News & Politics » Feature

Blood, Sweat, and Ink

Underneath Ben Wahhh's visions of melting flesh and disembodied eyeballs lurks a driven and capable entrepreneur.



"Every fucking convention I go to," says Ben Lewis, "all the guys go sit in some bar and drink all night, and I'm back at the hotel beating their wives at Scrabble." The weekend of August 2, at the international Tattoo the Earth convention in Rosemont, the wife of the owner of Fat Cat Tattoos in Brooklyn sought out Lewis, who's better known as Ben Wahhh, owner of Lakeview's Deluxe Tattoo. "I found out this woman plays against world champion Richie Lund--and he's a supergenius," says Ben. "She plays on-line on her computer every night from midnight to three in the morning. Supposedly when she got to Chicago she was like, 'Where is that guy? We have to play a game.'"

They went out to his car and got his board, but he accidentally locked his keys inside. "So we just played outside on the trunk. I was distracted, though, because I kept looking out for the tow truck and there were a bunch of bugs in my hair, and she was way ahead of me." They called off the game, but after he retrieved his keys they played again in a nearby restaurant. "I beat her by a hundred-something points," he says. The next week when he followed Tattoo the Earth to Oakland, she flew out for a rematch.

"A tattoo is like a puzzle," says Ben. "You sort of have an idea of how the picture's gonna look when you're done, and you know you have to fit the pieces together to get there." Unlike a jigsaw puzzle, however, there's no picture of what a tattoo's supposed to look like when it's finished. "It's almost frustrating," he says, "when given an open opportunity." Once, a client whom Ben had tattooed before came in and said, "Do whatever you want--I want something that's totally you." The man wound up with a "sickly, headless, gangrenous figure" on his arm.

Ben's "bio-wreck" art--a term he coined--has earned him a worldwide reputation. The work gives the appearance that flesh is melting or has been ripped away to reveal brightly colored, surreal organic patterns, often involving skulls and eyeballs. A skull, says Ben, is "perfect, symmetrical, all about structure and function. If you tried to build something that intricate with your bare hands, it'd be impossible." His portfolio showcases demonic ankylosauric faces and alien machines dripping with thorny goo, but he's also produced images that resemble ninja throwing stars, a gigantic, intricate Aztec calendar tablet, swords under an elaborate Celtic knot, a woman mourning at the foot of a grave, a shark, and a medieval-looking heart and banner.

"I'm definitely into what's called 'dark-side' art," he says, but his favorite kind of tattoo is anything that doesn't involve any arguing--anything that makes the client happy. At the convention, people he'd inked more than five years earlier kept popping up to say hello. "Hey, remember this?" said one guy with a sandy mullet and matching mustache, pulling up the back of his girlfriend's tank top. He pointed at a small tattoo of a flower with a name underneath. "You did this a long time ago!"

Before beginning a tattoo, Ben and his customer have already worked out a design. He makes a stencil of a simple line drawing of the image, then transfers it onto the skin. From there he makes a frame--a gray or black outline--and starts inking, three-quarters of an inch at a time. Then he improvises. While working he thinks about "all sorts of things: regretting not buying a record when I was 17, a field trip in high school...memories, or what needs to be sent in the mail. By the time I realize what I'm thinking I don't remember what had started that thought." He says this dream-like state doesn't derail his work because "everything's so automatic at a certain point in the tattoo....I've done the same kinds of things so many times that I don't even have to think about what goes where. I just know."

Ben got his first lesson in business at 13, from the owner of a comic book shop near home, in Beverly. Browsing in the store one day, he overheard a clerk arguing with the owner, Frank Craft, about wages; he was getting $4 an hour but wanted more. "I figured a job working in the comic book shop would be better than mowing lawns and shoveling sidewalks," says Ben, "so I said, 'I'll work for $3.50.'" The clerk was fired, and Ben had his first real job. He worked for Craft throughout high school, during which he says he saw his boss "totally lose everything." Always looking to cut corners, he would "underorder then overorder," open subsidiary companies to cover his losses, and "generally spread himself too thin." Watching this happen, says Ben, was invaluable.

After high school he set out to become an illustrator and art instructor, but he quit college after three years when a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago gave him an F. Ben went to the vice chancellor to explain that he'd sparred with the professor over the relevance of his course material, but according to Ben the chancellor replied, "He's tenured; he's allowed to teach what he wants." Ben got his money back for the semester, ditched his idea of teaching, and took off in a different direction.

In college he'd met a tattoo artist named Nick Wiggins. Wiggins, who has a bleached-blond pompadour, works wearing sunglasses and is widely known for inking up his girlfriends as dark and as fast as possible. He liked Ben's drawings and had tried to convince him to rethink his career goals. By the time he quit school, Ben was having problems with his girlfriend and was sick of his day job as a graphic designer, so with nothing to lose he moved to Champaign to apprentice at Wiggins's shop and deliver pizzas for money. But according to Ben, Wiggins was a "hothead" with an "unglamorous past," and had no business taking on a protege. "I'd go over to Nick's house and find neo-Nazis passed out on the couch," says Ben. "And I'm Jewish....One time this redneck idiot hanging out over there showed Nick how to load a gun, then demonstrated the safety by pointing the thing at my head and pulling the trigger. I was like, 'I'm outta here.'" Eight months into his training, Ben moved back home.

"I got really, really, really lucky that I was given the opportunity, even if I didn't learn a bunch of stuff," says Ben, because he knows getting a break that early isn't usually so easy. When his friend Kim Saigh was apprenticing ten years ago in Cleveland, she was frustrated because the owners only let her do one tattoo a day, stretching out her indentured servitude as the shop's gofer. If she complained they'd tell her, "We can replace you in half a second." As soon as she felt she had the skills to get out, she walked.

"The market's flooded with people who want to tattoo," says Saigh. "If you're not willing to bite your tongue, you shouldn't be doing this." Tattooist, she notes, is one of the most coveted jobs, right up there with professional skateboarder and rock star, but most people don't realize how difficult it is to start, let alone build a reputation. "I get to shave asses and wedge sweaty feet in my cleavage," she says. "Yeah, real glamorous."

Though every artist, reputable or not, had to break into the field somehow, most of the good ones don't want to take the time to teach someone else. Ben says those who hire apprentices usually just use them as cheap labor, and sometimes charge the newbies up to $5,000 as a learning fee. "You have to want to teach and help and answer questions," he says. "I don't want to do that--I have too much work as it is. I don't want to sit there and tell someone the same things over and over again until he gets it. If I wanted to have a kid, I'd have a kid."

A couple months ago a young woman at her wit's end walked into Cherry Bomb, Saigh's appointment-only custom shop in the Flat Iron Building, asking for advice. She explained nervously that she'd been apprenticing for about a year and felt that she wasn't learning much. Besides the shop not having any room to move up, she was "not even close to having a career," and if she wanted to keep the apprenticeship she couldn't go anywhere except school during business hours. "I'm just not," she said, "seeing the light at the end of the tunnel."

After leaving Wiggins, Ben started working at a tattoo shop in Chicago Ridge, but he got the boot after a week when an old employee returned looking for work. Plus, he admits, "I sucked." Tail between his legs, he went back to his previous job and stuck to tattooing his friends on weekends. Then, on an unseasonably warm day in March 1994, he was inking someone's shoulder with the apartment front door open. A guy visiting a friend upstairs heard the buzz of the tattoo machine and came down to check it out. He stood unnoticed in the doorway for a few minutes, then spoke up. "Hey, you working anywhere?"

"No," said Ben.

"You want a job?"

The guy was Bob Oslon, owner of a popular custom tattoo shop on Lincoln near Grace that had given Guy Aitchison--now a world-famous tattooist and one of Ben's friends--his first break. Ben kept his day job and tattooed on weekends, but within a few months he was working for Oslon full-time. In a year he was managing the shop.

Oslon had a drug problem dating back to his teens, and he wasn't shy about it. "He'd show up once every couple of weeks, take some money out of the safe for heroin, and leave," says Ben. "We never saw him otherwise." Oslon's employees tried to help--at one point they put him on an allowance of $200 per week; if he wanted more he'd have to work for it. This was supposed to give him an incentive to stay sober. "He was flattered at first," says Ben, "but he had a heart of gold and veins of iron," and just couldn't quit. "He'd go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and shoot up right afterward with someone he met in the program." Oslon's relationship with his employees soured when they realized he was lying to them. Once he made up a sob story about needing money to buy back-to-school clothes for his son. When he threatened to fire one of his employees--whom Ben had hired--for withholding funds, it was the last straw. Ben privately asked the staff, "If I open a shop, will you guys follow?" Everyone said yes.

They kept their appointments one morning in September of '96, but when Oslon left the shop for lunch, they gathered their belongings and left. Oslon took it as a wake-up call and tried rehab, but according to Ben, throughout his treatment he and a friend sneaked out to smoke crack. He went into a halfway house, but wasn't allowed to stay long because he couldn't keep a job. Then, within a few months, he went nearly blind from a sudden onset of multiple sclerosis. Unable to tattoo, he sold or traded everything he owned, including his much sought after tattoo machines and his collection of precious kaleidoscopes. He died two years ago.

"It's pretty common for tattooists to party," says Ben, "but yuppies on the same income level are out coking it up too." Ben used to drink pretty heavily himself: he had open tabs at bars where he'd tattoo waitresses and bartenders in exchange for drinks. He'd wake up at noon and "maybe come out of the black haze around three or four," then work until about ten and go out drinking again. But in 1995, after seeing countless "sad-sack 30-year-olds sitting in bars night after night," he realized he was in a rut. He quit drinking and started submitting photos of his work to magazines.

Ben estimates that three out of five custom tattooists (as opposed to flash artists, those who strictly copy art from books and typically work in the big shops that stay open past midnight) don't drink or do drugs, and don't go out much. "Having a tattoo is much less taboo now than it was maybe five years ago," he says, "so there are more opportunities to do better work on people, and plenty of artists don't want to mess that up." Kim Saigh schedules her daylong sessions around her yoga classes and rarely hangs out in bars or goes to parties. "I don't spend hours at the gym and eat healthy to be around cigarette smoke," she says. "I can either go out and talk to a person who's high on coke, or I can go home and hold [my cat]."

"I wouldn't say my lifestyle's any better or worse than anyone who parties," says Ben. "It's just different. Things seem more clear, and I have more focus. I get a lot more done now." He owns a three-bedroom house in Garfield Park, where he lives with his girlfriend and a friend. He works seven days a week, and if the phone rings past 10:30 PM he gets angry. On weekends, before heading off to work, he likes to scour estate sales for sturdy pots and pans, vintage board games, and rare books and records. Usually he comes directly home from work, plops down on the couch, puts in a DVD, scrambles a Rubik's cube, then absentmindedly solves it in a few minutes. He talks to his pet turtle, and if necessary will help it catch dinner by squeezing a goldfish between his fingers till it's dead.

Before heading to bed some nights he plays pool on the table in his basement. Though it's the biggest object down there, it's not the center of attention. Piled around the perimeter of the room are bones: ribs on skulls on femurs on hips on antlers, from deer, cows, moose, and goats. On a small table there's a heap of deer bones strung together with rotting viscera, and the sweet smell of death permeates the musty air. (The carcass remnants came in the mail from a friend who knows Ben likes that sort of thing.) Photos of lifelike wax figures decorate the wall: a flayed man leaning back on an arm, a face ripped open to show muscles and nerves, a woman's abdomen with an almost full-grown fetus inside.

Ben competes in the Amateur Pool League of Chicago one night a week; his team won first place in two of the last four tournaments and came in third for another. The team practices using Ben's handmade cues on the basement table almost every Tuesday, and sometimes Sunday. "If I could," says Ben, "I'd play every day." He takes his turn, sinks a ball or two, then walks over to a Scrabble game he's got going on the side. Cocking his head, he thinks for about 30 seconds, then plunks down his letters and walks back over to the table. "Pool's a lot deeper than just geometry," he says. "You have to be able to understand strategy and technique. The manipulation can be simple or tricky and it'd still be a good game."

Ben works so fast it seems he's using a paintbrush to create the sassy mermaid that he's tattooing on the chest and arm of a guy named Nick. He uses his latex-gloved hand to pull Nick's flesh taut, then makes his moves with a gadget that thrusts a group of needles into the skin. He stretches the skin to avoid tearing it, which would send the ink somewhere it's not wanted. Plus, he says, "when stretching skin you can feel where the machine is hitting," an important method of control because any ink not deposited into the skin puddles on top of it, which makes it difficult to see the picture beneath. "I try to keep the skin clean while working," says Ben, "so the customer doesn't freak out." Every once in a while he'll spray a solution of water and green soap--a caustic, medical-grade antibacterial agent--on Nick's skin, then wipe away the little floods of ink and blood and rub in some Vaseline, helping smooth the tender flesh so the needles don't rip right through it.

He renders the image from dark colors to light because "when the pore's already been opened the [excess] dark ink will stain the light ink." His bold spectrum and mastery of color placement--which he says isn't difficult to understand if one has sound reasoning--have landed him in several international tattoo publications in the last seven years. "The skin already has tone," he explains, "and just like colored paper, anything you sketch on top of it is going to reflect that. People who say 'Make my tattoo bright' don't understand that in order to make it bright you need contrast. Flat color alone will be flat, not vibrant, but if you understand the way adjacent colors work together, you can create a really rich image." In order to build up values he'll run over an area three times or more with different colors. Nick tenses his muscles, winces, and takes deep breaths as Ben works on the meat just above his left nipple. He starts twitching and when his eyes turn red and watery he asks Ben to stop for a few minutes so he can take a sip of his Big Gulp and go outside for a cigarette. His session lasts three hours.

"Just because you get published in magazines doesn't mean you're a good artist," says Ben. "It's just a way for people to see your work and learn your name. I totally believe that people are most comfortable with familiarity--the reason why chain restaurants do so well is because there's no weird food, no surprises."

What makes a good tattooist, he says, is a combination of artistry and technique, but simply learning to execute on skin what's drawn on paper isn't enough. It's important to adjust to the physical and emotional sensitivities of the client and to evaluate beforehand how the piece will look when it heals. A good tattooist also appreciates the human form and composes art that flatters it.

Ben has more than 120 hours of work on his own body. His first major tattoos--skeletons ripping through the fascia of his right arm and a naked chick graphically splayed out above them--were done by Nick Wiggins and later reworked by Tim Biedron, who works at his shop. The dark flames, agonized faces, and wisps of smoke that cover his left arm and the "corrupt, demented heaven" populated with rotting cherubs on part of his right are the result of four years of work by master tattooist Paul Booth, who organized Tattoo the Earth. Guy Aitchison spent 67 hours on Ben's rib panels and back, creating a scaly green monster with huge red-and-yellow eyes and dripping tentacles, its mouth the pit of hell. Both legs from the knees down were done by Kim Saigh--the right one a bright scenario with big flowers and a dead, plucked-pink mama bird feeding sickly looking baby birds, the left an outdoorsy scene of E.T. and Mr. T picnicking on a red-and-white checked tablecloth, eating fried chicken legs. And above his heart he's got a heart and banner by Bob Oslon that reads "Slayer," because, says Ben, "when I was working for Bob I was doing heart and banner tattoos all the time and I thought it'd be funny to get one myself....Everyone's gotta have one stupid tattoo."

He's got other stupid tattoos he's trying to get rid of. Since not many people want an amateur marking them for life, many artists learn to tattoo on themselves. Ben started practicing on his right thigh around the time he was apprenticing with Wiggins. In two months he'd inked a black zombie skeleton, a few spheres of color to see if he could render a three-dimensional design, a dragon's head, and some random squiggly lines. "You gotta practice on something," says Ben, "and nothing's like human skin." He's spent the last three years--five painful sessions so far--trying to destroy some of his early work through laser treatment.

A laser doesn't magically obliterate a tattoo right away; its waves boil and fractionate the pigment in the ink, leaving the surrounding skin intact. The body's scavenger cells carry bits of the ink away, and though there's a slight immediate effect it can take months before the tattoo really starts to fade. The number of treatments needed depends on the quality and quantity of ink in the skin. Ben's most recent treatment was about a month ago at Ritacca Laser Center in Vernon Hills. He went with Mario Desa, an artist who works in his shop and was returning to Ritacca for his second session.

Summoned first, Desa walked with obvious trepidation into the laser room, a small space housing a white leather doctor's chair and a couple of shiny metal boxes the size of washing machines. Rolling up his left sleeve, he explained to technician Dawn Davidson that he wanted all the Japanese anime characters zapped, plus some others he'd done on himself. Davidson put on latex gloves and gigantic, futuristic-looking protective eyewear, then handed Desa an equally clumsy pair of goggles. She removed a chrome wand with a black plastic tip from one of the boxes, and holding it as she would a pen, skimmed it over Desa's slightly splotchy tattoos. There was a loud snap every time the beam emanating from the wand passed over ink.

A laser is merciless, breaking up both ink and the flesh beneath it, so the darker the tattoo, the worse the pain. Fists clenched, Desa held his head away from the laser and squinched up his face. His arm turned pink, then red, and flakes of dead skin flew into the air. Faint wisps of smoke rose from his arm and soon the room started to smell like burnt flesh. After a couple minutes he asked to take a break, and Davidson applied an ice pack to his blistering skin. Desa said, "This feels like being snapped with a thousand rubber bands dipped in hot bacon grease."

When it was Ben's turn, he casually strolled into the room and pulled his pants down to his knees. Donning a fresh pair of gloves, Davidson handed him a disposable razor so he could shave his tattooed thigh. After he finished they both put on the protective eyewear. "Are you ready?" she asked. Ben nodded and took a deep breath, bracing himself against the chair. His tattoos were already so faded that the "snaps" were relatively painless, and he carried on a conversation with only an occasional "Ow! Fuck!" About five minutes after starting, Davidson announced she was done, slathered Ben's thigh with some white cream resembling Crisco, wrapped it in gauze and an Ace bandage, and sent him out the door.

When Ben walked out on Oslon he had some money saved up but not nearly enough to open his own shop, so Aitchison--who'd left Oslon in 1991 and opened his own place, Guilty and Innocent, just down the street--gave him work until he got the cash together. Ben didn't spend a dime unless it was absolutely necessary: he walked or rode his bike to work, ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and put off the last session for the back piece and rib panels Aitchison had been working on. In October 1996 Ben found a building at 1459 W. Irving Park, right next to El Gato Negro, a transvestite bar. He signed a lease the day before Halloween, then went to the city clerk's office to apply for a business license. There he found out he'd also need a special-use permit, a piece of paper reserved for adult bookstores and tattoo shops that's nearly impossible to obtain from the zoning board--in the last five years, only two other tattoo shops in the city have managed to get one.

In order to get the permit Ben had to write to all property owners within a 300-foot radius explaining that he intended to open a tattoo shop. "They all had to have fair warning so that they could bitch about me," he says. "I spent my birthday addressing all the letters in triplicate by hand." Also, since the building hadn't been surveyed in the last ten years, he had to hire someone to confirm that yes, it was the same building the city thought it was. Plus an appraiser had to come in and evaluate whether a tattoo shop would bring down the value of the property. Plus Ben had to ask his landlord to write a letter stating that he didn't mind if his building housed such a business. Plus he had to pay City Hall $500 to apply for the permit.

Shortly after he sent out his letters, a local community group called the Southport Neighbors met to discuss his petition. "I brought a doctor and a couple business owners from my neighborhood, and my mom insisted on coming too," says Ben, but "the meeting was packed with people who didn't want to hear anything we had to say." When it looked like they were about to vote him down, "my mom said, 'I'm gonna get up there and speak, and there's nothing you can do to stop me.'" She went up to the podium, says Ben, "and delivered this tearjerker speech about how 'some people's sons want to be doctors, and some people's sons want to be lawyers. Mine wants to be a tattoo artist. All we want to do is see our kids be happy.'" The group voted 60-30 in favor.

Ben thought he was in the clear until, in the middle of January, he by chance saw a local newsletter article in which another organization, the Graceland West Community Group, wondered which way 47th Ward alderman Eugene Schulter was leaning on the matter of Ben's shop. It turned out the group met once every two months, right across the street from his building. He'd missed their November meeting, and since he needed their vote before his zoning hearing in February, he had one week to convince them to put him on the agenda for January.

At this meeting, he says, the group flat-out refused to let his guests speak. Arms folded, they accused him of being in cahoots with El Gato Negro and said he'd bring drugs, guns, and gangs to the neighborhood. "They just wanted to vote me down." He managed to win some support, however, and when it was over, he had won by one vote.

"Zoning court is vicious," says Ben. "They treat people like three-year-olds." He thought he was doomed when the judge at his February hearing asked him to prove that his business would provide a "public convenience." But after he presented a doctor's letter explaining his sterilization techniques and established that the neighborhood was OK with his shop, he was finally given the go-ahead. He opened Deluxe Tattoo on April 25, 1997, the day after the permit came in the mail. Two years later Chicago magazine named Deluxe the best tattoo shop in the city.

Nowadays, about 70 percent of Deluxe's clients schedule appointments for custom work with Ben or the four other artists who rent space there; the rest are walk-ins with simple requests--a rose, a cross, a Japanese symbol. The shop, which Ben rehabbed recently for his five-year anniversary, looks as much like a doctor's office as an artist's studio: an autoclave, miniature safety-orange plastic trash cans bearing biohazard stickers, tubs of Vaseline, and glass jars full of tongue depressors sit on the counters; boxes of latex gloves and dental bibs are stacked in various corners; sanitary plastic bags cover each spray bottle and machine. But the bloodred and pus yellow walls are hung with prints of traditional Japanese art, a screen-printed Misfits poster, and a signed, limited edition R. Crumb lithograph. The magazines on the waiting room table include Billiards Digest, Skateboarder, Maxim, and Skin & Ink in addition to U.S. News & World Report. Nothing but a counter separates the waiting room from the wide-open work area, where five work stations and cork boards are cluttered with personal and professional paraphernalia. On Ben's desk are a handheld Scrabble game, a disposable camera, colored pencils, tracing paper, and lots of bills. High shelves house reference books on fractals, human anatomy, reptiles, Hindu and Kabuki art, mammals, roses, art nouveau, and Tibetan symbols. For the most part conversation is minimal, the only additional noise being whatever punk or metal CD is blasting through the stereo and the steady buzz of the machines.

On any given day people walk in and flip through the artists' portfolios--black binders filled with photos of tattoos and drawings--and books of generic flash art. Sometimes they'll schedule appointments, sometimes they'll just leave. In his downtime, Ben practices drawing, when not beating his employees at Scrabble or dominoes. He says he needs to push himself to draw because "lately I've been catching myself repeating the same types of designs over and over again, and I try to constantly be in the process of evolving. Something can look 'different' from everything else, but if you can't pinpoint why, then what's so good about it? I'm still trying to figure out the medium, between trying to hone my intuition and unlearning what's already been programmed in my head. In a field that requires so much self-control, the unlearning is what's risky."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Saverio Truglia.

Add a comment