Fresh Ink: A Writer's Journey through a Dallas Tattoo Rite of Passage

Local writers love scribbling out pieces that "Deep Ellum is back." It happens whenever they find themselves immersed in an Elm Street festival or caught in the afterglow of an exceptionally great evening in the neighborhood. But that approach is tired and lazy. Writing that story further validates that the area needs recognition of a resurgence, which it doesn't.

Let's be brutally honest: Deep Ellum never left. And part of the reason it never left is because of people like Oliver Peck.

Since 1996 when he became head artist at Elm St. Tattoos, Peck has overseen the boom and bust periods in Dallas' famed entertainment district, and with his growth into a national celebrity via his role on the Tattoo Reality show Inkmasters, Peck has only helped usher in a new level of acclaim for the area. Last weekend he used all of his resources -- friends, patrons and employees -- to celebrate the neighborhood he never left in a tattoo festival too large to fit inside his Elm St. shop.

It was Peck's 20th Friday the 13th 24-hour tattoo marathon. Simply lining up patrons and trying to reclaim his old Guinness World Record victory for most tattoos performed in a day would have, alone, been worth celebrating, but he and the Deep Ellum Illuminati saw an opportunity to turn the event into something bigger. Thus the five-day Elm Street Music & Tattoo Festival was born.

Superstition says that getting a "lucky 13" tattoo on Friday 13th fights off bad mojo. In Dallas getting a 13 tattoo is a way of showing you belong, that you're part of the culture. It shows your connection to the people, the music venues, and the restaurants in between.

For a few years now I've meant to make my way down the Elm St. Tattoos to a get a 13, but as with most things, life had gotten in the way. But something about this one spoke to me. Something said: "This is the biggest it will be. It's time."

And, damnit was it ever huge.

When I stopped by Elm St. Tattoos on Thursday to sign up for a spot in the marathon I was told that there would be 50-plus artists participating in this year's event. Regional, national and international artists were coming into Dallas to take over the Prophet bar, and give the expected 2000 attendees their own 13s.

On Friday, 20 hours into the marathon, I arrived to Deep Ellum to find venues along Elm overrun with fest attendees trying to squeeze into the clubs. So many people had registered for the marathon that Elm St. Tattoos had just shut down. Everyone was redirected to the Prophet Bar's main room for their ink.

Making my way towards the Prophet Bar I got myself lost in a sea of people: hipsters congregating on sidewalks in front of venues; bikers commandeering a fenced-in parking lot; and a assortment of ladies supporting viciously colored pompadours simply had the run of the place. The haunted attraction The Slaughter House opened its doors for the first time of the season on Friday the 13h, and a line full of families wrapped around the block, waiting to go in. A demonic Ronald McDonald got loose from the joint and stalked the sidewalk trying to scare Slaughter House patrons and random festivalgoers. The bikers were not intimidated.

Inside the Prophet Bar I learn I'm the last person to have pre-registered for the event, and I'm hustled into the venue's main room. Elm St. Tattoos took the venue's main stage as their base of operations while the other artist were stationed in a zig-zag line of tables filling every corner of the room. The hum of needles piercing skin fills the air. I hand my information to the workers passing out pre-determined stencils and I'm asked what I want. Finally, I know what I want to get. I had been debating all week, but in the end only one thing makes sense: the Mayan/Aztec numerical sign for 13. Even a tattoo picked from a page should be personal and I'd hoped to find a way to honor my Mexican heritage.

After about 20 minutes I'm called up and meet my artist, Adrian.

Adrian sports a pair of clear frame glasses, a tan shirt, and has the air of a man who's in it for the art. He works in a shop in Little Rock Arkansas called 7th Street Tattoos, he's been inking 13's and custom pieces on people for almost 20 hours straight, and damn if he's not tired. He sits me down to prep me and his co-worker asks him if he's up for doing a custom Eagle he drew. It's displayed on his shop's table in front of their station; it seems a patron really wants it. He wants it so much so that he leaves his ID with Adrian to guarantee his spot in line. The Eagle runs $100. My tattoo runs just $13, plus tip.

Adrian asks if I have any other work. I mention the tattoo I got rather foolishly on the palm of my hand at the age of 18; I ask if the wrist he's going to work on will come close to the pain of that one. He smirks, and says no.

After applying the stencil and sterilizing my wrist Adrian flips on his tattoo gun, and the hum joins the chorus of the venue. I clinch my fist and look away as he goes to work. The whole ordeal takes mere minutes. Within an hour from arriving to the Prophet Bar I find myself on the streets, a fresh tattoo on my wrist wrapped in cellophane protection.

I wonder how to keep my Dallas celebration going and instinctively head to Reno's--it's time for a Black Tooth Grin. Nothing could complete the Dallas rite of passage like shooting one of Dallas' favorite concoctions.

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