Whether it's an overly picky expert (complete with references from Pinterest) or a hungover mess who didn't feel the need to shower beforehand, every tattoo artist has at least one client they'd like to forget. Even when picking from the worst of the worst, there are different levels of nightmarish experiences. Having someone briefly pass out from fear or exhaustion isn't nearly as terrifying as a client turning blue in the face and falling unconscious or losing control of their bodily fluids.
There's no shame in not being a great client simply because you didn't know any better, and no one will deny that the act of getting tattooed is generally a pretty physically unpleasant experience that doesn't always bring out the best in people. But as in any other service industry, some people bring pain upon themselves by doing really dumb stuff. From literally shitty situations and silent gangbangers with handguns to sexual assault with a side of racism, here are the gnarliest stories from some of Orange County's top tattoo artists.
SHITS 'N' STENCILS
Back in the late 1970s, Jack Rudy wasn't yet recognized as one of the godfathers of fine-line black-and-gray tattooing. The man who now owns Good Time Charlie's Tattooland in Anaheim was just one of a handful of artists working at the shop's previous East LA location, which was the go-to place for anyone who wanted a "joint-style" colorless tattoo.
One night when Rudy was in the shop with a co-worker, a seemingly tough guy came in to get some ink on his upper arm. Unfortunately, what should've been a simple black-and-gray tattoo turned into a messy situation before they even got started.
"We're drawing the outline on him with a ballpoint pen, and just really quick, the guy gets pale and his eyes roll up back into his head," Rudy recalls. "He passes out and crumples to the floor, and in the process—unbeknownst to us—he must've almost kind of died because he pissed and shit himself."
Just moments after vacating his bladder and bowels, the prospective client regained consciousness and pulled himself together as best he could. Although Rudy has seen plenty of people pass out in the four decades since, he'll never forget that experience—or the interaction that occurred after.
"The guy comes to, cleans himself up and still wants to get tattooed!" Rudy says. "We were like, 'Uh, no. . . . You're probably not getting tattooed ever, but you're definitely not getting tattooed tonight.' He seemed fine once he recovered, but we just told him, 'Homes, you've got to go.' I don't know if he ever came back again."
AN UNEXPECTED HANDFUL
Working out of Gold Rush Tattoo on the border between Costa Mesa and the bars of Newport Beach, dealing with unruly clientele has been a part of regular life for Joel Bones. But about a decade ago, a friend of Bones' brought in one of her friends to get a sleeve started. Since they were a little early for the appointment, the two ladies went to grab a drink at the bar next door before the veteran artist called them back.
"I started working on her arm, and she starts moving around, so I told her to sit still," Bones says. "We go through that five or six times at least, but she just keeps sliding down in her seat and just wiggling around. I was like, 'What is wrong with you? Don't tell me you drank a lot because you were only down there for like 10 minutes.'"
After the woman assured Bones she'd only had one drink, she agreed to settle down so the artist could continue working on her arm. But just when it seemed as if things had finally calmed down, the appointment went off the rails entirely.
"About 10 minutes later, she's reaching under the armrest and grabbing my crotch," Bones says. "I'm like, 'Stop!' and she goes, 'You can't tell me you don't want a handy right now!' I asked her to please calm the fuck down, but she just kept getting more and more unruly. It got ramped up to the point where she's yelling, 'Fuck, this fucking hurts!' and, 'Fuck me in the fucking asshole!' at volume 20. The whole shop is stopping in to make sure everything is cool, so I finished the outline and just said, 'We're done. Here's your bandage. I need you to get the fuck out of here.'"
With his job completed for the day, Bones figured he was better off stepping outside to clear his head than waiting for the belligerent woman to leave. But as with any wildly destructive force, the ride wasn't over until the obviously bombed client ruined things for at least one more person. "I went out back to have a cigarette and try to get my marbles, and next thing I know, my business partner comes out and says, 'That bitch isn't allowed here ever again!'" Bones remembers. "I guess she went into his room where he was tattooing an Asian back piece on an Asian client who's one of our friends. She starts looking at the girl getting tattooed like, 'Whoa, that's crazy!' and then leans in close to her head and says, 'Oh, I know about your kind, the slanted-pussy type.'"
THE TAGALOG TERROR
The 1980s punk-rock scene was full of bad decisions and worse tattoos, but the then-teenage Lucky Bastard (who now owns Orange's Fine Tattoo Work) was already tattooing—but working as a minor came with its own difficulties. "I couldn't tattoo out of my pad because my pad was my father's pad, so I'd put my things into my shitty fucking [Chevy] Nova and drive to wherever you were to tattoo at your pad," Lucky says. "I met these two Filipino brothers, and they both wanted a couple of climbing panthers—just cool fucking tattoos."
Lucky packed up his car and drove to the brothers' house in Inglewood to set up shop in their dining room. The first brother got tattooed without a hitch, but it wasn't long after he started working on the second that the scene descended into familial chaos.
"I think I got, like, three lines into the first paw when their mom came home," Lucky recalls. "Now, these are big dudes, and she's, like, 4-foot-nothing, and she fucking flips out. She starts screaming at them in [Tagalog], crying and punching them. She's punching the tattoos; she's punching their faces. And they're just sitting there, telling me, 'It's cool, man—just keep going.'"
Eventually, Lucky decided they'd have to go elsewhere to finish the second tattoo. Considering their current location and the last-minute nature of the request, the trio's only available option was but a slight improvement over the mayhem they were leaving.
"I only knew one other guy around there, so we go over to his place, and it's a fucking one-person trailer in a little shitty-ass three-person trailer park," Lucky says. "I go in to set up, and he's got this gigantic wife who isn't leaving the trailer. That's just where she sits. So we basically had to work around this dude's wife with the two brothers in there. It was like trying to tattoo while camping or something. It was so ridiculous, but I did finish the tattoo."
NO CHECKS ALLOWED
Rick Walters has his fair share of insane stories—unfortunately, most of them can't be published without possibly indicting him or someone else in decades-old crimes. But of the tales he can tell, there was one that went down late one night during the old days of the Pike, right under the sign at Bert Grimm's World Famous Tattoo Studio that stated they banned things such as drunks, minors and—most of all—checks.
"I tattoo this guy, and he tries to write me a check," Walters says. "I ask him, 'You can't read?' and he just responds, 'Well . . . uh . . . that's all I got.' I told him the police station was right across the street, so I had the helper call the cops. They show up and tell me there's not much they can do about it if he doesn't have any money, and they said I should have him write me a check, take his car keys and not give him his car back until the check clears."
Once the police went back across the street, Walters took the client's license and car keys and promised to go to the bank in the morning. Although no one was amused by the situation, having the client call his significant other seemed the only reasonable way to end the night.
"He's waiting for his old lady to come pick him up, and these big bikers from the Valley show up," Walters says. "They're all, like, 6-foot-7, 300 pounds of muscle, and they're friends of mine—I think one of them wanted to get tattooed that night. The guy [who tried to pay by check] needed to get his glasses out of his car, so I had the bikers take him to his car. They come back, and the guy is a bloody mess. I asked what happened to him, and the bikers started laughing and tell me he kept tripping and falling down face-first into the curb."
The bikers also learned—and the cops later confirmed—that the client had lied to Walters about which car was his. After that abolishment of trust, the tattooer assumed the weasling client would have another set of keys or a backup plan to get his car back, so Walters drove the car to another tattoo shop on the Pike and pulled the coil wire out of the engine, ensuring it wouldn't start without a replacement.
To Walters' surprise, he had no problem cashing the check, so he called to tell the other shop to give the guy his keys and coil wire back. But the artist on the phone told him the client had shown up around dawn with a locksmith. However, they couldn't get the car to start. "I jumped in my car and jammed down [to the shop], and just as I get there, he's got some mechanic out there trying to figure out how to fix the car," Walters says. "He opens the hood, and the mechanic looks down at the motor and says, 'We're going to have to take it into the shop; there are more problems than you think.' If you're a mechanic, you notice there's no coil wire, so I knew he was just going to fuck him over."
A man of his word, Walters handed over the keys now that the check had cleared, but the frazzled client was in such a rush that he didn't even ask for his license back. So the tattooer held on to both the license and coil wire, then went into the backroom to shred each with a pair of scissors. "[Legendary tattooer] Colonel Todd looked at me and said, 'Boy, I wouldn't want you pissed off at me!'" Walters says with a laugh.
THE SOUTH BAY SHOP STALKER
Cover-up tattoos almost always come with some kind of horror story—particularly when they're names—but for Still Life Tattoo's Cole Strem, a walk-in who wanted her neck tattoo of the name Renee covered at his old shop began a saga that still haunts him to this day.
"The next day, I'm at the shop when the phone rings," Strem says. "It's Renee, and he tells me he wants to come down and get tattooed because the tattoo I did on his girl looks great. About two hours later, this super-aggro, Wilmington-gangster-cholo dude walks in covered in shitty jailhouse tattoos."
Renee wanted to get the woman's lips tattooed on him—but not until after she got his name re-tattooed, this time on the other side of her neck and in the biggest, blackest letters possible. As if that didn't seem like a bad enough situation, Renee decided his companion wouldn't be allowed to look at the design or tattoo until it was completed.
"Right then, I knew it was a fucking nightmare, but I was up for walk-ins and needed the money, so I couldn't turn it down," Strem says. "I go back to the lightbox to draw up this name, and all of a sudden, I turn around, and this guy is standing over my fucking shoulder like, 'Can we make the "R" a little bigger?' and just micromanaging me. I was just playing along like, 'Whatever, I'll just get this done and never see these people again.'"
About an hour into one of the most uncomfortable appointments of Strem's career, Renee stepped outside to take a phone call. "[The woman] has me stop, looks up at me, and just says, 'Can we cover this thing?'" Strem recalls. "This was a big, black tattoo on the side of her neck, so maybe a big, black panther or wolf head or reaper or something would cover it, but we were about halfway through, so she just had to settle in for now."
Although Strem was emotionally drained from tattooing a design against the wishes of his canvas, he still had a job to finish on Renee himself. After the woman kissed the paper to create the stencil for the tattoo, Renee continued to be a nightmarishly nitpicky client. "We do the tattoo—and of course it's not as good as he had hoped since he has to be the pickiest fucking guy ever with all of the shitty prison tattoos—but I'm trying to make the guy happy, so we do a couple of other little things before I take his money and he leaves," Strem says. "The whole time, he's talking to me like we're best boys, and I'm just sitting there like, 'I hope this guy never comes back.'"
For the next month, Renee either called or stopped by the San Pedro shop looking for Strem, but he eventually settled on another artist to do an anchor on his forehead because of his first choice's semi-busy schedule and expert dodging. After getting to the point at which Renee's name was a Beetlejuice-like curse causing an unannounced appearance, the poorly tattooed gangster came in looking to cover up an image on his neck. But despite claiming to be down for whatever Strem wanted to do, Renee turned down options such as panthers, butterflies and the grim reaper.
"He was like, 'Nah, I can't do a reaper. My mom will hate it,' and I was just like, 'Really, dude? You got a pot leaf on your head and gang member tattoos, and now you're worried about what Mama's going to think about you?'" Strem says. "I finally just gave him a few options and told him to go home and think about it. . . . He never came back to get tattooed, and I never saw him again—and then the shop moved, so he wasn't my problem anymore. But I still have nightmares any time I hear the name Renee."
OF MONKEY GODS AND HANDGUNS
Lindsey Carmichael was no stranger to Garden Grove's street gangs of the early 1990s, as his clientele primarily consisted of the city's Asian gangsters and their college-aged friends. He was used to inking gang-related tattoos he didn't fully understand, and he was cool with the troublemakers because they were the ones he could always count on paying his bills.
"Since there weren't as many people getting tattooed regularly back then, if somebody showed up at 9:30 and wanted to get this big tattoo when you normally closed at 10, you would just do it and stay late if you hadn't done anything that day or in a couple days," Carmichael says. "[One night,] this guy came in with five friends, and I was completely alone in the shop. They were being kind of quiet, but I sort of knew the routine where the one who would talk to you wasn't the one who was actually getting the tattoo."
That night, Carmichael's canvas was receiving a "monkey god" tattoo that wasn't anything out of the ordinary given the time and place. The clients quickly agreed to the price, and the artist felt good about how everything was going—even if he really just wanted to get the piece done as quickly as possible so he could go home to his newborn son.
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"The guy wanted it on his back, so I sat him down, with all of his friends watching from just a few feet away, leaning on the railing," Carmichael says. "He tried to lean forward like I asked him to, but he couldn't really lean all the way forward. I wasn't sure why, but I could tell he was really struggling to lean the right way. He paused for a second, then leans back and pulls a gun out of his waistband and puts it on the counter. But he put it down in such a way that it's facing straight at me."
Believing that the positioning of the handgun wasn't intended to be a threat and no stranger to the rest of the situation, Carmichael knew he had to stay calm. Although there was little chatter and even less interaction between the tattooer and his client, everything about the tattoo itself went perfectly smoothly—other than the fact that Carmichael was staring down the barrel of a presumably loaded firearm every time he leaned over to get more ink. By the end of it, Carmichael found himself drenched in sweat.
"I didn't know if I was going to get paid, or if I was going to get fucked with at the end, or who knows what? I burned through that tattoo in record time because it was a slightly scary situation," Carmichael recalls. "I'll never forget how relieved I felt that I got the money. I was just thinking, like, 'All right, now grab your gun and please bail so I can go home.' I walked them out without them saying anything, and I've still never turned off the neon 'Tattoo' sign and locked the door faster in my life."