The Family That Inks Together Stays Together
A relationship that’s more than skin deep
FRANK METHE PHOTOGRAPH
Tattoo artist Bob Ellison points to the pentagram surrounded by three sixes etched into his neck: “That’s in honor of my dad,” he says. “When I was a kid, he always said I was an evil lil’ bastard. Well, Dad, if I’m evil, I may as well be the devil’s son.”
Ellison cracks up at his own observation, and you just know it’s going to be an unusual night in the Ink Obsession tattoo studio on N. Galvez Street. Cars fly by almost directly overhead on an elevated portion of Interstate 10, and Ellison uses that vision to segue into an observation, one that points out that if Ink Obsession isn’t the center of an increasingly crowded universe of tattoo establishments around New Orleans, it’s at least at a geographical map point trisecting Faubourg Marigny, the 9th Ward and the 8th Ward.
“We’re right on the edge of everything,” Ellison says, his voice tinged with pride. “We don’t get a lot of walk-ins, maybe five or so a week. But most of my clients are by-appointment, lot of repeat customers, people who like our work and come and refer us ... satisfied customers who really like what we do.”
One of those satisfied customers is his partner for the past six years, Nicole Bell. He tattoos her. She tattoos him. Nicole’s daughter, Gabrielle, can’t wait until Aug. 29 when she turns 18 so she can experience the wonderful world of permanent dermal artwork for herself.
Apparently, that old adage rings true here: The family that inks together stays together.
Nicole is a native of Gretna, and Bob blew into New Orleans as a search and rescue volunteer fireman after Hurricane Katrina. Though their eyes locked into each other at a bar in Gretna, it wasn’t exactly love at first sight.
“Nicole bought me a beer, but I don’t drink,” Ellison says. “I refused it. Well, she got mad as hell and slapped me upside the head. To say we didn’t get along at first would be putting it mildly. But we got to be friends and the rest, as they say, is history. We’re not married. I’ve been married five times. Those two words, ‘I do!’ and that little piece of paper can really ruin a relationship. They’ve been very unlucky for me.” Ellison jokes, “Nicole and I are in debt together, so I guess you could say we’re married.”
But no doubt, it’s the love of ink that holds Bob and Nicole’s relationship together. He sort of nods in agreement and feels fortunate that his favorite two subjects actually are one and the same: “Nicole had two ugly tattoos when I met her,” he says. I put the rest on her …”
Nicole lifts up her pants legs and shows the totem of skulls on her appendages.
“Wanna see my camel toe?” Nicole asks,
“Errrrr, ahhhh, wellll …” a visitor gulps.
Nicole drops a shoe to the floor and points with pride to the dromedary camel inked on one of her toes.
Not to be outdone, Ellison turns forearms up and points to this skull, that Madonna. The visitor is a little hesitant to ask about the three red claw marks up and below one of his eyes.
“Yes, that’s a real tattoo,” Ellison says. “I got mad as hell at Nicole one day,” Ellison says. “We had a fight and she really got to me. So I put those three marks over and under my eye as a reminder to her. She still gets pissed off every time she looks at it.”
Nicole’s daughter Gabrielle says, “I’m afraid of needles but … Maybe I will … then again, maybe I won’t. I just don’t know. I still have a little time to think about it. But I like the thought of the artwork on me …”
“I know how she feels,” Ellison says, “My dad was a tattoo artist. I’ve been around it all my life. I mean, hell, I’d come home from school and hang out at the parlor. That’s all I saw. I grew up with tattoos. I got my first tattoo when I was 11 years old. Of course, I got my ass beat several times for that. But I’ve been getting tattoos ever since. I’ve been a firefighter, but man I love tattoos. I eat, sleep, dream tattoos. Sometimes, I’d rather get a tattoo than have sex. I really, really love it.”
However, not everything covering the body of Bob Ellison is of Louvre quality.
The 40-year-old Gilmer, Texas, native lifts his T-shirt to reveal a mass of broken lines that vaguely resemble a skull and a collection of playing cards.
“This one (on his back) was done by a guy I was teaching to tattoo. He was an apprentice. A friend of mine. It was the very first tattoo he had ever done. We stopped to take a cigarette break. He was going to run down to the corner store to buy a pack of cigarettes. Well, he was hit by a car and he died. I just never let anybody touch it or even think about finishing it. I spent a lot of time with him … we were close.” He continues, “I guess it’s a memorial to my friend, just as it is. In truth, I don’t even remember what it was going to be. I’m not going to do anything else with it. I’m going to leave it just as it is.”
In an era when seemingly everybody is out to have a picture of their kid tattooed on their arm or somebody’s name on their neck – one guy had a Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Department badge tattooed on his arm in honor of his mother who retired as a JPSO front desk receptionist – Ellison has followed an important axiom of any of business: “Know thy market.” He is fanatical about knowing and maintaining municipal and health department laws and codes. “I will not tattoo anything that has anything to do with narcotics or any illegal drugs … Did you know if the police pull you over and you have a marijuana leaf tattooed on your arm, they immediately have probable cause to search your car? But you get all these little idiots who buy a cheap ass tattoo needle online and do $5 and $10 tats in their kitchen … man that’s bad stuff. I want to put them all out of business.”
Ellison pulls out a tattoo needle he has built. He goes on about the cost of ink, the maverick unregulated kitchen table tattoo practitioners out there and then he brags a little about holding the world record for having the number of ‘stick man’ tattoos on his body. Gabrielle is still contemplating the agony and the ecstasy of perhaps that skull with the words “As you are, I was … As I am, you will be …” on her arm or maybe it’ll be a rose. Nicole smiles at that and avers to the next time Bob puts tattoo needle to her body: “I’m open to anything,” she says. “But I want to try to keep it girly. Bob and I are working on a theme I like: ‘Day of the Dead girl.’ Right down the middle of my back. With flowers all around her. As you can see on my legs I like skulls.”
“Every tattoo parlor has skulls in what they do,” Ellison says. He holds out his arms to bring the visitors’ attention to drawings and stencils of hundreds and hundreds of literally every subject imaginable. “In truth? I never if ever use stencils. I generally do my own. And those can run from $50 to as much as $30,000 for a full back with color. I’ve done several of those …”
“I’m really anxious to get it done,” Gabrielle says.
“Something very girly,” Nicole says.
The family that inks together, stays together.
And outside, the cars fly by on elevated Interstate 10 high above the family goings-on inside the little tattoo emporium on N. Galvez Street.