Get our free newsletter

Over the past two weekends in Ocean City, I have learned a bit about the world of underground tattooing.

Two weeks ago, I met man with P-A-U-L tattooed on his knuckles. He went by Pauly (not enough knuckles, I guess). Over a beer at a biker bar, Pauly told me that he survived prison by working as the tattoo guy. And since tattooing is frowned upon in the prison system, he built his own contraband tattoo gun from a dismantled Sony Walkman. In addition to covering his own body with ink, Pauly said, his job in the underground prison economy kept him safe, at least from the other inmates.

“Nobody messes with the tattoo artist,” he said.

Except the guards. When he got caught with new tattoos on his own body, Pauly said, he often wound up in the hole, with only a dictionary to read.

Those not behind bars have easier access to tattoo equipment. In a motel pool this weekend, I saw a teenage boy with a cross inked on his arm. I remarked on the quality.

The boy said his brother had given it to him after buying a tattoo gun off eBay. It would have turned out nicer, the boy said, if his brother had also bought a needle for outlining. As it was, he did the entire thing with a needle used for fill-in work.