Skin Graf 

With a new book, four local tattoo artists are hoping to revive an increasingly diluted art form.

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The current issue of Tattoo magazine features an anonymous arm tattooed from shoulder to wrist with cartoon characters from Nintendo video games.

Donkey Kong will maintain his balance on the barrel as long as that arm pumps blood. A full-color Mario perpetually shoots a golden star from his fist. Link may never rescue Zelda, but his blond pixie locks will continue to cast a shadow over his face no matter the time of day.

Ask Jason Hobbie, owner of Absolute Art Tattoos on Grace Street, what he thinks and he'll likely tell you the work is crap.

Hobbie advocates a more traditional strain of tattoo culture and worries that the kids these days are lacking role models. So his artists decided to set an example.

Four Absolute Art tattooers have just finished work that will appear in "Bella," a glossy 9-by-12-inch coffee-table book that Barnes & Noble Booksellers will distribute this fall. Brian Bruno, Timothy Hoyer, Josh Brown and Sean Harrington (brother of Style Weekly's deputy art director) are among the roughly 150 tattoo artists featured in the book.

But the pictures in Bella won't necessarily be ink on skin. They will feature traditional tattoo imagery mostly in watercolor because it most closely mimics how ink looks on skin.

"With the "Bella" book they were all kind of given free rein," says Mike "Shag" Kruse, whose Phoenix-based publishing company, Revenant, is publishing the book. "It just has to be based on the female form, and not vulgar."

Kruse, a tattoo artist himself, builds custom tattoo machines and knows the Richmond artists from the tattoo convention circuit. He got his start in publishing after releasing an updated book of classic tattoo designs, or flash, dating back to the 1920s that featured the work of tattoo legend Don Ed Hardy.

"Don Ed Hardy is pretty much the man," Kruse says. "He single-handedly contributed more to American tattooing than anybody else in the world." Hardy imported traditional Asian images and techniques. Kruse coordinated an effort to get 93 artists to update each page of the Hardy book in other mediums and published the collection as "Revisited."

Absolute artist Bruno worked for Hardy in San Francisco. For "Bella" he's contributing a painting of a figure that's half-woman, half-snake wrapped around a bell. It's inspired by the story of Kiyohime, a traditional Japanese character. According to the tale, she has a crush on a monk who cannot return her love because of his calling. Infuriated, she chases him under a bell. She transforms into a snake and sets the bell on fire, killing them both.

Brown contributed a watercolor and acrylic portrait of a Native American woman in a traditional headdress. Harrington sent a painting of a panther devouring a woman.

Publishing the original designs exposes tattooers to the risk of having their work ripped off, but that's sort of the point. In the end, they're hoping the younger artists see the work and use it as inspiration.

"That way if you have someone who is just starting," Hobbie says, "at least they're looking at the right things."

It's that training that distinguishes them in a field crowded with first-generation inkers drawn to the practice after tattoos went mainstream in the mid-1990s, as did graffiti, hip-hop, punk rock and just about every other counterculture pastime.

With the explosion in tattoo popularity over the past 10 years, tattoo shops have proliferated and muddied the talent pool.

"When I first started [in 1991] there were four tattoo shops in Richmond," Hobbie says. "Now there's 40."

Hobbie has a businessman's disposition. With the boom in tattoos, he's also found a new niche: tattoo rescue. Pieces inked without heavy black outlines, like the green plaid hills behind a leaping Toady in the Nintendo tattoo, are more likely to run.

These days, people wander into Absolute with blobs where tattoos once were. Hobbie recalls a few cases where the images were totally indiscernible.

For Absolute's tattoo artists, doing the right thing means maintaining the technique and etiquette they learned from years of unpaid grunt work for crusty old tattoo gurus. The old artists had strong opinions about two-tone nautical stars and how a rose should look. It didn't involve three-dimensional pop culture ("like Pixar drew it," Hobbie snorts) or the candy colors so popular today.

"We were probably the last generation to go to see it firsthand," Hobbie says. "Now it's: 'Can you draw? There's people waiting. Make me as much money as you can by the end of the day.'" S

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