Indelible Link

By DeNeen L. Brown
Sunday, August 31, 2008

Liquidity Jones dips the rotary needle in black ink and injects it between the second and third layer of Jimmy Robinson's skin. Robinson pushes back in a black chair and closes his eyes, sinking deep, deep in memories. The ink pulsing now inside him, his dead brother's face begins to appear.

"It feels good knowing I got somebody on my arm I can trust," Robinson says.

Liquidity Jones, whose real name is Kris Burnette-Bey, the owner of the Liquidity Jones Tattoo shop, has already washed Robinson's left arm with green soap. Rubbed Speed Stick along the skin. Pressed on a carbon stencil sketch of the dead brother onto Robinson's left arm, providing a template she will fill in with permanent black tattoo ink.

Robinson looks at his brother's picture: "The killing, I think it needs to stop. It's bad. We blacks are killing off each other. It's pathetic. Someone needs to do something. I know plenty of people who died from gunshots or whatever."

They found Robinson's brother in front of a store near New York Avenue NE in May. "The ambulance picked him up. He died seven days later."

Burnette-Bey disinfects her hands and pulls on black latex gloves. "I just want to keep him with me at all times," says Robinson, 38.

Now she is painting the lips. She wipes away the excess ink. Now she's tracing the right cheek. She wipes more excess ink. Now the nose. A constant song from the rotor buzzes for nearly an hour. Robinson winces at the stinging pain.

She smears Vaseline on his skin. Now the left eye. The eyebrow. Now the right eye. She stretches the skin and wipes away the ink.

"His face is on you now," she says quietly.

In D.C., where so many have been killed that not all of their stories make the evening news, portrait tattoos have become another way to memorialize the dead. Allow those who survive to acknowledge the epidemic of violence, allow them to carry the dead with them so that they can't forget. Permanently.

As the blood spills, so does the ink. More and more people are pushing open doors of tattoo shops throughout the city to get such portraits.

The catalogue of Liquidity Jones's work looks like a funeral program: a girl with silver hoop earrings and red lipstick, her hair cornrowed up. A young man in a blue track jacket, kneeling with his pit bull. A man with dreadlocks, chin length, and a square jaw -- now he lives on a girl's broad back, near the neckline, where she wears a thin gold chain.

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