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Tattooed tell their tales in Mystic

Mystic - They say every picture tells a story. So does every tattoo.

Tattoos used to be countercultural statements, the favored expression of bikers and sailors.

Now, permanent ink adorns cyclists, teachers, web developers and tree trimmers.

Tattoos are no longer taboo, said Marelda Hart, an employee at the Mystic Seaport's "Skin & Bones - Tattoos in the Life of the American Sailor" exhibit.

"In the last 20 years it has expanded," said Hart Saturday. She has a tattoo of a seahorse on her leg. "More women have tattoos and so, too, do people from all walks of life."

On Saturday at the exhibit, those very people - from all walks of life - had a chance to tell stories about their body art at the "Tattoo Tales" video booth, which will be operating again today from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Seventy-one-year-old Rich Oldershaw, of St. Louis, got before the camera to tell of the 85 - give or take a few - tattoos that cover his body.

"I just loved ink," said Oldershaw, who got his first tattoo in 1959 and most recent in 2009. "I would just pick something on the wall and have it tattooed on me. I loved the art."

Oldershaw told of tattoo artists with nicknames like Fast Eddie or Hong Kong Tom, men who drew mermaids, a panther, an eagle, a parrot and a spider web on his elbow.

He told of the New London tattoo scene, of cavorting with the famous Jack Dracula and of the time in 1962 that all the parlors were closed because needles hadn't been sterilized properly. Tattoo parlors have reemerged in New London only within the last two years.

Dracula died in January, leaving Oldershaw as one of the last remaining links to that special time and place he said he'll never forget.

Oldershaw's personal favorite, and his first, is a large depiction of Jesus on the crucifix covering his back.

"Only with tattoos is it legal to undress people in front of other people," Hart said, laughing as Oldershaw's wife, Mary-Kay, lifted his shirt to show off the ink covering his chest and back. "My mom always said (Rich) was well-decorated," Mary-Kay said.

It's not just about decorating yourself.

Guy Flatley spoke on camera not only of getting tattoos (he has many), but also of the thousands he has given.

Flatley, owner of Flat's Tattooing in Groton, said he runs the oldest tattoo parlor in the area. The other artist at his shop is his daughter.

"Think before you get inked. Don't get names of your girlfriend. The Harley, yes; the dog, yes; the spouse, never," Flatley said he tells customers. "I won't do Jesus because I'd hate to be in judgment and have him tell me, 'Hey, that's not what I look like!'"

Gene Connor has only one tattoo, but it's deeply personal, he said.

A bike chain on his upper bicep surrounding the Irish word for "lucky" is the only ink he has, so far, but it represents a life-changing moment, Connor said.

Connor told of participating in a bike race that ended for him when he slammed into a car door that had opened right in front of him. He escaped with about 15 stitches, but Connor said the doctor told him 90 percent of such crashes end in serious injury or death.

"It reminds me of who I am and the journey that's gotten me here," Connor said of his tattoo. "This means something; this tells a story."

If you go

What: "Tattoo Tales" video booth

Where: Mystic Seaport Museum

When: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. today

Admission: Included in paid admission to the Seaport, as part of the exhibition "Skin and Bones: Tattoos in the Life of the American Sailor"


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