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Illustrated Man

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The twin Japanese demon faces on Blu-Bak's buttocks stare. With a twitch of his ass muscles, one stare turns into a menacing grimace. Kapra Fleming caught this narcissistic gesture in her documentary portrait of Blu-Bak, Full Suit, shown two weeks ago at Chicago Filmmakers to a standing-room-only crowd. The gesture is at once fascinating and unsettling. Tattoos may be in vogue, but only an intrepid few have made it the obsession Blu-Bak has. Over almost half a century, this illustrated man from Cicero has collected more than 250 tattoos from artists in more than 40 countries. Though already covered from neck to foot, he's still on the lookout for additions.

In Fleming's video Blu-Bak is seen in a parlor on the southwest side getting his latest tattoo--a tiny sunburst on the back of his calf. His amusing reminiscences and one-liners about his peculiar hobby are intercut with lingering sensuous shots of his nude body. Fleming, a graduate of the School of the Art Institute, first met her subject in 1977 at a show on tattoo art she and a friend organized. "Blu-Bak invited himself to the opening party, claiming to be heavily tattooed," she says. "I gradually became interested in his story because he was highly educated and didn't fit the stereotype. He's sort of a Janus-faced person, a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde--conservative yet very exhibitionistic. That's why he uses a pseudonym." Having followed and filmed him on and off for four years, she now sings the praises of his unconventional passion. "People in this society collect things they can get rid of later. Blu-Bak is committed to permanence. He's the ultimate collector."

After the screening some members of the audience walk up to Blu-Bak, who's in his 60s and shorter and more wiry than one would expect. A young woman rolls up a shirtsleeve and shows off her tattoo. Others ask him questions. He says he was 18 when he got the first of his tattoos. "Unconsciously I probably connected them with virility, masculinity. I wanted to distinguish myself from my stepfather, who was a passive man. So I got a tattoo that was my father's family's coat of arms. My mother disapproved of course."

Of WASP lineage, Blu-Bak grew up in Hyde Park. His stepfather was an accountant, his mother a piano teacher. After earning two degrees with honors from the University of Illinois, he embarked on a long career as an architectural engineer for the city. His life has been fairly uneventful, he says.

During his World War II stint in the Merchant Marine, Blu-Bak started collecting tattoos in earnest. "I sailed from New York City, so I got some flag and anchor tattoos there. Back then a lot of sailors were from the farm--they went for roosters. Elephants, Neptune, and mermaids were popular too. Some fellows preferred colorful wild-west motifs. We docked at many ports of call--Hong Kong, Singapore--and I'd try to visit all the local tattoo shops. In Chicago I used to make many return trips to the shops on State Street. What I ended up was an old-time hodgepodge. In those days--the 40s, and up to the 60s--the needling technique was rather primitive. Poor colors, poor hygiene. Tattoos were associated with the lower classes." He chuckles. "Today everybody wants a tattoo. The price has gone up--way up."

Tattooing is practiced almost everywhere in the world, though it's illegal in several states in this country. Blu-Bak points out that the 4,000-year-old corpse recently uncovered in the Alps shows tattoo marks; so do Egyptian mummies dating from 2000 BC. Ancient Chinese mariners thought tattoos on the native inhabitants of Japan were signs of barbarism. In preclassical Greece tattoos were believed to provide a magical shield against illness or misfortune; in other cultures they were indicators of social status. With the advent of Judaism and Christianity, tattooing was condemned as paganistic defilement of the body and banned outright. Europeans rediscovered it when maritime explorers established contact with Native Americans and Polynesians in the 1600s. (The word "tattoo" is of Tahitian derivation.) Ever since, sailors have been among the practice's biggest boosters.

Blu-Bak's favorite designs, often his own, are "monsters or anything imaginative, erotic, with some action theme and lots of lovely colors." He admires the intricate embroidery of oriental and particularly Japanese designs. Among the exotics in his tattoo bestiary are an imposing sinuous "papa dragon" on his back and a demure, supine "mama dragon" on his abdomen right below his pierced nipples. He has erotic tattoos on his thighs "which my late wife told me to cover whenever we went to the Oak Street Beach." Jostling for attention on his arms and palms are small men with erect penises. His own penis, Blu-Bak boasts, is tattooed as well--the shaft and the scrotum are covered with polka dots. "Many guys have an anchor on the head," he confides.

Blu-Bak achieved "full-suit" status about a dozen years ago. He's running out of unmarked skin, but he's reluctant to add tattoos to his face and neck. "Sometimes I wish I could wake up one morning and have white skin again," he says, and then adds, smiling, "Well, at least with what I've got I can tell if a surgeon has done a good job by seeing how well he's lined the tattoos up."

Blu-Bak believes there are at most ten other full suits like himself in the world--all men. A famous full suit known as Iwo Jima Eddie, now dead, sported a tattoo of the raising of Old Glory on the island. Blu-Bak regrets that he never met him, and he has yet to catch up with the guy the Guinness Book of World Records describes as having 5,332 tattoos. But he says, "I've met an electronics guy in San Diego with wonderful designs all over him, a doctor whose entire body is a giant squid, and a retired law professor in Toronto who got his face tattooed the day after retirement. He's ready to do the top of his head now."

Comfortably retired, Blu-Bak still reads tattoo magazines, including The Tattoo Times, and tries to keep up with tattoo conventions. He'd like to visit Japan again, where tattooing is a hallowed underworld fetish and tattoos on gangsters and gamblers are legendary for their colors and elaborate designs. The last time he was in Tokyo he tried to obtain permission from the University of Tokyo to see its notorious collection of full-suit skins, which were removed by a physician, Dr. Fukushi, after their owners died; the Japanese euphemistically call them "poor man's garbs." Being a foreigner, he was turned away. "I'd be glad if someone would take my hide," he sighs wistfully.

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

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