By Michael Allen
There are artists who do not work with paint or canvas, who do not perform on stage or screen, and whose work will never be framed at a museum or on a collector’s shelves. Some of them work with a buzzing needle.
One of those artists closed his eyes and sat still before he began, and for several moments, he was simply listening to the music of tribal drumbeats over his loudspeaker, perhaps visualizing the step-by-step process of placing his craft on its intended medium. Ashley Miller, his patron, sat across from him, waiting for the artist to begin.
Behind the artist, the wall is full of pictures and calendars and art; a yellowing skeleton in a black suit, surrounded by a black picture frame, grins at the artist and his patron, three bronze-brown in bronze-brown petals peer out with blank eyes, and a sign in rosewood standard font charges examining eyes with the gentle remind, “don’t forget to tip your artist.” The artist’s eyes, brown like an unoxidized penny, open, and he washes his hands and puts on gloves.
He says, “I need you to tell me a memory of your mom before we start.”
The shop, with its yellowing checkerboard tiles, tan couch, encased swords, and hanging decorative skulls, was quiet. 31 Ink on US 31-W Bypass, a tattoo shop, was not in its busy season, when people bring their money from tax returns in exchange for new ink, and the regulars weren’t in. If not for the two artists there, and the apprentice re-painting the windowsill, it would be empty.
In the lobby above the couch, the shop’s owner has hung an American flag, below which is a black plate that reads “Marines.” Leading to the chairs where the artists work, there is a wide doorway, above which is a decal of a snake with the phrase “Don’t tread on me” emblazoned on a banner above it, and next to that doorway is a sign stating that firearms are permitted within the shop.
The shop’s owner is an ex-Marine named Garrett Morrell, who wore an olive-green t-shirt imprinted with “MI22ION: United in the war against veteran suicide,” baggy black pants, dirty black boots with a single stain on yellow paint on the right foot. His mohawk allows those around him to see the tattoos on the sides of his head, including a compass above his left ear, and both sides of his head are covered in tattoos, they are far from the only ones. He doesn’t even know how many tattoos he has.
“Two hundred something? Not sure, too many to count. Technically six, I guess,” Morrell said with a smile as he gestured at one arm, then the other, then his legs, torso, and head.
He began his tattoo collection when he was 14, when he placed an unusual design on his left leg, above the knee, using a hypodermic needle and an electric toothbrush to place it. He said that it is “supposed to be” the Aztec symbol for longevity, and that it took a year for it to heal.
“I’ve been tattooing professionally for five years,” Morrell said, emphasizing the difference between his current work and what he did before in his younger years, before he joined the Marines, before he apprenticed in a tattoo parlor, before he opened his own shop.
Morrell said that he had wanted to pursue two careers since childhood, that of a tattoo artist and that of a US Marine. He remembers drawing fake tattoo sleeves on his arms in school, drawing detailed hands with tattoos on them, and getting sent to school counseling on multiple occasions for drawing darker subject matter in the designs.
“I had to draw a detailed hand for and art class, and, well, I drew a detailed hand, starting with the bones, then the muscles, then skin, tattoos, and I put some pins in it, and I put my girlfriend’s name on it,” Morrell said, smiling. “I ended up throwing it away, but I threw it away in one of my other classes, not my art class, and the teacher saw it. Well, they tried to say that it was violent to her, because I put my girlfriend’s name on it and had pins sticking out of it. My mom came down and stuck up for me for that. The art teacher, too. She was pretty cool; she was just angry that I threw it away.”
Morrell’s tendency to get rid of his art did not end in his childhood. Near the chair where Morrell does tattoos, there was a small, white canvas set up in a portrait orientation, featuring an uncolored image of mountains with a tunnel in them. He said that he didn’t see himself as a painter, and that he didn’t think his paintings were good enough to be sold in the same way that he could charge customers for tattoos.
“I’ve never sold a painting. I give them all away,” Morrell said.
“I have to ask, can you be too hard on yourself if it means pushing yourself to be better? I don’t think so,” he added.
A Happy Memory
Ashley told Morrell, the artist, a happy memory of her mother. Ashley remembered seeing her mother at a rosebush, happy, and the time she spent there. Morrell was satisfied with this, and began his work by showing Ashley the metal, triangular needles he was going to use.
“Never been used before, never to be used again,” the artist assured her, and before long he was beginning the process of applying ink to the design on Ashley’s arm.
Ashley’s tattoo consisted of the phrase “Love you bunches, mom” acting as the stem of a rose, the rose being pollinated by a hummingbird. Morrell started with the words, then moved up the arm to the rose, and, from there, up further still to the hummingbird itself. As he worked, Morrell would pause occasionally to wipe away excess ink with a paper towel.
Although the customers ultimately decide what goes on their bodies, Morrell demonstrated on a couple occasions that evening that the artist has an influence over how a design evolves between its conception and the final product. At one point, Morrell asked Ashley for her permission to add eyelashes to the hummingbird, to which she consented. At another point, Morrell affected the colors of the hummingbird’s wings.
“What was your mom’s favorite color?” Morrell asked.
“I’m not sure,” Ashely said. “She liked all the colors.”
Morrell then suggested that the upper segments of the hummingbird’s wings be of multiple colors, which Ashley agreed to.
“All the colors,” Ashley said, giggling slightly.
“For the woman who loved everything,” Morrell said as he began the process of applying colored ink to the lines.
While Morrell worked to complete Ashley’s tattoo, he also spoke with her about future projects of his own. The steady, quiet drone of the tattoo machine, which sounded not unlike the buzzing of an electric toothbrush, continued in the background as Morrell spoke about his interest in getting tattoos representing each of his family members. He said he was thinking of getting each of their favorite Looney Tunes characters tattooed on himself.
“Everyone in my family has a favorite character, and no one has the same favorite character. Nancy,” Morrell said, referring to his grandmother, who Morrell had expressed a deep admiration of, “loves Tweety-bird, and Dad loves Taz. I’m going to get one of Tweety yelling at Taz.”
Ashley’s design took roughly three hours and she said that, over the course of the day, she had cried four times — out of joy, rather than out of pain.
Who you want to be
Morrell claims his tattoo parlor is dedicated to helping customers fulfill a dream, whereas other tattoo parlors are dedicated to the pursuit of money. He explained that he feels that a good tattoo artist needs understand what the tattoo being done means to the person who is getting it.
The shop has a policy not to tattoo the faces or hands of the customers. Morrell said that he once broke this policy to cover up the facial tattoos of a man who had gotten gang signs on his face, over which Morrell placed silhouettes of trees and flowers.
“He looked in the mirror and said, ‘I don’t hate my face anymore,’” Morrell said.
Although Morrell noted this anecdote as one of the highlights of his career, in general he does not advocate tattoos in highly-visible areas such as the face, as he feels they can restrict employment opportunities. An NPR article which states that most people with tattoos cover them up to avoid social stigmatization and reduced hireability indicates that this is good advice.
He also said that he recommends people steer away from tattoos that might have a hostile or otherwise negative connotation about them, and he said that he advises his customers to get tattoos that remind them of the people they want to be.
“The people that are here—they’re here to help build someone else’s dream,” Morrell said of his staff as he lit a cigarette from a black carton. “That’s our dream.”
Morrell works with two other artists, John, who came to Bowling Green from Chicago to work at Morrell’s shop, and Josh, a younger artist who was trained by Morrell. John is tall, relatively muscular, with short gray hair and a gray beard.
John’s toddler son likes to play with the yellow cigarette butt receptacle outside of 32 Ink, preceding swift attempts to stop him from both John and Morrell. John is somewhat taciturn, and speaks in his normal voice when telling his son not to play with it, and Morrell uses childish words and a coddling voice to dissuade the boy.
“We run a big old family up here,” Morrell said after John’s wife left with the child and John went inside the shop. “Everyone brings their kids.”
It’s not just the kids who come, but mothers as well, including Morrell’s own. His mother, Michele Mason, said that she comes by the shop once or twice a week to help organize the finances. She also brings food, sometimes.
“I thought you didn’t want me to touch you french fries—too bad, I’m eating them,” Michele said as she took from the white Styrofoam containing the buffalo chicken sandwich and fries that she had brought her son.
When she’s not at 31 Ink, Michele teaches special needs children in Sumner County, Tennessee. Aside from Garrett, Michele has three other children—Justin and Kara, who are older than Garrett, and another son named Michael, who is the youngest.
There were times that Garrett did not get along with his siblings. Although Michele was able to provide several details about raising Garrett, there were some things which she was surprised to learn, such as one revelation that Garrett made to her.
“Those holes in the wall are from Justin and I fighting,” he told his mother, while she was sitting in the lobby of the shop. “We would put each other’s faces into the wall.”
Michele describes her family as all being “animal people,” and she mentioned that she has a small farm.
“Garrett used to bottle-feed the calves,” she said.
On the subject of calves, Morrell recounted how he would go out and kill water moccasins because, if they neared the farm, the water moccasins would strike the calves, whose legs would grow weak and they would die. His mother expressed some doubt that this was the exact cause of the deaths of the calves.
“And it had nothing to do with you riding the calves like rodeo bulls?” Michele asked, to no direct response from Morrell.
Although he is no longer on a farm raising calves, Morrell continues to have an affinity for animals.
He currently has two dogs, a 4-year-old blue shepherd named Chance, who Morrell left with his parents to work on the farm, and an 8-month-old dog named Muninn, who has tan-colored fur and who Morrell has had since the dog was 8 weeks old.
Michele said she wasn’t surprised when her son began to take an interest in tattoos. He’d been drawing on himself since he was barely “higher than a coke bottle,” she said, holding out her hand a little less than four feet from the ground. “I made him promise not to do any from the wrist down to the head up.”
Michele wasn’t sure which moment she was more proud of her son—in November of 2009, when he graduated from training for the Marine Corps, or in February 2017, when Morrell opened 31 Ink.
Michele, herself, does not have any tattoos at all.
That’s becoming less and less common. The Harris Poll reported in 2012 that roughly 21 percent of American adults have at least one tattoo.
The Tattoo process
Bee stings hurt. Sunburns hurts. The process of getting a tattoo contains sensations similar to both being stung by an insect and to the sensation of being touched on an area with sunburn. But, rather than being a swift, unpleasant feeling, as those two stimuli would cause, it is a pain that is drawn out over the course of however many hours it requires to apply the intended design.
The exact experience of a tattoo varies from person to person and from design to design. In Morrell’s shop, the first step in getting a tattoo doesn’t even start on the skin—it starts when the design is altered as need be, on an electronic tablet, before being printed out to be applied as a stencil, which guides the artist as to how the tattoo should be done.
Once the stencil is applied to the skin, the artist traces the lines in black, which can take a great deal of time and concentration depending on how fine the lines are, and how intricate the tattoo is.
The application of color takes even more time, and not every color will stay as vibrant on every customer. The skin of some customers simply may not hold the ink at all, or it may fade or run to some degree over time, and require a touch-up. In the event that a tattoo uses multiple colors with a clear dividing line, the artist may choose to do a “bloodline”—a swiftly-drawn line used to denote where the color change should occur.
Lessons in permanency
Because of the time, energy, and cost involved, as well as the element of permanency, tattoos should be carefully considered before being acquired. With that said, there are some people who make this decision hastily or without careful forethought.
31 Ink occasionally gets such people. Morrell is fond of lessons, whether he’s learning something new for himself or administering a lesson to someone he feels requires it. In the latter case, Morrell once attempted to teach a young man to think out his life choices more thoroughly.
The young man, who it is important to remember was 18 at the time, had developed a habit of visiting 31 Ink frequently to ask for a free tattoo, a request which was denied several times by Morrell’s staff. One day, however, Morrell decided to grant this man’s request—on the grounds that Morrell would be the one to decide what the tattoo would be, and where it would be placed. As Morrell described it, the young man was more than happy to accept these conditions.
Later that evening, that young man walked out of the shop with a free tattoo… of a phallus, rising from a coffin, with the word “FREE” tattooed above it. Morrell said that his patron had at least a good sense of humor, and that he seemed pretty satisfied with his new tattoo. There was someone who wasn’t so satisfied, however.
“I got a voicemail the next day,” Morrell said, taking out his cellphone.
“You sorry piece of shit. You put a damn pecker on a young boy’s arm? You are going to pay—I will get a warrant on your sorry a–butt.”
It was a female voice, one steeped in the slight drawl of a moderately Southern American accent, colored more by annoyance than genuine rage. Morrell said that he wasn’t worried about any sort of warrant from the incident, as the young man was 18 and a willing participant.
“I just hope I fixed one stupid person in the world,” Morrell said, after pulling up an image of the penis tattoo on his personal computer. He takes photos of his work after finishing the tattoos, some of which he posts images of on social media, with the consent of his customers.
Colors that don’t run
“You do alright for a jar-rock,” Ashley’s father said to Morrell, as the two smoked outside the shop.
“It’s all those crayons I ate as a kid,” Morrell replied. “The colors just run out of me.”
Morrell and Ashley’s father both having served in the Marines, they discussed, briefly, common problems faced by veterans in America. In particular, Morrell bemoaned the increase in suicidal tendencies of veterans as a consequence of medicines commonly prescribed to veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Morrell supports an organization called Mission 22. The organization was established to fight veteran suicide by helping to reacclimate veterans to home society. Morrell had recently helped out at a fundraiser organized by Mission 22.
“A lot of them don’t have a home,” Morrell said of returning veterans. “I made my home.”
Morrell politely declined to talk much about his time in the Marines, but he did share an anecdote on how he decided that he wanted to serve in the Marine Corps — a day in his childhood when he was attending a school play that his sister was involved in.
“They used to do school plays at my school, and the national anthem played before the plays. One day, there was a Marine in the audience in front of me. He snapped to attention, and my dad said, ‘Nothing is more profound than a Marine snapping to attention.’”
Morrell was unable to name a specific tattoo as his favorite to have worked on. He did, however, emphasize that he preferred to work on tattoos that had a sentimental meaning to his customers, rather than tattoo designs that were chosen from the wall gallery in the lobby.
Morrell said he sometimes feels uncomfortable charging for tattoos that have a primarily sentimental or commemorative quality to them, such as the tattoo he gave to Ashley.
“I can’t give you a specific one,” Morrell said. “The ones that are customized are the best because they mean something to ‘em.”