At Houston Tattoo Shops, "Nothing Gets Done Unless Music Is Playing"

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Late last year, I asked my daughter what she wanted for Christmas and she said she wanted the entire family to get tattooed together.

It was so much easier when I could just buy her a Barbie dream house and be done with it; but, as she'd just left home to live on her own, how could I deny her? It was tougher to convince Mrs. Sendejas this was a fine idea, but was managed and so off we all went one Friday evening to get inked.

At nearly 50, I had no tattoos on my body until last month. I'd been in tattoo shops before, of course. One thing I appreciated about them was that they always had music going. I'd heard better music in some tattoo shops than I'd heard in bars or other music venues on occasion.

I researched how often music is a part of the tattoo studio experience. The closest thing I found to an answer was this note from a careers blog explaining what the work environment will be like should you choose to tattoo professionally.

"Music is playing more often than not," the blogger informed. "Heavy metal, hip-hop, reggae or almost any other type of music you can think of has been played in a tattoo studio."

It's easy to see why music and body art are natural mates. Like the ink, once music permeates its way into you, it's there forever. But if I was going to offer up my virgin skin to the invasive probing and lasting effects of the needle, I was going to need music to distract me.

I decided to check with some area shops to see what music they played, and its role in the whole process. At Virtue Tattoo in Stafford, it's clear the music is a mix designed with both customers and artists in mind.

"If the shop is open there is music on," says Virtue's Matt Burgdorf. "We listen to just about everything. From Beethoven to Buzzoven. Frank Zappa to Frank Sinatra."

"Yes, the music makes people feel more comfortable," adds Jay McCaslin. "Going into any place that is silent, or nothing but buzzing in the case of a tattoo shop, makes it seem a little scary."

I was pretty sure I wanted to pick a shop where the musical offerings were going to be indelibly etched in my memory. Though I had no tattoos of my own, I took my son to a shop for his first; not counting the many stick n' pokes he already had. When he was sitting in the chair, the shop played Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! in its entirety. That was nearly as cool as his tattoo, I always thought. And his tattoo was pretty damn cool.

"I still remember what was playing in the shop I got my first tattoo in, 20 years ago," says Stephanie Purnell, a tattoo artist and body piercer with Electric Chair Tattoo. "Music can help relax or provide distractions for someone getting a tattoo. And, most importantly, music is what puts an artist in their 'zone' to work."

Adriana Hernandez and her husband, Omar, run Los Muertos Tattoo Studio. Music is an integral part of their Nance Street shop. The staff has put together a list of genres and acts they favor, indicating the music is there more for the artists than the customers.

"Due to the size of the crew, our music varies," she says. "Anywhere from artists and bands like King Diamond, Butthole Surfers, Motorhead, Psycho Realm, Pink Floyd, UGK and, randomly, Los Tigres del Norte."

How important is the music at the shop?

"Nothing gets done unless music is playing," says Los Muertos' Javier Alvarez.

"Music is what keeps me in my zone and keeps me in my tattooing rhythm," adds co-owner Omar Hernandez.

"Straight good music, any genre, no bullshit," bottom-lines Freddy Guerrero.

At Electric Chair, the shop artists aren't building personalized playlists. Purnell says they simply dial up a diverse group of Internet radio stations.

"On any given day, you could hear a mix ranging from Leadbelly, Beastie Boys or Otis Redding to the Pixies or Sleigh Bells," she says.

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All of them agree music is a prominent tattoo theme for customers. At our family outing, my daughter combined her original lyrics with a sketch by Screaming Females' guitar goddess and cartoonist, Marissa Paternoster. My son's first ink, with "Jocko Homo" blaring in the background, were wrist inscriptions proclaiming "Music Runs Through My Veins."

"Regarding the music related tattoo, I wouldn't be able to indicate the best one we've done, but we have done portraits of great musicians like Bob Marley, Johnny Cash and Jimi Hendrix. Those are always fun to do," says Omar Hernandez.

Purnell offered some photographed samples of her music-themed work. A customer came in with autographs from The Breeders' Kelley and Kim Deal, and Purnell drew them into permanence on the customer's skin. Big "Cannonball" fan, I guess. Another features lyrics from The Smiths' "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out."

"There was a lady I tattooed once who got a flowing music staff with three birds around it for her kids, and 'Every little thing gonna be all right' written in place of the notes," Purnell recalls. "It's a good phrase to remember, especially when your hands are full."

She recently sent her Houston-based work to Asia, by way of members of the Japanese band RIPPER. The female punk rockers played a series of shows on a whirlwind week in Houston last year. Purnell caught the act and they caught hers, by getting inked at Electric Chair.

They've never polled their clientele, but they all figure they've tattooed plenty of Houston musicians. Which naturally led to asking which music artist they'd love to tattoo.

"If I could tattoo any music artist I would tattoo the guys from Caifanes, and I would go for a pre-Hispanic theme," Omar Hernandez shares.

Purnell says her hands-down choice would be Elvis; according to the all-knowing Internet, The King was never tattooed. Back at Virtue, Jay McCaslin says he'd love to tattoo Lemmy from Motorhead, but "would rather have some whiskey with him instead." Matt Burgdorf chose Bono, "because he is Bono. But Bono would have to tattoo me, too."

I wondered whether Bono would choose his own music to be tattooed to -- why do I think he would? -- and found that, in my own case, the music hardly mattered.

We chose Scorpion Studios for our family outing. While the family was getting its work done I heard The Black Dahlia Murder's Nocturnal and all of Prince's The Hits Volume 1. When I was up, my tattoo artist, Bill Folk, did his work and we engaged in some comfortable give and take. Then, before I knew it, it was done and I had a tattoo.

Turns out, I barely noticed the music in the background, which was The Sounds of The Gap Band Live. Old school, Uncle Charlie funk? I probably couldn't have chosen better if I'd been asked.


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