TAMPA — In the late 1980s, the city of Tampa finally legalized tattoo studios.
It came at the urging of Vicki Harris, a tattoo advocate who hired a lawyer to make a case to the City Council for legalization. Harris and her husband, James, opened Artistic Armor Tattooing on S Dale Mabry in 1989.
Mrs. Harris defied old-fashioned stereotypes about tattoos. She never drank alcohol and held the hands of customers who winced at their first ink. She was a Little League mom who handed out juice packs at games and Neosporin to players who scraped an elbow diving for a baseball.
Customers who entered her studios wearing shorts at sub-pelvic levels had to pull them up before she would do business with them. Once they did, she advised them to choose a tattoo that would stay relevant.
"She told them, 'The image is going to be there forever and Guns N' Roses isn't, so choose wisely,' " her husband said.
The tattoo on her back — a family of tigers that was inked by her husband — symbolized her devotion to her own family.
Mrs. Harris died Aug. 21 of breast cancer. She was 48.
Though she never wielded a tattoo gun herself, her activism allowed tattoo artists to flourish in Tampa.
"There are a ton of artists who wouldn't even be getting attention if it wasn't for her, me being one of them," said Tim Kenney, an artist at Imperial Irons Tattoos in Brandon. "She was definitely a keystone in the tattoo community."
Though tattoo studios (the term insiders prefer over "parlors") had been operating in Pinellas County and unincorporated Hillsborough in the 1980s, the city of Tampa still banned them, said James Harris, 53.
"She established the argument that tattooing would be a benefit to the city; that we were not all stereotypical hairy biker types," he said.
From 1993 to 2000, the Harrises sponsored the Needles and Pins Tattoo Convention, which drew thousands to the former Five Points Sheraton Hotel.
The event reprised a final time in 2004 at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino.
Mrs. Harris also took care of people she barely knew. She continued to attend games at Citrus Park long after her own children had grown up, clad in jeans or shorts, a T-shirt and her trademark Army boots. She brought along a basket of juices, Band-Aids and other supplies.
She grew up in Alvin, Texas, the daughter of a pipe fitter and a meat cutter. She moved to New Hampshire, married and opened a tattoo shop. She moved to Tampa in 1988.
In late February, doctors diagnosed Mrs. Harris with late-stage breast cancer. Toward the end, James Harris recalled, "I just blurted out the old cliche: 'Why you? Why not somebody more worthy, like me?'
"She grabbed me and said, 'Why not me? What makes me so special?' "
He was impressed by her answer, though he will always disagree.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.