Tattoo culture in South Mississippi defined by life on the water

Amanda McCoy/Sun Herald
Many of Brandi England's tattoos are animals or nature themed. She got much of her ink done at Twisted Anchor Tattoo in Ocean Springs.
Amanda McCoy/Sun Herald Many of Brandi England's tattoos are animals or nature themed. She got much of her ink done at Twisted Anchor Tattoo in Ocean Springs. SUN HERALD

When Brandi England was 18, she told her dad she needed money for shoes. She returned to her Gautier home with no shopping bags and a dragon permanently inked into her skin.

"He didn't talk to me for two weeks," England said.

Now, England's body is covered with more than 30 works of art -- mostly animals, plants or portraits, all of living things.

Many of England's tattoos represent the trends of a growing tattoo culture in South Mississippi. As more people walk into shops to get new ink, the need to promote the art of tatoo has grown, thus bringing more conventions to Biloxi.

Ocean Springs tatoo artist Matt Stebly said that South Mississippians generally lead toward three certain aspects when getting body art: color, living things, and anything tied to the water that defines the area.

Stebly's aesthetic mirrors the ink desires of many residents, and his portfolio reflects that.

"I do a lot of nautical-themed pieces," he said. "I'm lucky to have the clientele that like the kind of art that I do. I draw a lot of animals and things like that 90 percent of the time I'm going to be doing an animal or a nautical-themed tattoo."

Stebly has created many of the animals that are adorned on England's skin. She said her next tattoo will be an octopus on her abdomen with a tentacle wrapping around her chest.

"It's South Mississippi. Everything is to do with water or the woods," she said. "I think it just calls to people."

Alicia Cruz Lara of Biloxi is most attached to the tattoos she drew herself. Many of them involve intricate lines and patterns. Her favorite is a red mandala on her shoulder. She said it symbolizes protection and took seven hours to draw.

Cruz Lara would get ink as she could afford it. She had a money jar and would put extra cash from work in the jar.

"Whenever I had, say like $150 or something, I would take one of the designs that I had drawn up and go and get it done," she said.

Now, that jar is used for her children's presents for birthdays and holidays.

Jay Spell literally wears his life story. Where he's been, where he's going and what he has accomplished -- are lines of ink permanently marked onto his right arm.

Melissa Cox, 20, was in high school when she got her first tattoo, a sugar skull on her right arm. Her father paid for it. Her mother was furious. The Bay St. Louis resident now has spent about $3,000 perfecting her half-sleeve.

Some of Waveland resident Michael Adams' tattoos have deep meaning, but others were inked into his skin for no reason. When he finds an image he likes online, he traces it and then goes to into his kitchen, pulls out his kit and tattoos himself.

Stebly, who owns Twisted Anchor Tattoo in Ocean Springs, is hosting Due South Tattoo Expo on Friday, bringing a second tattoo convention to South Mississippi.

Ninety artists from across the country will have their work on display and offer live tattooing at the Biloxi Civic Center on Howard Avenue throughout the weekend.

In mid-October, Inktoberfest brought artists to Biloxi from around the country, where onlookers could watch live tattoo sessions or flip through look books. The event is spearheaded by Gulfport tattoo artist Aaron Antonucci.

South Mississippi body art also has more color than tattoos from other areas across the nation. In California, black and gray tattoos are more prominent, he said, because tattooing there was influenced by Latino culture.

"Black and gray tattoos show up better on Latino skin," he said.

Stebly said people love color on the Coast, but it's more likely to need touch-ups. Because South Mississippians love the outdoors, the sun and tanning can fade bright colors.

"A lot of people do like color, but I wish people would take better care of their skin," he said.

On the East Coast, Stebly said many who are tattooed like some of the same nautical themes in the South, although many add a northern flair. He said around Boston, colors look great because many people have pale skin.

Another huge cultural influence on tattoos is South Mississippi's strong military presence.

"A lot of tattoo artists around here originated right outside Keesler when tattooing was a lot less mainstream," Stebly said. Tattooing military personnel helps local artists maintain success and build their portfolios.

"Military in general has had a huge impact on tattooing. Wherever there's a base or something like that they're going to get tattoos."