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The colors of success

People line up to be this tattooist's canvas

Last week I watched Fat Ram skateboard up to his tattoo parlor in Hyde Square embracing an air conditioner. You just don't see that every day on the streets of Boston, not even in J.P.

But then Ram (pronounced "rahm") has always lived in a parallel universe. He used to wear a suit or tux every Friday during his estimable "Formal Fridays" campaign to ridicule the "Casual Fridays" instituted by corporate America.

Ram is covered with freckles and tattoos. He is a robust mix of Lithuanian, Irish, and Scottish, leavened by something exotic from the West Indies. He's a skateboard and surfing addict. Spent last weekend on the waves off Nantucket.

How was the surfing, I ask. "It was sick," he says. "Is that good?" I ask. "Yes," he says.

Ram is widely considered Boston's primo tattoo artist. The waiting list to see him can run a year, and people come from far and wide for his talents. Now 35, he's been tattooing for 20 years -- underground on occasion in Massachusetts before tattooing was legalized here in 2001 -- and above ground from Texas to Virginia, New Hampshire to Rhode Island. His shop, Fat Ram's Pumpkin Tattoo, was the first licensed tattoo parlor in Boston.

Upon entering it for the first time, the Observer is convinced he has stumbled into the space bar in "Star Wars." It is full of strange-looking people sporting strange-looking haircuts wearing strange-looking clothes with really strange-looking stuff all over their bodies.

That said, it should be noted that I, outré in khakis, blue shirt, and sensible shoes, look every bit as bizarre to them. Ozzie Nelson meets the extraterrestrials.

You generalize at your peril these days about tattoo clientele. Yes, a guy can still walk into a tattoo parlor near a military base at midnight and get a SS Death's Head on his forearm. And you still hear about someone who went into a blackout after the fifth bar and woke up with "Shirley" written across a red heart on his groin.

But it's old news that tattoos have migrated to the right side of the tracks. They've been de rigueur for ages from Hollywood to the Hamptons. They're ubiquitous in the world of J. Crew and Armani. What may soon define cutting edge will be an adult without one.

Ram works on countless doctors and lawyers who should recoil from tattoos like vampires to garlic. Wrong. "You have no idea who's sporting what," he says.

Ram's clients take their tattoos seriously. They want something profound. An 81-year-old man got a small tattoo on his arm from Ram in memory of the beloved wife he had just lost.

Lew Loren, 41, an engineer from Medford is getting his entire back covered. "It came pretty easily," he says. "I talked to my wife about it for about six weeks. I wanted to tell a story that will be aesthetically pleasing."

In it will be a star, representing Stella, their young daughter who died. There will be a lily to honor the name of the South Korean child he and his wife adopted. There will be a moon for his wife, Diana. Anchoring everything will be a large likeness of Ganesh, the Hindu elephant deity Loren calls the mover of obstacles and protector of women.

"When we finally brought a child home, we wanted to commemorate it in some way," he says.

Today, Loren undergoes a grueling three-hour session to get the outlines down. Then he faces four more marathons of another four hours each for the coloration and detail work. Does it hurt, I ask.

"It stings," Ram says.

"It feels horrible," Loren corrects.

Does he feel strange getting his back covered? Nope. "My friends have always been a couple of deviations from the norm," he replies. "I don't hang out with people who judge me on my appearance."

And then there's Dane Loeliger, 26, a long-ball hitter who is having Ram extend on his upper right arm a tattoo that began on his left one and will eventually end up at his right wrist. "I'll get my back done as soon as I have the money," he says. What about parents? "They're not big fans."

Loeliger's tattoo tells the saga of a lone samurai and a child. In this latest chapter, explains Ram, "There's a demon guy mashing people into a pestle." (Loeliger, who runs a mouse colony of 1,200 rodents at Harvard Medical School, sports a T-shirt that displays, in his own words, "spiders having sex with people.")

The Observer was delighted to learn the classic tattoos common to generations of American servicemen -- anchors, pinups, hearts -- are back. "They're huge," confirms Ram, who calls them "neo-traditional." "Simple color palette, bold outline, heavy shading. There are people who do that exclusively."

Tattoos have always spooked me, and I've hectored my daughter for years to avoid them or face immediate death. So far, so good. She's 24 and inkless. I tell her: Picture yourself in your 40s. You're at a nice dinner party. Killer black dress, fab heels, pearls if you're lucky. And a coil of barbed wire tattooed around your arm. Nonono.

I, however, subscribe to the school that says you can do anything you want when you hit 60, which I have done.

Sam Allis can be reached at