Museum Is More Than Skin Deep

Myth No. 1: Tattoo artists won't work on drunks because they bleed too much during the process.

That's all wrong according to Bill Stevenson, co-owner of the Baltimore Tattoo Museum (search).

"That's a myth started by a tattooist who just didn't want to tattoo a drunk," Stevenson said. "They just don't sit still."

The museum — part display area and part tattoo shop — is as much about the history of tattooing as it is about dispelling mistruths about the profession that often gets a bad rap. 

The institution just turned 4 years old last week, but it has the feel of a city staple, with all the color and flavor of an old tattoo parlor. The staff in the museum, housed in an unassuming green and gray building that used to be a city parole office, is full of the lore of the trade.

Often a tattooist would pull a drunk or homeless person off the street, pay them 50 cents, and let an apprentice practice on them, said David Sobel, a tattooist at the museum.

The museum itself is a work in progress, the construction completed by family and friends. Walls are lined with photos of men covered in tattoos, tattooists practicing their craft and posters from tattoo conventions.

George Dobson, another tattooist, didn't trace the exact origins of the practice but jokingly mentioned prehistoric humans etching crude drawings on their arms. Most of the collected items at the Baltimore shop are from the 20th century.

In the back of the museum are a handful of quirky tattoo-related pieces including: The Rolling Stones' Tattoo You album, a tattooed Barbie and a HotWheels children's tattoo kit — for producing temporary tattoos only, of course.

The museum also boasts original art from patriarchs of the form including George L. "Doc" Webb and Leonard "Stoney" St. Clair, who is the subject of the book Stoney Knows How: Life As a Tattoo Artist and who used to work in a sideshow before opening his own parlor.

Stevenson also pointed to a display of work by "Sailor" Jerry Collins, who he said changed the craft of tattooing.

"It's bold and super crisp," Stevenson said of Collins' art, which is captured in a book called Sailor Jerry Collins: American Tattoo Master.

Stevenson founded the museum with Sobel, Dobson and Chris Keaton, who were all friends eager to escape the yoke of former bosses to start their own store.

And clearly they aren't alone in their enthusiasm for tattoos. One customer, who was in the museum's store to get his fiancee's name tattooed on his arm, said a tattoo is an outward symbol of a person's inner being. 

"It is a part of your personality," Mike Kreller said. "It's part of what you stand for."

Shannon Reilly, who has worked at the museum for three years, said she loves it there because there's never a dull moment.

"Everybody has a very engaging personality," she said. "Every day is different."

Capital News Service contributed to this report.