PHILADELPHIA -- Hitching up his left pant leg, Harry Von Groff reveals the latest acquisition to his art collection: an X-rated etching inked into the flesh an inch or so above the surface of his calf muscle.
Lighting a cigarette, Von Groff displays powerful forearms and the renderings of years of visits to tattoo studios from Copenhagen to Lisbon. Oriental fish thrash above his wrists; a peacock coils around his left forearm; just inside his right bicep a small, blue spider's web catches the eye as surely as if it were snaring an insect.
Then he remembers his first tattoo at age 11, his own name inked into his right bicep by a one-armed artist he met at a carnival.
"He was in the freak show," Von Groff recalled, "and when that was over he did tattoos."
At 47, Von Groff has traveled the world as a sailor and has seen the insides of dozens of tattoo studios -- including at least six of his own. Now he is settling down with his fifth wife, Debbie, and says that life is as good as it has ever been. Recently, in what is perhaps the ultimate expression of marital declaration, he tattooed his name onto his new wife's chest.
But for Von Groff, the art of tattoos is more than staking a claim to one's identity or, for that matter, to a marriage partner. For more than 30 years, he said, he has practiced the trade of tattooing, taking pains to elevate it to an art form instead of using it as a quick hustle.
"I don't work on any private areas," he said, "any faces, hands or feet. To me it's just a moral obligation. I've known people who had small ones on their hands and who missed promotions at work because of it ...
"I like doing tattooing. I guess it's kind of leaving my mark. I like to create. And most of all I like to hear people say, 'It looks good' or 'It looks great.' "
Von Groff runs Harry's Shanghai Star Tattoo Studio in Philadelphia, where he has left his mark on hundreds of servicemen, a surgeon, a newspaper editor, lawyers and others. He has done tiny flowers and butterflies on women and has inscribed an entire "body suit" -- head-to-toe tattoos -- on a Navy submariner.
"On his back I put a huge squid attacking a submarine," Von Groff wryly recalled of the body job, which took nine months to complete.
Sitting by a table where his needles and inks await the next forearm or shoulder, Von Groff professes love for his work.
"If I had money I'd do this for nothing," he said. "Basically, I'm shy. If you met me outside this place, I wouldn't look at you. I just don't like people in general, people in public places. I guess this is kind of my release in here. My little shell. I like to meet people in here and talk."
After he joined the Navy at age 17, he said, he acquired his first real electric needle. While serving for 10 years on destroyer escorts and an icebreaker in the North Atlantic, Von Groff did scores of tattoos on other sailors, secretly needling designs into their arms and legs in the isolated confines of the ships' huge anchor lockers.
"It was viewed like destroying or defacing government property," Von Groff said of Navy officers' reactions to his work.
Finally, in 1967, Von Groff was discharged from the service, a man with a virtual history of his travels written on his body.
"Whatever port we were in," he said, "if there was a tattoo place, I went."
For several years after leaving the Navy, he worked at odd jobs. Then, in 1974, he opened his first shop, in Chester, Pa. Two years later, he opened his first shop in Philadelphia.
"A lot of people come in for memorials for friends who were killed," Von Groff said. "After the pullout in 'Nam, an awful lot of servicemen came in to get memorials for friends that died."
"We don't do drunks," Von Groff said of his policy about working on some people. "I won't do anybody high or on drugs or anybody with track marks. And I won't do anybody who appears to be mentally deficient."
How long will Von Groff continue to add to his own collection?
"As long as I got a spot," he said.