CLEARWATER — Louis DeBiase, owner of Florida's first licensed tattoo parlor, knew his profession carried an unsavory image.
But Mr. DeBiase lived a quiet, law-abiding life, as conventional as the tattoos of Jesus he wore on each bicep.
He tolerated no vulgarity in the presence of women, and refused to draw the numeral 666 or any other symbol he deemed satanic.
Mr. DeBiase died Saturday at home, of heart and kidney failure. He was 77.
"He was a pioneer in the state of Florida," said Bill Hannong, owner of the Cadillac Tattoo Studio in Fort Myers. "He ran an extra-classy organization that practiced sterile technique, and he employed some of the best tattooers in the country."
Getting started wasn't easy. In 1978, fearing the image and clientele a tattoo parlor might create, St. Petersburg Mayor Corinne Freeman vigorously opposed Mr. DeBiase's efforts to get an occupational license. The law required a doctor's availability 24 hours a day, which Mr. DeBiase secured through his personal physician. That made Lou's Tattoos the first licensed tattoo parlor in the state.
His first customers were two women in their sixties. One wanted a butterfly; the other, a marijuana leaf. Soon all manner of customers headed to Lou's Tattoos at 6535 Fourth St. N, including lawyers, bankers and professional athletes. Once, he even tattooed a priest.
Customers wanted ships and trees and sunsets, Star Wars characters and religious symbols. Some wanted Western themes, like horse's heads; others favored cartoon characters or fantasy themes.
Though he never took an art class, Mr. DeBiase always drew. At 17, he watched, fascinated, as an elderly artist worked on a couple of his friends. Mr. DeBiase practiced on grapefruit.
He served with the Marines in Japan, then worked a series of odd jobs — salesman, janitor, dog trainer. He moved his family to the Tampa Bay area in 1973, and found work fishing and operating a crane. He couldn't find a job he liked until he started Lou's Tattoos.
"It used to be you got a tattoo in some dingy place from a guy leaning over you with a one-inch ash hanging from his cigarette," he told the St. Petersburg Times in 1981. "It's not like that now. My place, it could be a doctor's office."
Within a year after opening the first Lou's, he opened another in Clearwater. Today, the studio operates in St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Madeira Beach and Mulberry in Polk County.
In 1992, when just 40 or so tattoo parlors were doing business in the state, Hannong and Mr. DeBiase helped found the Florida Professional Tattoo Artists Guild.
For years, Mr. DeBiase had lobbied to require tattoo studios to be licensed by the state's Department of Health, a measure he felt would upgrade the profession. On June 4, Gov. Charlie Crist approved the bill.
Mr. DeBiase died the next day.