MT's Brett Callwood gets inked 

The die is cast.

Mark Heggie, 40, the owner of the Big Top Tattoo shop in Utica and Signature Tattoo in Ferndale, believes that tattoos are like diary entries — when you look at them collectively, they tell the story of your life. Each individual tattoo is less important than the overall aesthetic. Of course, Mark Heggie (rhymes with “Reggie”) is largely covered in tattoos. When you have just two, like me, they tend to stand out a little more. Up until a couple of weeks ago, I had just the one piece — a flaming eight ball with the batman symbol in the window replacing the “8.” And then I decided to get the Metro Times logo inked onto my arm.

The original idea, to have someone get the logo tattooed for our “Body Art” issue, came from our interim editor. The more I thought about it, the more it appealed because, as Heggie says, tattoos should tell a story, and the MT has been a huge part of my life for years now. I insisted that the logo be incorporated into a design in keeping with my existing tatt, and everyone was happy with that. Mark Heggie, one of the big names on the metro Detroit tattoo scene, was happy to do it. We swiftly decided on a flaming dice design. I’m nothing if not consistent.

Signature Tattoo is just a stone’s throw from the current MT location, on 9 Mile in Ferndale and right next door to the excellent Found Sound record store. The interior is fairly typical of any tattoo shop; examples of art adorn the walls. Little disconcerting though — there seems to be a lot of dead, stuffed animals filling the wall space in-between. Heggie’s business partner, Dan Rick, is in the store, as are employees Sam Wolf (rockabilly-looking dude) and John Kurse (metal dude). Kurse irritates Heggie slightly when he chooses to blast British heavy metal titans Saxon throughout the store, but it’s a fatherly sort of irritation. These people are his family.

“I started tattooing in 1991, here in Detroit,” Heggie says. “I moved away in ’93, to Los Angeles. I stayed out there for about eight and a half years, went to New York, and tattooed out there until buildings started falling down.”

You have to wonder, how stressful is it when an artist is inking his first tattoo? It’s not like you can just erase the work and start again (even with the current laser technology, it isn’t quite that simple). Heggie’s answer is a little surprising. “It’s trial and error,” he says. “Especially when I started back in the ’90s. It was really a secret society, and it was hard to get introduced to that. You had to figure it out for yourself. It was very stressful. By the time I got to California, I was learning the proper way to do stuff. In the meantime, all my high school buddies got some interesting gems.”

Words like “trial and error” are the last things you want to hear from the man about to introduce permanent ink to the underside of your skin. Thankfully, that was a long time ago. The Mark Heggie of today is an accomplished and celebrated artist, a professional who doesn’t have any time for people in the scene who are in it for the rock ’n’ roll party.

“I look for trust in my employees, and then of course technical acumen,” Heggie says. “They’ve got to be able to deal with people, got to be understanding, got to be able to roll with the punches and adapt to the situation. I always tell my employees that they’re not selling goods, they’re not selling a service, they’re selling an experience. You have to be technically able to handle all of the crazy requests people come in with.”

He has examples of that craziness too. “I spent 50 hours working on a back piece drawing for one client,” he says. “I got the stencil on and did the first line, and she jumped up, changed her mind and ran out of the building. I’ve never had that happen to me in my career. I was kind of shocked. I understand — better than her getting halfway through the outline and stopping. She has a line on her butt. I did a smiley face with no ink on it, so she has a smiley face on her butt.”

To be fair, tattoos fucking hurt. Anybody who says they don’t is a liar. The fun part is that, when in a room with four guys who each have full sleeves, you can’t let on. You can’t even grit your teeth, or you’re in danger of killing your inner Fonzie. To the outside world, you barely notice that it’s happening. When the tattoo is finished and you go home, there’s a whole other type of hurt — an extreme sunburn-hurt. The thing gets very hot, and tight. But hey, suffering is all part of the fun and games. You have to earn your body art.

Sometimes the price is very high. Dan Rick pulls out a great anecdote about a woman who wanted a rose tattooed on her face because she worked for Ford and she wanted them to fire her so that she could sue them. As it turned out, they didn’t fire her so she ended up unhappy at work and decorated with a face-flower.

“We play coach but not God,” says Rick. “If somebody wants a tattoo on their forehead, that’s up to them. We don’t have a problem with it. If they want to get something ugly that we don’t want to put our names to, we might say no. But they’re grown-ass adults.”

At the end of the day, a tattoo isn’t something that you should jump into. It seems obvious, but a lot of thought needs to go into both the design and your choice of artist. Yes, I genuinely thought very hard before putting this newspaper’s logo on my arm, and I had it incorporated into a design that I love. And we can’t recommend Heggie highly enough. 

“One of my old instructors told me, you’re only as good as your last job,” he says. “I try to have that sense of pride and integrity with every piece that I do. I’ve worked on so many hundreds of sleeves and back pieces that it’d be impossible to pick one. I feel like every drawing I do is going to be the next greatest tattoo I’ve done.”

That said, people make mistakes. And then they compound those mistakes by getting the mistake covered up with another mistake. Heggie says that it’s not the end of the world. “I specialize in cover-ups at this point,” he says. “You need to get involved with the planning process. There’s going to be so many bummed out people in 15 years with horrible tattoos and terrible, trendy ideas. There are so many options now. Laser is a little bit against what I stand for — I prefer to cover tattoos than just take them off, but hey it’s a tool.”

That it is. Personally speaking, mine is here to stay. If nothing else, I don’t need business cards anymore. 

More by Brett Callwood

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