We work the night shift at a busy tattoo shop and meet 21 Chicagoans itchin' for some ink.
Fat Joe sits behind the front desk, keeping a watchful eye on his bustling tattoo parlor, where he estimates his artists give 30,000 tattoos a year. The 5300 block of West Belmont Avenue isn’t the most obvious spot for a tattoo parlor, but Jade Dragon Tattoo has flourished there for about 25 years, attracting customers from all over; folks flock in from the city and suburbs, and posters around the shop proudly claim Mötley Crüe singer Vince Neil and NBA nutcase Ron Artest as satisfied customers. We spent a night meeting the inked and inking to see what goes on within the walls of this barbershop-style tattoo parlor.
Jade Dragon Tattoo - Melanie Yodnane, 19
9:15pm Cesar de la Torre, 24, just finished sitting for his second tattoo, a massive flaming tiger across his right shoulder. “I saw it on Ultimate Fighting Championship, and I was inspired,” he says.
9:30pm A group of middle-aged women peruse Zodiac-sign flash on the walls, but alas, they sneak out without going under the gun.
9:33pm A mom, a dad, a toddler and a grandma wander in and flip through some flash. Ah, baby’s first tattoo parlor.
9:35pm Mike Milmoe, 37, waits to get his baby daughter’s handprint inked on his left shoulder. “I have my two sons’ footprints on the right,” he says. “Boys get footprints, girls get handprints.”
9:45pm Melanie Yodnane, 19, sits nervously, prepping for her first tattoo. George Papas, one of Jade Dragon’s veteran artists, smiles and tells her not to move. George takes about six minutes to complete a spiral design above her left hipbone, and then gives us all an interesting history of tattoo legislation. According to Papas, “There are no laws about who can tattoo—sex offenders can still be piercers,” he says, incredulously. “If a doctor set up a practice in his basement without a license, he’d go to jail. But no one stops cheap, hack tattoo artists. We call them ‘scratchers.’?” Yikes. Papas says the government doesn’t want to legitimize the industry, but he’s working with some legislators to make sure tattoo artists and parlor-owners are educated and legit. He gives Melanie her post-care lecture, hands her a Jade Dragon mug (it’s free with the purchase of a tattoo), and she’s out the door.
9:50pm Milmoe is sitting for his tattoo, wincing. “It’s not so fun sitting in the chair,” he admits, “but it’s all about the end result. I want something permanent for my kids.”
“Lots of people get tattoos for dumb reasons,” laughs Luke, Milmoe’s artist. “Just get something you like. You don’t need a reason to enjoy having a tattoo.” Luke, for example, enjoys having beer tattooed inside his lower lip.
10:05pm Grace, 21, asks to be identified by her middle name; she’s a preacher’s kid and thinks her parents would flip if they found out about the kanji tat on her lower back that means “love.” “It’s a symbol that meant something to me, not some random picture,” she says, holding tight to boyfriend Sean’s hand.
10:20pm Things are slowing down a bit. Artists Ryan and Desmond joke around about lame tattoos and people who come in wanting flags but not knowing the correct order of the colors. Another winner? The guy who came in wanting his child’s name tattooed, but had to call the wife and ask how to spell it.
10:45pm Dan Suitca’s eyes are glassy, and he’s staring straight ahead, occasionally spitting tobacco into a Snapple bottle. He’s getting his first tattoo, a self-designed tribal symbol that incorporates his initials, on his left bicep. He says it hurts less than he thought it would, but if that bulging vein in his neck is any indication, it still hurts a lot.
10:50pm Tony Leva is having the finishing touches put on the brand-new tat on his calf. It’s his seventh; he had his first done in Vegas on his honeymoon 11 years ago, he says, and he and his wife have been getting tattooed together ever since. “My wife was more determined to get tattooed tonight than I was,” Leva laughs. “But when you see the one you want, you just know: That will look good on my body for the rest of my life.”
Leva’s wife Karen is sitting in George’s chair, waiting for him to ready a Jesus image for her forearm. “We don’t get to go out that often,” Karen says, “but tonight, we got a sitter.”
10:55pm A woozy-looking girl is escorted to the restroom. Her concerned cadre waits outside.
11:00pm Sisters June Ryan, Bonnie Tatman and Lynne Clayton flip through flash posters. “It’s a family thing,” Bonnie says.
11:15pm Artist Katie Cain is going to town on Nick Fry’s poorly done armbands. “I do a lot of redos and cover-ups,” Cain chuckles. “I like it. It feels like public service.” A few months ago, Fry went to another parlor in the city and got green and orange bands going around his right bicep. They’re uneven, and the color is splotchy, so the cheerful, charming Cain is redoing them and adding a white band in between; she estimates it’ll take an hour per band, and Fry already looks a little worn out by the process. No pain, no tattoo…er…gain.11:30pm Desmond takes a break from tattooing to gush about his four-week-old daughter, Nevaeh.
11:35pm Woozy girl turns out to be Amy Maley, 22, who’s getting her fourth tattoo: a massive tribal back piece that incorporates Celtic iconography. Sitting for a tattoo for a long time can wear you out—the pain, adrenaline and nerves can get to you. Her sister Stacey holds her hand and passes her a LifeSaver. Amy’s looking a lot better.
Grace, 21 - Amy Maley, 22
11:55pm Sean Jackson is only in Chicago for a few days, but he needs his tribal armband touched up, and his friend Pateska recommended Jade Dragon. He has 10 tats already, so he’s not worried about the pain. Dude is hardcore.
12:05am “Roxanne” comes on the radio, and a surprisingly large number of people sing along. A guy walks in and asks to see what South Park character designs are available. Various folks continue to flip through the flash posters. You don’t have to put on the red light…
12:10am Lynne Clayton finally settles on a butterfly tattoo on her ankle. Her sisters decided not to get ones after all, and the way Clayton is whimpering and saying, “Oh, fuck,” they’re probably glad. This is her fourth tattoo, so you’d think she’d know how it would feel, but she says it’s been a few years since her last one, plus this one is closer to the bone and therefore more painful.
12:25am Fry is still in the chair. Katie wasn’t kidding when she told us that lots of tattoo artists develop arthritis or carpal tunnel syndrome.
12:35am Fry caves and takes a smoke break. Maley’s back piece is still in progress.
12:38am Matt Uyeno gets the post-care lecture for the brand-new dove on his neck, his eighth tat. “It’s on a whim,” he admits, but it’s part of a whole arty motif he’s working.
12:45am A woman in a bridesmaid dress and a man in a tux walk in. Everyone stares. A few of the artists chitchat about the dress; some like the pink, some don’t.
1:15am Artists, customers and this writer are looking pretty ragged. One artist flips through an old issue of US Weekly. Katie’s working on the white portion of Nick’s armbands, which you won’t be able to see until it heals.
1:35am Desmond brings a sleeping Nevaeh into the shop; everyone oohs and ahhs.
1:40am The woman in the bridesmaid dress is Renee Holm, 31, and the man in the tux is her husband, Randal. They were at his sister’s wedding tonight, and they decided to “do something crazy.” Renee is getting a trinity knot on her back; hubby’s getting a dog on his forearm.
1:57am Things are eerily quiet; the low-level buzzing of tattoo machinery is about the only sound. Joe says tonight was slow, especially compared to how busy the shop gets in July and August, but we still saw dozens of people walk out with their very own permanent reminder of a Saturday night in May.
Jade Dragon Tattoo, 5331 W Belmont Ave, 773-736-3028, www.jadedragontattoo.com.