Hooked on the Needle 

A tale of tattoo obsession

Page 4 of 5

Because of his second wife's dislike of tattoos, Carmichael resisted his urge and went a decade without getting inked. As time passed, however, he longed for the buzz of the tattoo gun.

In the fall of 1996, Carmichael found a listing in the phone book for Sacred Heart Tattoo. After calling, he drove to the second-story shop in Little Five Points. It had been 23 years since Carmichael tattooed his forearms in Augusta. In the interim, he'd only been tattooed once.

In 1984, Carmichael had been inspired after producing a segment for Channel 5 about the popularity of tattoo art. The segment was shot at Ace Tattoo and focused on Painless Paul and his shop. The tattoo that Nelson gave Carmichael was a blue, green and orange braid on his left ring finger - a tattoo easily concealed by his wedding band. It was small - but enough to sustain his desire.

More than a decade later, Carmichael would spend an hour hanging out at Sacred Heart talking to an artist named Colette Thompson about his next tattoo. Carmichael studied Thompson's books, checking out dozens of Polaroids of past customers - their tattoos still red and swollen in the pictures.

Thompson, who specializes in intricate color work, is part of a trend in tattoo art that has seen shop owners morph from self-taught bikers to art school graduates (or, in many cases, art school dropouts). She grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs and was educated at Parsons School of Design in Manhattan, the University of Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and the Atlanta College of Art.

She was 23 years old when she took an apprenticeship with "Whirlwind" Walt Clark at Tornado Tattoo on Highland Avenue, starting out in a position she calls "shop bitch" - sweeping the floor, cleaning the glass, sterilizing the tubes and making the needles.

A year-and-a-half later, Thompson left Tornado Tattoo to apprentice under Olivas at Sacred Heart. She paid $5,000 for the opportunity. After four months, Olivas hired her to work as an artist in his shop, and she stayed for a decade. (Thompson later would open Holy Mother Tattoo in Little Five Points.) She was at Sacred Heart the day Steve Carmichael decided to once again scratch his tattoo itch.

Carmichael wound up leaving the shop with a blue spiral armband around his right bicep. It was the first of many tattoos Thompson would give Carmichael. Over the ensuing years, the two would find themselves alternately bickering and collaborating.

"My view is that, if you're in it for the long haul, you develop a relationship with an artist," Carmichael says. "When I'm ready for it and I have money, I'll call Colette and say, 'Why don't we do some more work on my chest?' Sometimes she will just take off with the needle and do whatever she wants to do. It's fun letting an artist have license to do what they want."

Carmichael soon would get both arms "sleeved," with ink covering all of the flesh from the wrist to the shoulder. By that point, there was no going back - though Carmichael did try.

His wife tolerated the armband tattoo, but the sleeves were hard to ignore. She asked him to consider having his tattoos removed. Though Carmichael loved his tattoos, he hated how much they bothered his family.

He searched Google for tattoo support groups but found nothing. Eventually, he set up an appointment with a surgeon to have his tattoos erased by laser.

"I agreed to have my tattoos removed just to create some peace at home," Carmichael says. "My wife didn't give me an ultimatum, but it meant a lot to her that I tried to have them removed."

But the laser treatments did not go well. Carmichael got large, itchy welts on his arms. He discontinued the treatments, and after several months the welts went away.

"I went back to Colette and she was furious," Carmichael recalls. "She said, 'You're messing with my work. I'm not going to redo what you've ruined.'"

After much pleading, Carmichael convinced Thompson to tattoo his arms again. And he returned to her, over and over, to get his back and chest done.

Dr. Charles Schuster, professor of psychiatry and behavioral studies at Wayne State University and the former director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, thinks he has an explanation for Carmichael's obsession.Schuster explains that the body's response to pain, such as that of a tattoo needle's prick, is to self-medicate. So the brain signals the pituitary gland to release endorphins, which are a type of homegrown morphine. These endorphins cause some of the same pharmacological effects - euphoria, tingling and numbness - brought on by opiates. Schuster says individuals who might be mildly depressed could find relief in the mood-altering properties of endorphins released while getting tattooed.

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