By Piper Castillo
A lot has happened since Jimmy Whitlock got his first tattoo. In the last 26 years, he has overcome mischievous behavior and brushes with the law. He has become a husband, father and successful business owner.
He has also added so many tattoos up and down his body, he has lost count of how many times his skin has been inked.
"The first one I got when I was 14 was a cross,'' he said. "I put it on myself. On my hand.''
Whitlock, 40, is the owner of Lucky's Tattoo and Medical Supply Inc., a business that manufactures tattoo machines. It started as a home-based business more than 10 years ago, but now has 12 employees.
Enter his business at 3405 East Bay Drive and you quickly realize you're in a place for tattoo aficionados.
In the front room, walls painted black are decorated with tattoo art, including 100-year-old flashes, or sketches, of voluptuous women, eagles with patriotic flags gripped in their talons, and tigers crouched, ready to attack.
"I've always been fascinated with the art of tattoos,'' Whitlock said.
Glass display cases are filled with memorabilia, including a tattoo kit from the 1930s and vintage tattoo machines made by well-known tattoo manufacturers of the 20th century, including Sailor Jerry, Paul Rogers and Charlie Wagner.
Tattoo machines have not changed much since they were invented in the 1800s, Whitlock said. Like those old machines, his modern ones still operate off of electromagnetic coils. The coils push a spring assembly that causes needles to move up and down, injecting ink into the skin.
What has changed over the years, however, is the public's interest in the industry. Tattoos are mainstream now. According to a study by the Pew Research Center in 2010, four out of 10 Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 have at least one tattoo.
With the surge in popularity comes a need for easy access to reliable, sound tattoo equipment, Whitlock said.
"The business was started because I knew professional tattoo artists who were not able to easily find good parts and machines when they needed them," he said. "They couldn't find good tools for their trade.''
Lucky's makes hundreds of machines by hand each year. The business sells other equipment, too, including foot pedals, liner and shader needles, ink, sterilization supplies and protective covers.
Bob Whitlock, the business owner's father, is a retired medical supplier who frequently works with his son. He believes his son has found success because of his practices like requiring customers to show proof they have a business license before they can place their first equipment order.
"For people wanting a tattoo, for their own health and safety, they should use only a reputable licensed artist,'' Bob Whitlock said. "There are too many people running around with infections and health issues related to poor tattoos and (Lucky's) is not going to be a part of that.''
Although Lucky's is based in Largo, most of its customers are outside of Florida and place their orders through the Internet or at tattoo shows and conventions, Jimmy Whitlock said.
Bert Krak, owner of two tattoo shops in New York, Smithstreet Tattoo Parlour in Brooklyn and Top Shelf Tattooing in Queens, has been a customer of Lucky's for about five years. He buys everything from coils to machines to medical supplies, he said.
"I use him because he is not one of those guys who is just trying to make a buck off of tattoo artists,'' said Krak, 34. "Jimmy is fully submerged in the industry.''
Next month, Lucky's will be represented at three international shows, the Art Tattoo Show Montreal in Canada, the first Melbourne Tattoo and Body Art Show in Australia and the International London Tattoo Convention in England.
"Conventions are where the professionals gather, and so we need to be there, too,'' Jimmy Whitlock said.
Last Tuesday, as the employees at Lucky's were busy assembling machines, Bill Preston, a Vietnam veteran who sports a Betty Boop tattoo, sat drinking coffee at Dunkin' Donuts next door. He had no idea Lucky's manufactured tattoo machines.
"I think that's really cool that Largo has it as a business and that tattoos are now respectable," said the 68-year-old, "When I got (a tattoo), I didn't think my wife would ever let me hear the end of it. But, really, it is an art form. Tattoos have been around since ancient times.''
Piper Castillo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.