Fashion 89 : Celebrity Tattooing, for the Skin They Love to Touch Up

Times Staff Writer

To their uniforms of leather, T-shirts and chains, bad boys and girls and rock, royalists have added one more accouterment: tattoos.

Just look at the members of Motley Crue, Guns N’ Roses, Great White and Poison. Or scan rockers Ozzy Osbourne, Lita Ford and Billy Idol. Or open any rock or heavy metal magazine and count the number of performers with tattoos.

That skin art has become increasingly popular, even with those in pin-striped suits who tote briefcases, should be no surprise considering how hot tattoos are with high-profile celebrities.

Cher, Lorenzo Lamas, Melanie Griffith, Charlie Sheen and Sean Penn all have tattoos.


Whoopi Goldberg has “Peanuts” character Woodstock over her left breast. Mark Gastineau and Brigitte Nielsen, in the ultimate act of commitment, had each others’ names tattooed on their rear ends.

Tony Danza decorated an upper arm with “Keep on Truckin,” while Secretary of State George Shultz has the Princeton tiger mascot imprinted on his posterior.

Robert Benedetti is the owner and a tattoo artist at Sunset Strip Tattoo Inc., an internationally known studio that over the years has put pictures on the skin of the famous and the infamous, as well as mere mortals.

Despite the displayed press clippings of various bands who are or were clients--Ozzy Osbourne, Billy Idol, Motley Crue, Ringo Starr, Guns N’ Roses, David Lee Roth and members of Poison, Ratt and Judas Priest--Benedetti insists that his salon earned its reputation for its style rather than its customers.

He calmly works on a huge phoenix recently transfered to the body of Mike Messina, another tattoo artist who works in the studio. His back is covered with a detailed portrait of a Japanese warrior fighting a dragon.

A Variable Style

Benedetti’s style is “based on the Japanese classics in some ways, but my style is variable,” he says as he tattoos fine lines over the phoenix’s purple transfer. “I do conceptual art pieces to the classic Japanese. Classic Japanese (style) is interesting in that it’s a regimen. It’s an established set of parameters that you work within. If you think of it in that sense, as a discipline, then you get a good idea of what can happen once you learn it. Then you can start modifying it.”

Of the growing trend in tattoos, he observes: “I think that when something is delivered to the public at large in a way that it becomes acceptable as an alternative, then people will do it.

“So when you’re looking at tattoo shops, in general, the world over, you’ll discover that they’re a different place than they were 10, 15 or 20 years ago. They are well-lit, are manned by intelligent humans, and the degree of artwork being produced is a higher caliber, and the shops are in better neighborhoods.

“So when you take a look at that, what it would tell you is that everyone in the world would get a tattoo if they were exposed to tattoos in a valid way. . . .”

‘Intimate Relationship’

He pauses to give Messina a break and says, “Over the years you develop more than a certain rapport with your clients. You develop a very intimate relationship with the people you’re tattooing. We are in fact doing something rather profound to their life.”

Fifty percent of his clientele have always been women. “I suspect,” he adds, “that when a woman comes into a tattoo shop, and if the people there speak her language and have stuff that she thinks is interesting, she would get tattooed.”

In the rock world, Benedetti believes, tattoos “are probably more of a frivolity than anything else. They all have them because they all came from the same place. It’s like saying one group all looks alike because they wear the same shoes. In that part of the world, tattoos are very acceptable.”

Among the rockers, Benedetti admits it’s difficult to pin down what styles are popular. “But I would say that your average rock-and-rollers’ tattoo is a small, colorful modern adaptation of traditional tattooing. So you might have black panthers done in an entirely different style, with daggers and roses. Jon Bon Jovi has a Superman logo. . . . Comics are real traditional in tattooing.”

Working with brand-name rock ‘n’ rollers “can be more fun or it can be worse,” Benedetti says, “depending on whether they’re real people or not. In about three to five years, they usually wake up to the fact that they’re either very fortunate and have something going for them, and they’re not as ‘special’ as they thought they were, and they become real people and they’re easy to deal with.”

Following Their Rock Heroes

His clients also include fans who want the same or similar tattoos to what their rock heroes have.

Cliff Raven is another esteemed veteran artist whose studio is in Twentynine Palms. Of the rock set, he believes tattoos are “just a part of being outrageous. We know that’s the way rock music’s gone. They’re free to do it, and they’re not going to lose a job because of it.”

Having a band’s name tattooed can have its drawbacks. “I don’t know, these fans, they get these band names tattooed on them. That’s really dangerous,” says Ron Young of the local rock group the Little Caesars. “You look at it years later and say, ‘What band is that? I’ve never heard of them.’ And the person says, ‘Yeah, they were my favorite band when I was 17.’ ”

Young, 28, has the “full deal” tattooed on his back--a Japanese-style tiger standing on rocks with a landscape in the background--and arms covered with matching dragons, a unicorn, a koi, a geisha and a Japanese landscape. “I’m pretty much an illustrated man.

“I was in a band with a guy who had a bunch of tattoos,” he says, explaining why he started the process eight years ago. “I’ve always been intrigued by them just because of the colors and the artwork. I’d go with him every time he got tattooed, and I’d say, ‘Oh, I’ve got to get one, but I’m just going to get one.’ That’s the typical response from people. Then all of a sudden I felt out of balance. I had to get another one. They’re very contagious. A lot of people really want to get tattoos, but the social stigmas and the insecurities keep people back a lot, I think. You get around people who have them, and those insecurities get broken down.

“You try to figure out why people do these things,” he continues, “and I guess the mentality of performers--they want something that’s going to draw attention to them, and it’s a sign of rebellion. I got tattooed as a personal anti-social statement. For me it was not falling into a way of life I dreaded, the 9-to-5 conformity kind of thing. This forces me to live the way I want to live.”

John Lafia had been thinking about getting a tattoo for eight years. The 31-year-old writer-director finally took the plunge six months ago, trekked to Twenty-nine Palms with a friend and had Cliff Raven tattoo a primitive graphic of an iguana on his upper arm.

“When I first thought of getting one, I didn’t do it because of all those fears--that if you get one you’re marked for life and you’ll never get a decent job and you’ll somehow wind up in jail a drug addict.

“But once I directed my feature film (‘The Blue Iguana’) and had gotten where I wanted to be in my career, I thought having a tattoo would be fine,” he said. “I had nothing to lose, and I wanted to indulge in something that I always wanted. And of course, none of those fears ever come true.”

Lafia tried out several designs by photocopying them and taping them to his body or sketching them with a felt tip pen to ensure they were what he wanted.

A Sense of Permanence

“Once you have a tattoo,” he explains, “there is something more than what it appears on the surface. All it is is a drawing on you, but it’s something that can’t be stolen from you. It gives you a sense of permanence. . . . Maybe that’s why people who are in creative fields or who have been soldiers--people who are in a life that is really topsy-turvy and volatile--get them, because it is something that is so permanent. It gives you a sense of stability.”

Still, Lafia admits that the “outlaw” element to tattoos is appealing. “If every Joe Shmoe with a business suit had one, it would take something out of it. I did it not to be a part of the ‘thirtysomething’ crowd. I can’t see the lead guy making love to his wife with a tattoo on his arm. But having one for me . . . it’s kind of like rebel with a job.’ ”