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Carmichael says he wanted to do something to break his cycle of depression. He says he wanted to demonstrate his newfound freedom. He says he was tired of hiding his two tattoos. So he got two more, one on each forearm. He wanted these new ones to be seen.
After driving 145 miles to a tattoo shop in Augusta - the closest he could find - Carmichael walked out with a bald eagle perched on a bed of red and yellow flowers on his right arm, and a chartreuse-scaled dragon flanked by red flames on his left.
Carmichael's tattoos were no longer a secret. But they weren't exactly an obsession. Not yet.
It would be 12 years before fate introduced Carmichael to "Painless" Paul Nelson and Colette Thompson - and his next series of tattoos.
Painless Paul is a throwback. A former biker, Nelson pawned a motorcycle to pay for his first tattoo apprenticeship. He says he opened his first shop, Ace Tattoo, in 1974, when he saw how much money there was to be made tattooing in Atlanta. He later opened two more shops under the same name. For years, Nelson's Ace Tattoo shops, which he describes as "rough-looking old buildings with red carpet and flash on the wall," offered the only tattooing in town. Back then, Nelson says, he kept away competition with threats. "I was very serious about my territory," he says. "A guy would move in down the street and start tattooing out of his house, and I would have to go down and explain to him that I started this here, and if he stayed he might get hurt. His house might burn."
Nelson says he never had to burn any houses, because rival artists never stuck around. Then in the early '90s, Nelson claims that, as if overnight, tattoo shops sprung up all over the city. Painless Paul's monopoly was over. He closed the last of his three shops in December of 2004.
"Up until 10 years ago, there was decent money to be made," Nelson says. "But around 1995 you could see it tapering off. I had a business that was making $500,000 to $1 million a year, and it went to where I was making $50,000 a year. So, yeah, I'm a little bitter."
One of Nelson's biggest complaints about the industry is the hassle accompanying the rise of custom tattoos. It used to be that getting a tattoo was a matter of walking into a shop and picking a design off the wall. But today's elite artists do custom work - tattoos designed specifically for the individual. Often, the customer will come to a shop with a drawing, a printout or an idea, and it will be up to the artist to create something unique.
Many custom artists pull in customers based on their distinct styles. Tony Olivas, of Sacred Heart Tattoo, is known for realistic black and gray portraiture, and his work can be seen on the Black Crowes' Chris Robinson. Deano Cook, owner of Psycho Tattoo, is renowned for underwater scenes with bright tropical fish and wavy seaweed - what he calls "aquatic photorealism." He has tattooed the Discovery Channel's "Motorcycle Mania" star Jesse James.
The increased popularity of custom tattoos has helped advance the notion that the tattoo is in fact art. Still, for every customer with a custom tattoo, there are dozens with a barbed wire armband or a Celtic cross pulled off a shop wall.
And despite the booming popularity of tattoos, there are still some people who just don't get it. Steve Carmichael's second wife is one of them.
The couple met when Carmichael was living with three roommates in a two-story brick house in Buckhead. She lived next door. The two bonded over their mutual love of literature, art and music (they're both symphony buffs). They married shortly thereafter and moved into Carmichael's old house, which he had been renting since the divorce. He and his new wife had a daughter in 1982.
Two years after his daughter was born, Carmichael's daughter from his first marriage died in a car accident. She was 17.
"It was the worst thing that ever happened in my life," Carmichael says. "I got the call from her stepfather telling me what had happened. That's a phone call that no parent ever anticipates getting.
"I think loss has been a big factor in my getting tattoos."
There is no medical research to suggest people get tattoos to help deal with trauma. In fact, a recent University of Florida survey found no connection between tattoos and a person's past. The survey, which sampled about 280 undergraduates with at least one tattoo or nontraditional piercing, found that a stressful experience was not linked to the number of tattoos people get (though those with multiple piercings were much more likely to have experienced stressful events such as injury, illness, abuse or the death of a loved one).
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