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St. Petersburg tattoo artist Frankie D, 35, found dead

ST. PETERSBURG — The customers and friends began to call his shop hours after it happened, from overseas, from Los Angeles, from just down the street.

When you were Frankie D, news like this travels fast.

Frank Donofrio, better known as Frankie D, tattoo artist and founder of Frankie D Brand Tattoos in St. Petersburg, was found dead Sunday morning.

He was 35.

Though by that point, his career was already 20 years old, and his acclaim in the business — as much dependent on personality as talent — was in its prime.

His career started on the skin of his own leg when he was 15, spread to his classmates at Gibbs High School and eventually onto the arms and shoulders of celebrities like rock star Benji Madden and tabloid diva Paris Hilton.

He would receive plane tickets in the mail from far-flung clients and jet off to Europe and Australia to do what he loved, what his parents knew he would be doing since he was 7.

"He would draw on himself, on the walls, on his clothes — everything," said Bob Donofrio, his father.

When he inked "Shannon" — the name of his girlfriend at that time — on his calf in high school, his parents wanted to take him to a doctor to get it removed.

"But we knew he would just do it again," said his mother, Donna Wheeler.

As an artist, friends and customers say, his talent was "awesome" and his work "phenomenal."

He won awards from Tattoo magazine and his designs were published in tattoo books.

Friends gathered Sunday night at his downtown tattoo shop to remember him.

Those close to Mr. Donofrio said his easy nature and generous spirit contributed to his success.

"People trusted him. They have confidence in him," said Wheeler, his mother. "That's important with tattoos."

Mr. Donofrio was found on the floor of his Old Northeast home Sunday morning by his girlfriend, Jana Lee Novell, 25.

Novell said an unfinished text message was on the screen of his phone. She said it looked like he was sending a message to a client who had flown from New York, to inform the client he wouldn't be able to make the appointment because he wasn't feeling well.

The cause of death is being investigated by the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office.

Crystal Luna, 36, was a client and knew Mr. Donofrio from high school.

"He was very sensitive, soft and loving, a very good tattooer who could have had it all," Luna said.

Dominick Tao can be reached at (727) 580-2951 or dtao@sptimes.com.

St. Petersburg tattoo artist Frankie D, 35, found dead 07/12/10 [Last modified: Monday, July 12, 2010 12:25am]
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