Sam just sees Sam. Unbothered, unaffected, it’s merely “different strokes for different folks.”
“My parents weren’t tattooed,” he tells me. It’s ironic as we sit face-to-face, and I can see for myself that more of his skin resembles his own imagination than it does his parents’ pigmentation. He’s dozens of colors, and even then, is still Sam. And that’s, he says, what helped him convince his family that, underneath all the ink, “It’s still me.”
He’s a living, breathing art installation, but he’s every genre you’d imagine. He has neon outlined caricature chickens on his calf, a grim reaper on his shin, and a flirty cursive West Bank inner arm tat—and that doesn’t even scratch the surface. His canvas is unorganized, beautifully so, and indicative of the spectrum of emotions that we experience. He is his story.
On Sam’s left shoulder, a skull sits closely in his periphery and carries a constant reminder of his paternal grandfather. Sam’s father, who once strictly remained ink-free, now has a matching piece with Sam to memorialize him. It’s something they share now, and forever. “It’s my only meaningful tattoo come to think of it.”
“Tattoos don’t have to be something life changing. They don’t have to be profound. They just have to make you happy, to make you confident,” he says. Customers “come in stoked and leave even more stoked.” There’s an intimate trust, a forever bond, a closely stitched artistic expression that someone carries day-to-day with a tattoo and his artist.
Many of the people that come in the shop are merely passing through. Slightly boozy tourists bring the cash flow business needs to survive, “To keep the lights on.” Travel sleeves are a big hit. Tourists used to venture in with the hopes of bringing a piece of New Orleans home with them to treasure in the years to follow. They come wanting a crawfish or a Fleur-De-Lis and leave happily with an imprint of Frenchmen forever on their skin.
But with COVID-19 restrictions, an appointment-only protocol has slowed their cadence. Passers by can no longer admire art while peering inside, strolling by. “You have to know it’s on the map.”
But this too shall pass, the good times will roll, and the ink marks of tomorrow will artistically reflect the hardships of today—because that’s what tattoos are: your story.
“They’re handmade by a person, for a person,” he said. “And they’re forever.”