TAMPA — His legal name is Tony Baker, but a misprint on a business card provided the Doc Dog identity that he goes by.
In the 1970s, he asked for his name on the business card for his first tattoo shop to say “Dog,” which was his longtime nickname. “Like a dog, I was everyone’s best friend,” he said. The print shop thought he said “Doc” and put that on the card.
They then printed new cards, but with another error.
“They thought I meant to add ‘Dog’ to it,” he said. “So, it said, ‘Doc Dog.’ They offered to try a third time, but I decided to keep it. I’ve been Doc Dog ever since. That’s how everyone knows me.”
His Las Vegas Tattoo Company is celebrating 20 years in Ybor City.
But the 75-year-old is personally celebrating another milestone — 60 years in the business of inking skin.
Or maybe it’s 61 years, or 62, he said, before admitting that he is not entirely clear.
“It’s been a long time,” said Doc Dog, who now primarily sticks to the business side of his tattoo shop. “I know that much.”
During those decades, he opened the first tattoo shop in both California’s San Fernando Valley and Las Vegas. News archives from both regions back those claims.
Famous customers have included professional wrestler The Undertaker and entertainer Cher.
“I did a small coverup on Cher’s butt,” Doc Dog said. “People think that’s a big deal. I don’t get caught up in the celebrity stuff. I treat everyone the same — like they’re my best friend.”
He greets customers like they have known one another for years, with over-the-top yet authentic hellos. And he loves to tell them stories.
“I have plenty,” he said. “Why don’t we start at the beginning, when I was arrested.”
His wife Belle Amoroso chimed in, “He was arrested for hitchhiking on the Pacific Coast Highway.”
“No, it was for joy riding,” he said with a laugh. “The hitchhiking came later.”
The theft landed him in juvenile detention in California. He was either 13, 14 or 15, but cannot recall. Whatever the age, it’s when he fell in love with tattooing.
On his first night in the detention center, two guy asked him to be their lookout while one tattooed the other using a sewing needle and ink made of melted Styrofoam.
“My mind exploded,” Doc Dog said. “Well, I was watching them so hard that the man walked right up on us and asks what’s going on. I said, ‘Doing some tattooing man.’”
Days later, he was sent to one of California’s Youth Conservation Camps, which sought to rehabilitate juvenile offenders by teaching them to fight forest fires.
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Too young to battle flames, he cleared the trails for the firefighters who were 16 and older. It’s also when he learned to tattoo.
“I’m in the fire camp for about two weeks and everyone knew I could draw,” Doc Dog said. “This big monster guy nicknamed Caveman Curtis wanders over to me and offers me cigarettes for a tattoo.”
Doc Dog had never tattooed anyone but mimicked the guys he watched weeks earlier.
“I tattooed a big ol’ dagger on his forearm,” he said. “It looked terrible. But he loved it.”
Doc Dog tattooed others at the camp and practiced on himself, first inking a girlfriend’s name on one arm and then a portrait of Goldie Hawn on the other. Both were later covered up.
After years of arrests, Doc Dog said, he cleaned up his act and was trusted to become a parole officer in California at 22.
They should not have trusted him, he laughed. “That gave me built-in clients. I used my garage as a tattoo shop until I could afford to open the first in the San Fernando Valley in December of ‘72. It was called The World Famous Emporium of Tattoos.”
But tattoos were more infamous than famous in that era.
“Now it’s a trillion-dollar business,” he said. “Back then, it was just bikers, hookers and tramps.”
The California shop was doing fine, but Doc Dog said that he knew he could make more money by going to where that type of clientele flourished. “Vegas, of course.”
But Las Vegas didn’t want a tattoo parlor. The Clark County Health Department refused to approve a business license.
“They thought it was bad for the image of Las Vegas,” he said. “They were fine with drinking and gambling all night, but a tattoo shop was bad for their image?”
Doc Dog claims that two friends pretended to be attorneys and marched into the health department with him.
“I said that I was going to sue the state of Nevada, Clark County and the health department,” he said. “About a week and a half goes by, and my phone rings.”
He was licensed and opened the city’s first tattoo parlor in July 1977.
Las Vegas was wild back then too, but in a different way, he said. The mafia was still front and center, yet it was also “a small country town. People were riding horses around.”
Biker gangs were the biggest issue. “They thought they controlled everything,” Doc Dog said. “That didn’t work out too well for them.”
Weeks of angry words between his shop and a biker gang culminated in a shootout outside his shop, he said. “No one was hurt, and we didn’t get the cops involved. After that, we had peace.”
Las Vegas was good to him. It’s where he met his wife. It’s also where he earned renown for tattooing celebrities like Redd Foxx, he said.
Another who regularly popped in was Bert Grimm. Retired and living in Nevada at the time, he is considered one of the most talented tattoo artists ever.
“He tattooed Bonnie and Clyde,” Amoroso said of Grimm.
The shop did well enough that Doc Dog retired to a Texas ranch in 2000.
“I had 40 acres with a bass pond, but I had the bulk of my wealth in Enron,” the energy, commodities and services company that went bankrupt in 2001, he said. “So, it was back to work.”
Las Vegas Tattoo Company reopened, but in Long Branch, Texas. He operated that shop for two years before relocating to Tampa.
“My son Colt went to Admiral Farragut Academy in St. Pete, and we fell in love with the area,” Doc Dog said. “I figured, if I am going to work, it might as well be in Florida.”
The Ybor shop struggled early on, so he purchased time on the WB network and produced and starred in “Tattoo Underground,” a behind-the-scenes reality show about the industry. It aired for two years.
“That gave us an image,” he said. “We’ve been busy ever since.”
He has mixed emotions on tattoos becoming mainstream. It means business is more lucrative.
But it also takes away from the “mystique of the tattoo,” he said. “In a way, my generation is to blame. Once we started tattooing all the rock stars, their groupies wanted to be like them, and it just grew.”
So, does he blame Cher’s butt?
“Exactly,” Doc Dog laughed. “I blame her butt.”