What do you get when a Vietnamese kid is raised and steeped in all things Texas while growing up in Pearland? An Asian tattoo artist with a serious Southern drawl who has an interest in tat'in kick-ass skulls and naked chicks onto your skin — and who can do it better than most. Antoine has patiently honed his skills with the tattoo gun, slowly earning recognition and respect from his fellow artists and other enthusiasts. Get your work done now while you can still book time with him. Demand is going up, so don't blow your chance to get a permanent Picasso on your body.

Give a theater $100,000 and you expect something great, but the real test of a group of artists is what they can do with a next-to-nothing budget. We could all take a lesson from Mildred's Umbrella, a company dedicated to the strangeness of theater that manages to keep its artistic integrity on a shoestring budget. Many of their provocative productions are built around original scripts — this year, the group toured Rot, written by their resident playwright John Harvey with Bobbindoctrin Puppet Theatre, across Texas. They also produced innovative scripts like the Obie Award-winning One Flea Spare by Naomi Wallace. If anyone deserves a big fat grant, it's these very hardworking and dedicated artists, currently fabricating whole theatrical worlds out of dreams.

No, the Next Door is not an after-hours club per se; no secret knock or any of that Al Capone-type stuff. However, if you're reasonably well acquainted with the staff and don't piss them off (which is not exactly easy to do, but it does happen), they're not always in a hurry to chase you home at the stroke of 2 a.m., either. We certainly don't want to get anyone in trouble, so we'll just leave it at that. (Yes, they do pick up the drinks, Mr. TABC man.) With its reasonable drink prices, first-rate jukebox, giant projection screen (often showing fare like Fight Club or one of the Terminator movies), air-hockey table and all sorts of funky art — the life-size wooden mummy sculptures are especially sweet — the Next Door kind of feels like an after-hours bar in the middle of the afternoon, too.

The members of News on the March didn't rush into the spotlight, but instead took the time to hone their craft. The result was a standout offering of first-time performances, featuring the most perfect three-part harmonies ever heard live from a start-up act. News on the March plays Nashville-style pop that's more country than most country these days. The group is just as ready for the Opry as it is for Walter's, and given its already polished talent and widespread appeal, we're guessing Houston will have to share with out-of-towners sooner rather than later.

Photo by Kaitlin Steinberg

Tucked away in a corner of Midtown, 13 Celsius is housed in a cozy, window-filled, 1930s Spanish-style building. This sets the stage for a laid-back atmosphere complemented by a staff ready to give you as much or as little attention as you need. Want to know what the folks behind the bar recommend? The wine list always includes a detailed explanation of staff favorites — both edible and drinkable. If those aren't what you're looking for, the bartenders are always willing to guide you through the abundant and rotating selection.

Most Houston arts companies would say that they want people of every color, size, age, gender, ethnicity and ability in their audience. Hope Stone goes one better and puts people of every color, size, age, gender, ethnicity and ability onstage, too. Choreographer/artistic director/resident janitor Jane Weiner (hey, that's her joke, not ours) is the driving force behind the dance company and school, and it's her "everybody's welcome" philosophy that guides the group. Hope Stone most recently premiered Weiner's ballet SEE ME at Wortham Center with a cast that included a child, a blind man, a pregnant woman and a prima ballerina. It was a highlight of the Houston arts season.

Producing Artistic Director Kenn McLaughlin proved himself over and over at Stages Repertory Theatre last season. The season of powerful scripts moved easily from money-making musicals like Altar Boyz to thoughtful social commentaries such as The Unseen and Black Pearl Sings. Rich with political heft, hilarious jokes and emotional power, the season was most impressive for its commitment to exploring what it means to be human in a difficult and complicated world. Add in the fact that most every production was beautifully cast and wonderfully directed, with designs from folks like Jon Gow and Kirk Markley that captured the strange beauty of the world, and you've got a season to remember.

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