Citizen Green: Tattoos to guns, passing the outlaw torch

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A fan of the president and vice president gets ink at the Bulldog Custom Tattoos booth. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

You could find guns and you could find tattoos at the Ink & Arms Tattoo & Gun Expo at Greensboro Coliseum on Sept. 22, but the people who are into guns aren’t necessarily displaying that fact on their skin.

“I know a lot of people that own guns that don’t have tattoos,” said Scott Hendren, the owner of Inferno Ink Tattoo in Burlington, who happens to be really into guns. And also said he couldn’t remember the last time someone came into his shop and asked to have a gun tattooed on their body.

He owns several firearms and some crossbows. After six years in law enforcement, he said he came to appreciate the need for protection when a police officer isn’t close enough to respond. He also likes the idea of having firearms in the event of societal collapse. If the dollar loses value, he said, you can trade a gun for something else you might need. Or you can use it to hunt and kill food.

While skin-and-ink representations of guns are not all that popular, his shop is seeing a lot of demand for patriotic expressions: American flags, “We the people” inscriptions and eagles. Customers are requesting them as forearm sleeves because they want others to see them.

“It’s coming from the divide in our country,” Hendren said. “They’re wanting to show their patriotism and their love for the country.”

Firearms vendors were the second half of the equation, alongside tattoo artists, at the expo, so it’s no surprise that the political iconography at the event displayed a rightward lean. But with the exception of the mildly Islamophobic label “infidel” on one gun vendor’s case and a T-shirt on one patron bearing the defiant pro-gun slogan “Molon Labe” (“come and take them”), the political content hewed to the center. Black-and-white American flag patches — colors meant to avoid drawing attention on military combat uniforms — were the most ubiquitous feature.

The Keres Tactical booth drew a line of patrons waiting for the opportunity to get timed while breaking down and reassembling a Glock pistol. Nobody could do it faster than the owner, who timed at 13 seconds. A young man wearing “Space Force Recruit” T-shirt, he said he didn’t want to give his name because he’s still an enlisted soldier. Later, he demonstrated how to put together an AR lower receiver — essentially the trigger, magazine well and stock, and the portion of the gun where the serial number is located. For what it’s worth, AR stands for “Armalite Rifle,” not “assault rifle.” The Keres Tactical owner said AR is merely the platform for a pistol or rifle; he doesn’t like the term “assault rifle” because “assault” might not accurately describe the intended use, particularly if the owner is using the weapon for defensive purposes.

The Keres Tactical owner likes tattoos as well, but his interest in guns doesn’t translate into body art. He has tattoos of his kids’ names, and he said he planned to get a sleeve done during the expo that tells his life story through Star Wars scenes.

Greensboro police Sgt. Ben Altizer, who was working the event off-duty for time-and-a-half pay, received a friendly reception from the crowd. They wanted to check out the ink on his forearm. He knows a lot of cops with a tattoos; none of them have guns inked on their bodies. He pulled out his cell phone and showed a photo of the full-length sleeve of his right arm — a female Dia de Los Muertos figure cradling a skeleton in her arms. It’s meaning and personal significance? “It’s cool.”

Although he finds the physical pain almost unbearable, Altizer is into the exhilaration of tattooing.

“It’s all about getting an adrenaline rush,” he said. “That’s why I ride motorcycles, too.”

While there may not be a perfect union between guns and ink, they make easy companions, said Scott Sheene, a tattoo artist who traveled from Harrodsburg, Ky. to attend the expo.

“You have a whole lot of people who are enjoying something that is almost taboo,” said Sheene, who wore a Gadsden “don’t tread on me” flag patch on his cap. “The tattoo has been on the far outside for a long time. And now, with all the media attention, guns are getting more and more vilified.”

While tattoos are so common now that even cops can display them without raising an eyebrow, for one part of America at least, guns are increasingly becoming badge of outlawdom.

“With our grandfathers’ and fathers’ generation, it wasn’t uncommon to have people carrying guns on the gunracks of their truck,” Sheene said. “You hear about all these school shootings — people are responsible for that, not guns. I’m at the tail end of the generation that we brought our guns to school, and it was no big deal.”

Scott Hendren of Inferno Ink and permanent cosmetic artist Alyssa Navarro. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

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