I talk about this all the time, but there was a point in my life where I was terrified to walk into a tattoo shop. Back when there was still an air of mystery to the whole thing; it had it’s own language that I didn’t speak, smells that I didn’t recognize and often unsavory characters behind the counter doing what to my eyes looked like magic.
A few decades later and I’ve learned the lingo as good as anyone else; I know what a dummy rail is and that I’m the dummy. I know that the smell of green soap can make me travel back in time, the proper use of SpeedStick deodorant and that some of those characters- and God were they characters back then- were some of the most amazing people I’m ever going to meet.
One of my early tattooers- willing to put up with the nagging questions of a Plant City farm kid- was ‘Just Plain Bud’ Pierson who owned Ancient Art Tattoo on the Orange Blossom Trail of Orlando. This shop was smack dab in the middle of the Trail, flanked by nudie bars and not too far a drive to the Orlando Naval Training Center and it got all kinds of foot traffic coming through. When I started getting tattooed by Bud I was still wet behind the ears, but getting tattooed was still something I looked forward to (times have changed. Lyle Tuttle calls it the ‘World’s Dumbest Hobby’ and the older I get, the more I hate it) just because of Bud’s stories.
All of those old timers had stories to tell and once I got over the fear of making an ass of myself and nutted up enough to talk with them, I’d soak it all up. it was never work talk. I’m not a tattooer and had no interest in asking them what needles they used for what kind of job. It’s not for me to ask what powdered pigment they use for that super bright purple or any of that- but you get them talking about breaking up a fight between a bunch of sailors or having to stash a mystery package for a local biker gang and I’m all ears.
One of the tattooers that Bud always talked about in absolute reverence was Zeke Owen. It’s not an understatement to say that I grew up hearing Zeke’s name, given how young I was when I first started getting tattooed at Ancient Art, yet fate would conspire to never put me in the same place at the same time with him. At least until a few years ago when I saw him wandering around at the Philly Tattoo Convention, casually strolling from booth to booth and checking out what was going on. I was going to go up and introduce myself, but for the first time in a long time- I was nervous.
It was ZEKE. And I didn’t want to make an ass of myself, gushing all over him like some sort of sap. So I chickened out. I ran into Mike Schweigert of Electric in NJ and told him that I felt like a gigantic goober for being so nervous. Mike told me a few Zeke stories that made me chuckle (and made me even more nervous about saying hello) and thanks to him I finally gussied up the stones to go say hi.
When I approached Zeke, before I even got to say hi, he started flexing a tattoo on his arm to make it dance, and said “give this a look.” And I did. And that old fear was gone and I was able to do exactly what I was worried I was going to do- gush and come off like some sort of sap, but it was fine. Zeke told me a few stories, cracked a few jokes at the expense of some of the younger tattooers working the show, and was every inch of him that (not quite) unsavory character who could do magic.
Zeke is currently in Sanford, Florida and is unfortunately suffering from serious medical issues that are taking an extreme financial toll on him.
If you’ve ever met Zeke or heard a Zeke story, you know the impact he’s made on tattoo culture. If you have a few bucks to throw into the pot it would really help him out.