Etching Columbus tattoo history with Hell City founder Durb Morrison.
When I was growing up, the cool kids weren’t wearing designer clothes, or scoring on a sports field. They were hanging out behind a tattoo and skateboard shop in Westerville, smoking cigarettes and telling stories. My heroes wore t-shirts and Vans.
I saw a parade of people all shapes, ages, and colors come through that shop, telling their stories to tattooers as they, in turn, etched them into their skin.
I wouldn’t have known back then (but I could have guessed), that I’d go on to spend hundreds of hours in that same position, choosing designs to put on my own body that I would carry forever.
I also couldn’t have known that one day I’d be a magazine writer, or that I’d get to sit in the chair of living Columbus tattoo history.
Durb Morrison isn’t just the founder of the Hell City tattoo convention, he’s also an inventor, promoter, painter, and traveler. And with his blessing, I thought the best way to tell his story was to ask him to help me tell mine—by throwing myself under his machine at Red Tree Gallery, and asking him to add a page to the book that is my skin.
Durb doesn’t carry himself like a king—but during our session, people approach his work area like a throne—quietly, with respect and happy greetings.
He pauses to receive friends, old tattoo clients, personal assistants, a Jiu Jitsu instructor who he is going to buy nunchucks with after our interview is over. Always and effortlessly “on,” he affords each their individual audience.
“Tattooers are like therapists,” he said. “It’s an awesome part of being a tattooer. So when people are here, they divulge a lot of information to you. And you put somebody in a little bit of pain, the endorphins that get released, they get very emotional. It’s a natural thing. I’ve heard some crazy stories. At the same time that you become their therapist, you become their friend. Every day they look down [at their tattoo] and go ‘my buddy Durb did that!’ Some of the best friends I have come from tattooing.”
He says this all while pummeling me with a buzzing, ink-dipped, electric needle. It buzzes and furrows hotly across my hip, and my nostrils flare involuntarily. He pauses to speak to his assistant about emails, and like some roided-out Terry Gross, I reach determinedly for my recorder. I need to capture this in the moment.
The conversation flows easily as I ask Durb about growing up in Ohio. He was 13 when he gave and received his first tattoos after invading his mom’s sewing kit for needles. Straight edge Xs on him and his punk rock skateboard buddies, their first tattoos were a rite of passage. Like most who get tattooed, the first of many symbols carved into his skin would signal movements into new stages of his life.
Early on, it was warm memories of his grandfather’s woodworking shop where he cobbled together the first steps of his artistic path. A hardscrabble start in a broken home propelled him out onto his own, getting kicked out at 17 for tattooing a friend in his father’s house. Turns out he could make enough cash inking his pals to support himself while staying with friends as he finished school.
He shipped off to Huntington Beach, California and pressed the accelerator on his career. From there to Biloxi and back to Columbus, Morrison had led a nomadic life of study, which led to him becoming an advanced tattooer at a nearly unprecedented young age.
By 21, he’d started Stained Skin on the north side of the city. The year was 1994, and it was the sixth tattoo shop ever in Franklin County. From the very beginning, he and his crew of young, energetic artists put a new spin on inked skin.
“Nobody was seeing that type of tattooing in this town,” he said. “We weren’t the bikers, we were the young artistic kids. So, my shop at the time got known as one of the premier shops. Everybody was talking about it in interviews and articles everywhere. We [were] a bunch of young kids, tattooing our asses off, going to conventions and competitions. When my shop got recognized as a powerhouse studio, and I started getting interviews in major tattoo magazines, that was when all that hard work I had done over all those years came to a culmination, and I got recognized.”
Perhaps only someone like Durb, with a massive client list and a national reputation, would be ambitious enough to turn Columbus, Ohio into the site of one of the country’s largest tattoo conventions.
Or actually have the balls to sell the shop that helped him gain that rep. Maybe it didn’t matter; as Hell City got off the ground, Morrison’s celebrity client roster was also growing. Musicians, athletes, and X gamers all bear his permanent marks. Album art and merch design for bands passed through his tattooed and skilled hands. His celebrity began to grow as well.
The fame was good for business, sure. But did it really matter to Morrison whether he was inking a guy from Poison or a dude from Pataskala?
“Not to me,” he said. “Here’s the way I look at tattoo artists: we are the rock stars to the rock stars. You can’t be a rock star without your tattoos!”
That notoriety fed into the cyclical nature of promotion, and the convention mushroomed. Now in its 20th iteration (combined with a yearly sister event in Phoenix, Arizona), Hell City has become a year-round gig, involving full-time employees that book tattoo artists from around the world and fly them to the same city that once had only a handful of shops. Hosting bands, live paintings by 30 artists, and much more, the event draws 6,000-8,000 people over three days.
A trade show—but one with fire breathers and stilt walkers.
“We want to show people that we’re not just tattooers—we’re artists off the skin as well,” Morrison said. “We want to show people an entertaining time, whether it’s a freak show, or aerial, or burlesque. It all encompasses that alternative lifestyle. Conventions nowadays are a way for the kids to really see tattooing at its finest, take seminars, meet others in the community, and help their own career thrive.”
Ever humble in his everyday approach, Morrison takes none of his success for granted. He’s not afraid to take credit for it, either.
“Ever since Hell City started, people knew there was something special about it. The quality of the artists, the look of the show, the way it functions, the visuals, the big screens at the main stage so the audience can see the tattoos getting judged … I made tattoo conventions better. Other convention promoters saw what I was doing. I get them coming to my show just to look around and see how we’re doing things. If people copy me …. it’s flattering.”
While I try to keep my focus on simply having a conversation, the slow burn is spreading across my side, from hip to ribs. Luckily for me—and this interview—Morrison is always doing multiple things at once. He is at the height of planning for Hell City, and as the onslaught of phone calls and e-mails is abated by employees, Morrison himself never leaves the helm, delegating to his trustees from his work stool. Never for a moment do I feel his attention waver from the increasingly colorful wings of the moth on my waist.
You need that kind of focus in Durb’s world. As his roster of clients swelled, and his job descriptions multiplied, he developed a pattern of travel around the world, remaining ever studious in his craft. This year, he will travel to Malta, Greece, Paris, London, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, New Zealand, and Romania for conventions, with some stints on television along the way. (TLC’s Say Yes to the Dress is featuring Morrison and his 18-years-younger wife, international tattoo model Cervena Fox, on a future episode.)
It’s all gained him valuable perspective on the artform—one that has made a complete revolution, not only with much wider acceptance and appreciation from the world over, but from is own inner circle. His once-disapproving mom recently sat in her son’s chair to get a small piece on her wrist, no doubt a larger sign that tattooing was never just some idle punk piss-off.
“Tattooing is a universal language—been around longer than cave paintings. We were tattooing each other before we could talk. Tattoos are a human thing. It represents your level in your tribe. The imagery is [different around the world]. New Zealand, they have the moko tattoos. In Paris, you’ll see people wearing dragons. If you go to Japan, they have more of the kimono yakuza style. Different cultures have different styles of tattooing anywhere you go.”
Someone with Durb’s credentials doesn’t spend much time seeking validation—where would he even find the time?—but he’s certainly more reflective about his chosen path as he’s gotten older, now a father of a 22-year-old (himself a seek-your-own-path MMA fighter).
Tattooing is at an all-time high in popularity, which creates a potential paradox: if tattoos are cool with everyone, are they that cool anymore? Is Durb jaded at all about a new generation of young punks trying to make their literal mark on the tattoo community? With all that social capital, when you’re seeing reality shows based on tattoo shops, does he worry about that counter-culture fading?
“The TV shows and all that, it’s nothing but good. It’s created more tattooers, which sells more of my products, which brings people to Hell City, which brings more artists. It just adds to the whole art form of it,” he said. “I think before the shows, people didn’t know what the f*ck was going on in tattoo shops. Now they can see, so I think it’s good to take the veil off all that. Pull the curtain and let people see what tattooing really is. It’s allowed people that would have never gone into a tattoo shop—because they thought it was a bunch of rough biker dudes—a chance to see that it’s just creative kids. We’re not what people think we were.”
Plus the next generation, like with any artform, is injecting new creativity into the industry.
“These kids that are tattooing came out of art school,” he said. [It’s] fashion nowadays. If we have a modern renaissance, it’s tattooing.”
If this is the Tattoo Renaissance, then Durb, around here and beyond, is Michelangelo, another with a variety of skills commissioned to make art for notable public figures of his day. He’s not just an artist, but an innovator, changing the shape of conventions and convention. He designed the first steel-tipped, disposable tattoo machine tubes, as well as memory foam grips, and a revolutionary disposable, adjustable grip with silicone rings that can morph its shape to fit the hand of the artist. They’re now sold from 60-plus supply companies around the world.
In the almost 25 years since Stained Skin, Durb’s more than made his mark on the city, and the industry as a whole. Our interaction has been relatively brief, but his art will be with me until the day I die.
Can you imagine your work having that kind of lasting impact? Could a young punk have imagined that when the same skill meant he had to find a new roof over his head as a teenager?
This is what it means to be a tattoo artist. This is the lifestyle—it’s bent spines and sharp lines. It’s hard work. It’s lifelong study. And it’s given Durb as much as he’s given it.
“To improve as a tattooer, you have to go home and do your homework. It’s going home and studying how a dragon’s claw forms—that’s your homework. And the next day when you go in [to do the tattoo], that’s class. I always say you have to spend more time at the art table than the bar. You have to block out distractions.
“And if you do that, if you dedicate your life to tattooing, it will give you so much back. It doesn’t feel like work—it’s my lifestyle. I’m not in a cubicle, I don’t have a suit and tie on. I get to listen to my music. I get to hang out with other artists. Some people would kill for that.”