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Hooked on the Needle

A tale of tattoo obsession


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Steve Carmichael is lying on a stainless steel table on a March afternoon having his face tattooed. Sunlight streams through the windows at Little Five Points' Holy Mother tattoo shop as Carmichael tilts his head back, offering the artist a better angle. He is in the middle of what will be a two-hour session, and his forehead is smeared with blood colored orange by ink. The needle doesn't hurt much, he says. But his eyes are watering.

Over the years, ink has crept slowly across Carmichael's flesh. His arms are a tangle of blues, greens and reds, winding around images of dragons and mythical birds. An Asian floral pattern protrudes above his collar. On his chest is a topless vampire in subtle black and gray, with supernaturally full breasts and wings extending outward.

Carmichael has been tattooed 30 times in 40 years and has sat for approximately 150 hours under the needle. He tells those he meets he has lots of tattoos - but is working on having just one. Not including $3,000 he paid to have some of his tattoos removed, he estimates he's spent upwards of $15,000 getting inked.

Nothing - not the time or the cost or his family's disapproval - has discouraged the 60-year-old independent commercial filmmaker from continuing to get tattooed. He says he can't stop, nor does he want to.

Go to the gym. Go to the grocery store. Go to the office. Tattoos are everywhere. Movie stars have them. Athletes have them. Soccer moms have them. Today, the tattoo is just another accessory, typically no more shocking than a pair of hoop earrings or a yellow "Live Strong" bracelet - the significant difference being you can take off the hoop earrings and rubber bracelet.

"It's like cosmetic surgery," says Chuck Brank, founder of Prick magazine, a 5-year-old regional monthly publication based in Atlanta that chronicles trends in piercing and tattoos. "The older you get, the less happy you are with the way you look. Some people get a face-lift. I got more tattoos."

The Atlanta tattoo scene, like those of most metropolitan areas, has mushroomed over the past three decades. From the time Atlanta's first tattoo shop opened in the early 1970s, more than 100 studios have sprung up across metro Atlanta, including the 15-franchise Ink Wizards chain.

Given the success the industry has seen, it was only a matter of time before a new kind of addiction emerged: the tattooaholic. Studies estimate that roughly one in eight adults - and nearly one in four of those between the ages of 18 and 25 - have been tattooed. And though there aren't any well-publicized support groups for those who believe their urge to be inked has become a problem, nor has research into tattoo addiction been published in a major medical journal, just ask Steve Carmichael. He'll tell you there's no doubt about it being hard to stop tattooing once you start.

The question is: Why?

Carmichael got his first tattoo in the mid-1960s. He was 19 and passing time on what he affectionately calls a "kiddy cruise," a program that allowed young men to enlist in the Navy from the time they were 18 until they turned 21. Not everyone in the Navy had tattoos, but to Carmichael it sure seemed that way. The colorful ink on the arms of so many of his peers made it easier for him to take the leap. Being thousands of miles away from the conservatism of his hometown of Birmingham didn't hurt, either. The small tattoo shop in Yokosuka, a Tokyo Bay port that housed a large American naval base, was clean and bright. Carmichael's tattoo, of a blue and black peacock with green and red accented feathers, cost $15. It was 9 inches long and 3 inches wide, running vertically down his left arm - just long enough to hang below his T-shirt cuff.

And it wasn't too painful. Carmichael says the needle felt like a bee sting, but the pain didn't linger after the needle penetrated the skin. It was a momentary prick - quickly overshadowed by a rush of adrenaline.

"There's that moment when the needle hits your skin, and you know there's no going back," Carmichael says. "It's a process that is going to result in something that is totally mine. It's something that nobody can take away from me. It's mine. I did it. And I'm responsible for it."

The military played a crucial role in the importation of the tattoo to Western civilization. The trend first traveled to Europe 200 years ago from Polynesia. Within a few decades, inking techniques were improved in America, where tattoos became common among Civil War soldiers on both sides. From there, prison inmates and bikers popularized the practice.


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