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Art on a canvas of flesh

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By Mitch Traphagen and Julie Ball
mitch@observernews.net, julie@observernews.net

RIVERVIEW — A bumper sticker tacked onto a filing cabinet discretely tucked away in Mike Parson’s office reads, “Tattoos: Not just for sailors anymore.” Actually, the bumper sticker included another segment of the population as well, but for the pages of this newspaper, we’ll just describe them as “women of ill-repute.”
Regardless, it speaks the truth. The American Academy of Dermatology estimates that more than 40 million Americans are now sporting tattoos. Getting inked has gone mainstream.
Mike Parsons is an artist of the most unique sort. His work, all original of course, is displayed exclusively on the most sacrosanct and intimate of venues — the human body. He is famous in the tattoo world. His work can be found on rock stars and grandmothers across the Bay area and across the nation. In April he opened his own shop, Mike Parsons Ink, on Lincoln Road, just off of Big Bend Road in Riverview.
If you are among those who have not yet been inked, your idea of a tattoo parlor may be in need of revision. The inside of Mike Parsons Ink is modern, sleek and immaculate. Music ranging from heavy metal to the blues plays softly through hidden speakers and examples of Parsons’ work decorates the walls in the fashion of a modern art gallery. For all intents and purposes, it is an art gallery — with on-demand service.
Parsons is something of an enigma. A towering man with a head shaved bald, all black apparel, and tattoos covering his arms, he may appear at first glance as imposing, to say the least. That image, however, fades quickly upon meeting him. He is quick to smile and laugh, and frequently greets friends and customers with a hug. His intelligence and quick wit are readily apparent.
“No one would ever guess that a guy who looks like him would be into tropical fish, gourmet cooking and gardening,” confided a close friend. Nor could anyone not familiar with him know his sheer intensity.
He is quietly meticulous in everything he does. As he prepares to begin the process of art on flesh, people crowd around him, often talking loudly about things beyond tattoos. Parsons carefully and deliberately folds a protective paper covering on a prop for his client’s arm. He slowly, purposefully, brings out his instruments and fills small containers with the ink he will use. Then suddenly he breaks into laughter about something mentioned from the crowd. He’ll talk for a moment and then focus intensely on his task. A moment later, he’ll be drumming against his knees and size 14 shoes with the music softly emanating from the back of the shop — an effort, it seems, to bleed off some of the incredible intensity he appears to harbor. Despite the noise and ruckus around him, when he is actually creating a tattoo, when the ink meets the flesh, there is nothing in the world that would seem to distract him. Armageddon could apparently take place outside his door without his notice. A few moments later, drumming again. Or laughter. Parsons seamlessly walks between the normal world and one of his own making. It is for this reason, among others, that people line up for his work — or travel cross-country for his services.
Trace J., a young woman from West Virginia, made the long drive from the Mountaineer state to Florida not for the beaches or the palm trees but exclusively to see Parsons. She wanted him to transform a lesser quality tattoo created by someone else and to add a new one onto her left arm. Parsons spent the better part of an afternoon with her; she left hours later (after a hug and photos with Parsons) with her arm wrapped in plastic, a smile on her face, and plans to return.
“I won’t go anywhere else to anyone else,” she said. “Mike is amazing, I don’t think he knows how awesome he is. I’m going to start saving up now to have more done.”
According to Parsons, Trace J. is not alone.
“I had a guy fly in from Vancouver for a tattoo a while ago,” Parsons said. “Just for the one day.”
Matt Lang came from Atlanta — not for a tattoo, but for the chance to work with Parsons. An artist with an impressive portfolio of his own, Lang is known for his stunning use of color — a distinct challenge when flesh is the canvas.
On this day, as Parsons focused on Trace, Lang worked on a young woman from Plant City who came in for her first tattoo. He said that recently an 87-year-old woman came in for what was also her first tattoo.
“When she left, she told me to have a nice life,” Lang said with a smile.
While living nearly nine decades has surely provided that client with whatever rationale she needed; if she follows the trends, she will remain comfortable with her decision. According to a 2003 Harris Poll, 83 percent of those with tattoos say they don’t regret their decision to get one.
Ty Simmons has decided to permanently proclaim his faith. Parsons will tattoo an ambigram of “Jesus Saves” on his forearm. An ambigram is a word that reads differently depending on perspective, in this case, it serves as its own mirror image. At first glance, Simmons’ tattoo will appear as the word “Jesus” but with a slight change in perspective, the word “Saves” appears.
“I want to put something on me that was symbolic of my beliefs,” Simmons said. “Paul said in the Bible that he was marked on his body by Christ. I want to do the same, but I don’t want to do it for the wrong reasons. Sometimes walking the walk is tough; but if someone asks me, I’ll be able to tell them why. I may have a chance to witness to them.”
When asked if he was nervous, Simmons replied, “Oh yeah! I have butterflies in my stomach. But I’m excited, too.”
Simmons waited all day for his slot. Parsons first had to complete his work on the young woman from West Virginia. For Simmons, it was a family affair. His wife and members of his immediate family were lined up behind him for their own tattoos. On that night, Parsons focused, laughed, drummed and inked until nearly 11 p.m.
Mike Parsons is not a tattoo evangelist. He is not seeking converts for ink.
“I don’t need that kind of pressure,” he said. “I don’t want someone to go home, regret their decision and ask me why I let them do this. If you are going to do this, do something that represents you or how you feel. Do something that you think is cool.”

Mike Parsons Ink will hold a grand opening celebration on May 15 at their newly opened location at 13346 Lincoln Road in Riverview. Highly acclaimed singer-songwriter Jake La Botz is scheduled to perform at the event. For information call 813-374-2146 or visit www.mikeparsonsink.com.

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