Tattoo Tux stands in the middle of his electric studio and takes a deep drag on his cigarette.

Surrounded by colorful stencils and strange sculptures with flickering candles, miniature Buddhas and skulls, he leans against a table and kicks at the leg.

He's trying to explain his fascination with tattoos. Why did he, at age 41, after quitting the business to put himself through art school, open another tattoo parlor? Why did he, after painting still lifes and becoming fascinated with religious icons, go back to drawing dragons on men's backs? Why is he covered with three layers of ink?

"There's some way of exploring a visual idea with tattoos that's very different," he says. "And it's a way of being artistic in the real world."

He takes a final drag off the cigarette, stubs it out and reaches for another one.

"I like to collect things," he adds. "Tattooing is just a different type of collection."

He began with a dragon and a rose, when he was just out of high school, a teen-ager in the '60s, looking for excitement. Now, three-quarters of his body is covered with a jungle of tattoos. It's a seamless painting of a giantship with a squid wrapped around it, dogs guarding a Japanese temple, a warrior, birds and intricate American Indian designs.

"My armsare sort of an American theme," he explains. "I did a lot of experimenting with all kinds of Americana images on them."

For Joseph Farrar, experimenting is a way of life. He's tried out many different styles, dabbled in different art forms and traveled across the country on his journey from Pittsburgh, Pa. to Brooklyn Park. Each stop brought something new -- at the very least, another tattoo, he says.

Born to a working-class family in the heart of Pennsylvania, Farrar liked to draw as a child. At age 3, he already wasn't going to stoop to conventional forms, however. He painted on the living room walls.

In high school, he became known for sharp dressing. His friends nicknamed him "Tux," a name he later adopted for his tattoo business. He still enjoyed sculpting and drawing, but the school counselors at the time kept urging him to go into carpentry.

"They didn't really have an understanding of what someone who was artistic should do," he recalls. "Back then, art wasn't something that was really encouraged."

After graduating from high school, he considered going to art school. But he was too restless. Students were taking to the streets, artwas being turned upside down and Tux heard the message to "drop out,tune in and turn on."

A cousin of his had learned how to tattoo in New York and came back to open a shop in Pittsburgh when Tux was inhis early 20s. He started hanging around the store, talking to the people and learning how to handle the electric guns.

He worked withhis cousin, Nick Bubash, at Island Avenue Tattoo for five years. Offand on, he traveled out West. He remembers being swept up by the excitement of the times, the new music, art on the streets, the sense ofno boundaries. He hitchhiked and did a little sculpture to earn money.

In the early 1970s, Tux decided he wanted to strike out on his own. One day, while he was dreaming about opening a little tattoo parlor, a guy from Baltimore walked into Island Avenue Tattoo. They fellinto conversation, and the man mentioned that the one thing Baltimore really was missing was a young tattoo artist.

Tux packed his bags the next day. He opened a shop on Howard Street, next to the old Greyhound station, where he stayed for 14 years. Business was brisk andhe earned a reputation for designing what people wanted, whether it was an American eagle, an abstract design in black or a picture of a child.

"Styles change and tastes change," he says. "Twenty years ago, there was a real heavy movement to tattoo hands and necks, because people felt they should show off that they were really into tattoos. Then, we went through an Oriental phase. Now, we do it all."

In 1987, he decided to fulfill his teen-age ambition and go to art school. He began taking classes at the Maryland Institute of Art in Baltimore and soon closed his tattoo shop. The classes and the studio work took too much time to keep his business going, he said.

"I didn't realize the serious nature of going back to school and doing it full time," he said. "Their attitude is, if you want to be a Sunday artist, don't come here."

After graduating, he continued to make his religious icons, shrines that mix Eastern religions and Christianity. Most have a bleeding hand of Christ, the stigmata painted in bright, blood red. They often include skulls, halos and candles.

But there wasn't much money in it. So he rented a small shop on Tenth Avenue in Brooklyn Park and opened a new tattoo parlor.

He advertises his electric studio as "tattooers to the clairvoyant." Tux says he believesthe art form reaches out to people. Seventy percent of his customersknow what kind of designs they want when they walk into his shop, heexplains.

"I sort of fulfill their fantasies," he says. "That's why I say 'to the clairvoyant.' "

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