Hooked on the Needle 

A tale of tattoo obsession

Page 2 of 5

But the tattoo goes back thousands of years in some cultures. Hawaiians applied pigment to the skin with a needle made from bone, tied to a stick and struck by a mallet, imprinting fallen chiefs and family members. In New Zealand, Maori men wore a full-face moko, made by literally carving the skin with a chisel, and adorned themselves with puhoro, an intricate tattoo extending from mid-torso to the knees that featured the characteristic design of a spiral on the buttock.

Today, studios employ sophisticated sterilization and machines that work similarly to a sewing machine. The artist dips the needle in the ink, which is drawn into the needle's reservoir. Stepping on a peddle on the floor makes the needle bob up and down. When the needle presses against the skin, ink is automatically released. The challenge is to pierce the skin deep enough so that the color does not quickly wear away, but shallow enough so that the ink does not spread out like a marker applied to tissue paper.

As for the person into whom the ink is injected, there are two types of customers tattoo artists typically see: those who get no more than a few well-concealed tattoos, and those who keep going back for more - until the tattoos are impossible to shield.

Craig Miller is a 48-year-old prosecutor in North Georgia's Polk County. He got his first tattoo five years ago to celebrate graduating from law school - a symbol on his ankle of a congi, a Japanese ideogram that means "truth." Today he has more than 25 tattoos, including a full sleeve.

"Some people get one and, for whatever reason, either it hurt too much or whatever, they decide that's it," Miller says. "For me, that wasn't the case. For me, it has been kind of an addiction."

Not that it's easy being tattooed. Miller says his wife disapproves, and he must be careful at work to cover up his arms and chest, wearing long sleeves and buttoning his shirt to the top button.

Like Miller, Carmichael went back to get a second tattoo less than a year after he got his first, at the same shop in Yokosuka. That one was on his upper right arm, of a black and blue Japanese foo dog.

According to Carmichael, the problem with trying to curb your tattoo lust is one of symmetry. "If you get a tattoo on your left arm, before you know it, you're going to realize how empty your right arm looks," Carmichael says. "That was the case with me. I just wanted another tattoo to balance out the one I had."

Not exactly a popular kid growing up, Carmichael says he was interested in photography at a time when carrying a camera instead of a football was the mark of a nerd. To Carmichael, getting tattooed was a way of distancing himself from a disapproving crowd, of building up the wall between him and the adolescent bullies and disinterested high school girls. Carmichael didn't worry that his tattoos might have a harmful effect on professional opportunities or future relationships. At the time, he could cover both of them with a long-sleeved shirt.

In 1965, when Carmichael was 21, his naval service ended and he returned to his hometown of Birmingham to enroll at Huntingdon College. There he met his future wife. The couple married during Carmichael's sophomore year and had their first child, a boy, a year later.

During college, Carmichael worked as a photographer for the Montgomery Advertiser and Alabama Journal. His wife worked as a business manager at a local hospital. After graduation, the family moved to northeast Atlanta, near Buckhead. Carmichael took a job as a news film photographer at Channel 5 (then a CBS affiliate), and in 1970 the couple had their second child, a girl.

Carmichael's wife didn't mind his two tattoos, but she made it clear she didn't want him to get any more.

Nevertheless, he recalls thinking about another tattoo often. But he put it off - not only because of his wife's distaste but because he didn't know where to go. There weren't any tattoo shops listed in the Atlanta Yellow Pages in 1970. The scene still was very much underground - and largely biker-run.

A few years after the family moved to Atlanta, Carmichael's marriage began to suffer, and the couple eventually divorced. Roughly a year later, Carmichael's wife moved the children to Dallas. Carmichael obsessed over the separation from his family.

"There was a lot more stigma to divorce in 1973," Carmichael says. "I had two kids I wasn't sure how much I would get to see. And I was afraid of living alone."



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