THIS MONTH'S FIND: SKIN-DEEP DESIGN

The Baltimore Sun

In a few minutes, Stephanie Jackson's appearance will change forever. But first, a few formalities.

She produces a driver's license, proof that she is at least 18.

She signs a release form, agreeing that the Saints & Sinners tattoo studio is "not responsible for unknown ink allergies" and other complications.

She smokes a cigarette outside the Fells Point studio. Jackson's boyfriend, Matt Boram, lingers nearby. So does tattoo artist Dwaine Shannon.

Lilting breezes and sunshine have drawn a parade along Thames Street, but Jackson and Shannon, co-owner of Saints & Sinners, have a long afternoon of inking ahead, so they go inside. It's time to get started.

Jackson, 21, is "a little" nervous, but ready. She's admired tattoos since she was a kid. That she won't go for a hackneyed heart or rose is easy to surmise by Jackson's attention to ornamentation.

With her long copper tresses, black hair band, neck scarf and sparkly green eye shadow by Hard Candy, she's got a 1960s mod look going on.

With her sleeveless teal T-shirt, clingy jeans, skull-patterned belt and dangly skull earrings to match, Jackson crossed that Carnaby Street with a frisson of hard core.

Then there are all of those silver rings on her fingers courtesy of her grandmother, her dad's trip to Guatemala and an antique shop in upstate New York. A bit nicked, the vintage ring isn't perfect, but "that's why I love it," Jackson says.

She put careful thought into the tattoo. "When I was a kid, my dad and I were very close," Jackson says. "We bonded on nature walks." Those bucolic strolls form "one of my most fond memories of childhood."

They are memories, Jackson says, "meaningful enough to make them permanent."

She envisioned a forest of "old man trees" rooted across her right triceps and biceps. "Just like my dad always said that trees are like the 'old men of the forest,'" Jackson says. "They watch over everything. They never move."

The subject of Jackson's veneration, her father, Ted Jackson, was disconcerted by her decision to commemorate those once-upon-a-time ramblings. "He's, 'Oooooh, Steph, are you sure you want to do that?'" Jackson says.

"I think he'll probably come around," she says. But now, he's under the impression that tattoos are for bikers, "not his cute little girl."

Jackson's mom was another story. She "thought it was cool," Jackson says. "She has one; a tiny little seashell on her ankle."

Jackson described her sylvan fantasy to Shannon. "I wanted it to be dark and eerie looking."

He drew a spooky thicket of bare trees. It's a fairy-tale forest where little children could easily get lost forever. In his illustration, Shannon included a generic bird with wings spread. It perches on the stump of a neatly severed tree. Jackson has decided the bird is a hawk, and therefore an allusion to her father's sightings of "hawks flying in the sky."

"With this tattoo, there's mainly a lot of line work," Shannon says. Then, he'll add a red glow and tonal gradations with a gray wash.

Shannon is an illustrated man, with ink-covered arms, and matching dollar signs imprinted on each side of his forehead at the hairline. His studio, overlooking a kebab shop, is a staged clutter of tattoo designs, convention posters, pop culture symbols and photos of his daughters and wife.

Like a hairdresser who lops off a lock before a patron can waver, Shannon swiftly transfers a temporary stencil of the tattoo onto Jackson's shoulder. This will be his blueprint.

Shannon pulls on black medical gloves, more as a precaution against staining his hands than as a hygienic precaution. He readies the electric tattoo machine with its tiny needles that will stitch lines of ink into Jackson's arm. A high-pitched buzz fills the room, redolent of a trip to the dentist rather than a walk in the woods.

The meter is running at $150 an hour.

Shannon reassures Jackson, who sits upright in a chair, steeling herself for the anticipated pain.

"I'm not hyperventilating, but I'm nervous," Jackson says.

"Stay relaxed and breathe," Shannon says. "The more relaxed you are, the less it hurts."

Shannon works quickly. A fine line of dark ink rises along the outlines of the wise old trees.

Jackson relaxes a bit. "I made it a lot worse in my head," she says. "I [thought], it's gotta hurt to look good."

She grew up in Lutherville and attended Towson High School. Back then, she wore dreadlocks. "I was a pretty bad teenager. I didn't listen to suggestions. But I was never a disrespectful child," she says.

She and her parents got over those rocky patches. "They see I turned out all right," she says.

Jackson lives with her folks and works as a host at An Poitin Stil, an Irish bar in Timonium. She plans to become a hairdresser.

Her forested skin was intended as a conversation piece, she says. "I really didn't think much about what other people would think. It's not for them, it's for me."

As much as it is a tribute to her father, the tattoo is an emblem of her bravery. "I'm conquering something in myself," Jackson says.

So far, there are no glitches. Her skin is very fair, "a tattooer's dream," Shannon says. "The ink is going in very smooth and fast." As he works, he constantly rubs a vitamin gel on Jackson's arm to ease the pain. It's the same stuff used for "baby butt rash," he says. The gel also magnifies the line as he works and eases the ink's flow.

Shannon, 33, started out as a body piercer at a Harford County tattoo shop and graduated to tattooing nine years ago. The job suits him, especially now that he's self employed. "I've never been able to keep a job," he says. "I don't like authority and keeping my mouth shut. With this, I can do what I want and it's a learning experience every day."

As he works on Jackson, Shannon fields calls from his wife and mother. He and Jackson take a brief smoke break on the roof outside the studio.

After more than two hours, Jackson announces that she is "almost past the ouchy part. I've adjusted almost. I think my endorphins kicked in."

Still, it hurts. "It's a different kind of hurt than I ever felt," she says. "Like a bad, bad sunburn and someone is digging on you with a ball point pen."

Jackson's biceps glistens with the gel and is pulsing a bit. The pain is palpable. When Shannon suggests ibuprofen, Jackson is quick to reply: "That would rock."

The tattoo artist will toil over Jackson's arm from about 1 p.m. until 6:30 in the evening. He finishes the line work and adds a haunting red glow around the trees. Jackson leaves her first session exhausted, but proud. "I couldn't believe I could sit that long," she says. "Dwaine coached me through it."

The bill is about $825, and there's more work to go. After allowing the first stage of her tattoo to heal, Jackson will return for the gray wash. "He's going to put shading in the trees," she says a week after the first sitting. "It should look really pretty when it's done."

Her tattoo in progress was well-received by Jackson's co-workers. "They said, 'Oh my gosh, I didn't know you were into tattoos,'" she says. "All the girls thought, 'Whoa, that's really neat!'"

On the job, the tattoo will remain covered, per work regulations.

And for now, the tattoo remains a mystery -- a deep, dark forest of a mystery -- to the man who inspired it. Says Jackson, "My dad hasn't seen it yet."

stephanie.shapiro@baltsun.com

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