It's dusk. Outside the tiny tattoo parlor -- a blue-gray cubicle tucked between a closed Chinese restaurant and the flashing lights of the Top Cat pinball arcade at 12th and I streets downtown -- office workers hurry by, bums beg for pocket change, a pudgy prostitute peddles her wares and two drunks are dancing a sidewalk soft-shoe to an imaginary tune.
Carol Nightingale, one of the last original tattoo artists in the nation, ignores them all.
In his studio, Nightingale moves slowly, deliberately, examining each flask of rainbow-colored dye, inspecting every stainless steel instrument before him as if he were about to perform delicate surgery.
Satisfied at last, he flips a switch that makes the neon sign above his doorway glow blood-red: "TATTOOS."
Nightingale's is open. An Irish jig is playing on the cassette recorder inside: "They come to me from far and near, For a girl or a ship or an eagle. I sharpen me blade, for tattooing's my trade, I'm the man with golden needle."
In the last 30 years, he has designed more than 200 copyrighted tattoos and etched those screaming eagles, naked women, leaping tigers, red roses, and clever sayings into hundreds of yards of skin. He has put a portrait of Richard Nixon on a staunch Republican's shoulder and tattooed gold wedding bands on a couple who couldn't afford rings.
But now times are changing.
Just as the giant, steel cranes at the site of the convention center two blocks away are a sign that Nightingale's small shop someday will be more valuable as a parking lot or gift boutique, so are there signals that Nightingale's is becoming a relic -- a victim of progress.
Gone are the cutsy sailors who used to bend Nightingale's ear with tales of lost love as he permanently embedded their skin with "Death Before Dishonor." They have been replaced by youngsters who want to know if they can get tattooed within an hour, will it hurt and whether Nightinglae accepts Visa or Master Charge.
Five years ago, there were only 40 tattoo artists in the country, mostly tough curmudgeons who spent years learning their trade and hours perfecting a tattoo. Today, there are more than 5,000 self-proclaimed tattooers. They appeared overnight to meet a booming popularity in the skin mural trade.
The Gemini Tattoo Boutique on the strip across from Ft. Meade in Maryland is one of the new generation of tattoo parlors.
With six years experience, Dennis and Gale Watkins offer customers more than 1,000 tattoos -- nearly all from mass produced stencils.The cheapest tattoo is $16 and can be applied in a matter of minutes while your friends play the boutique's pinball machine and sip cold sodas. About 60 percent of the boutique's customers are women.
"Women have really helped the tattoo business," says Watkins, who drives a Cadillac, sports a gold neck chain, smokes long, black cigars, and flashes a pinkie ring.
"The gals helped make getting a tattoo more respectable even though a lot of times you can't see their tattoos," Watkins says, with a wink.
According to Watkins, women get tattoos on "their backs, breasts or bottoms."
Janet, a 27-year-old Washington waitress, chose her left breast for a carefully positioned long-stemmed, red rose. "Don't print my last name," she says to a reporter invited to watch. "I don't want to get a bunch of calls. Men think women with tattoos are easy."
Her tattoo was designed so the green stem can be seen when Janet wears lowe cut blouses, but the rosebud remains concealed. "It turns people on, it's sexy -- that's why I did it," Janet says. "Look, I'm proud of my body and like to show it off. What better way than to have a tattoo? It's like having a permanent piece of jewelry."
"Times are changing," says Nightingale.
There was a time, Nightingale says, when the only way to learn tattooing was from an old master. "Usually, they wouldn't teach anyone but their own children," he says. It was a profession of artists.
Back then, the highest compliment one tattooer could give another was a tattoo, and Nightingale is a walking autograph album. Tattoos from legendary tattooers cover 40 percent of his body.
"See this one here?" he asks, pulling up a pantleg and his long underwear. A parrot appears, red, green, and yellow. "This was done 30 years ago by Hook Spaulding, who used to own this shop -- one of the masters. And this one . . ." Nightingale says, continuing to reveal tattoo after tattoo, naming each artist as he gives a guided tour of his flesh. Finally, he reaches a small, black vampire bat tattoo high on his left thigh.
"This was my first -- my mother, Henrietta, gave me this when I was 11. That's how I learned -- from my mother," Nightingale says. "She was an acrobat with the circus and she was dating a tattooer and he taught her and she taught me and me, well I'm going to teach my children, too."
Born in Canada, the son of a farmer, Nightingale left home at age 12 to work "fire-banjo jobs" -- helping pitch coal on steamships on the Great Lakes. At 20, he opened his first tattoo studio in the Tenderloin section of Toronto and quickly went broke. He set sail again but only until he had enough cash to reopen his shop.
It took 10 years for him to gain recognition among tattooers.He did it by creating Thunder in the Sun -- two eagles atop a red sunset. It covered a man's back and was so detailed that it took 12 months to complete.
Nightingale came to Washington after that and took over Spaulding's turf. "In the old days, each man had his own territory," Nightingale says. "I had earned this one."
He still is in the shop he bought, but it has changed from that day in 1960 when Nightingale stood outside his new studio, grinning like a schoolboy, a brown derby hat atop his head, waling cane in hand, pipe dangling from his teeth, and wearing a pin-stripped suit and diamond stick-pin as a photographer snapped his picture.
Now the storefront smells of urine and sweat, steel wire screens protect the spit-stained display window and broken whiskey bottles and yellowing newspapers mar the doorway.
"I had a chandelier in here once and a brass cash register polished like gold. I had stained glass windows too, but, hell, the D.C. government wanted me to pay personal property tax on all that and it just wasn't worth it," nightingale says. All the fancy trimmings are gone now, except for the polished oak cabinets that hold his tools. He will not put his tools anywhere else.
"I used to do 90 percent military, now I do 10 percent military and 90 percent civilians," he says. The bulk of his customers are young men. They pound on his door at night (he's open from 6:30 p.m. until the "skin runs out") and he answers while keeping one hand on the short-barrel, .38 caliber pistol that he started wearing when "the neighborhood turned bad a few years ago after the bus station moved in."
He also began charging $10 to step inside his studio. You get a refund if you don't come out tattooed. "I don't want gawkers," he says, "the Smithsonian is down the street."
As his neighborhood changed, so has Nightingale. There was time when he always was at work. Nightingale invented a patented tattoo gun, the first new tattooing instrument in 51 years. [The first gun was designed by Ben Franklin, Nightingale says, smiling.] He also has designed three unusual methods of tattooing, written a half-autobiographical, half-fictional book about tattooers and copyrighted a 12-verse song about his profession.
He even created a word for his craft, calling it Dermagraphics, not tattooing. "That's what you get from zombies -- those guys who peddle their work to drunks." Dermagraphics, Nightingale proclaims, is art, as lovely as the work of Rembrandt.
"Someday, the public will learn," he mutters.
Lately, Nightingale has been spending less time at his studio and more time at his farm in Gettysburg. He shruggs if you ask him why.
Some of his loyal customers claim Nightingale's business has been hurt by other tattooers. Nightingale insists other tattooers are trying to close him down.
"They keep telling everyone that I am dead," he says, "they think they can steal my customers."
Nightingale has responded by putting a sign in his shop window: "Nightingale is dead," it reads, "Come in and do it with a stiff."
"It's not a job to him, it's a way of life," says a friend, who calls Nightingale "Smokey" because of his ever-present Sherlock Holmes style pipe. "The others, they just go home after work, but Smokey, he lives his work."
"He's the only person who I've let tattoo me," adds Dave Pizzi, a Washington plumber with 25 of Nightingale's dermagraphics on his skin. When Pizzi got married, he invited Nightingale to the wedding.
Unlike tattooers who rely on stencils, Nightingale makes his own designs and, if the price is right, he will make a one-of-a-kind tattoo.
That's what Nelson Haje is getting. Nightingale is cutting four parrots into Haje now. It's a jungle scene drawn by a friend of the 28-year-old pizza shop owner from Silver Spring.
"Parrots are my hobby," Haje says. "I love them and I love good art. That's why I'm doing this."
Does it hurt? "It feels like when you rest your head on the gearshift knob of a four-speed when the car is running," he replies.
"I once put a coat of arms on a guy that he liked so much when he got older, he had it removed and put on his son," Nightingale says with chuckle. "I put a pyramid on a guy and that day he finally got a date with a woman who he had been chasing for months."
I never ask why they want one," Nightingale says, likening the question to asking a foreign legionnaire why he joined.
"But you can tell a lot about society by the tattoos that are popular," he says. "Women's faces used to be popular and nudes and eagles and patriotic sayings. I enjoyed that, especially the women's faces. Why, I haven't done a face in years, except for Richard Nixon's, but that just wasn't the same.
"You know what's popular now?" Nightingale asks, pulling out a drawing. "The grim reaper with a bloodly sickle. That's what everyone wants.
"It says a lot about our times."