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Devon Blood's Season of Blood

Oakland tattooer Devon Blood sustained a gunshot wound to the skull. It wasn't clear if he'd ever emerge from his coma, let alone tattoo again.



In 2008, Devon Blood watched himself getting shot for the first time. He was popped in the head on July 12, 2006. The .22 caliber bullet entered just below his right ear, and lodged in his skull.

A video camera captured it all: Four armed men broke into a warehouse where Blood lay in bed with his girlfriend, Tammy Wartvee. Most likely it was a mix-up — the guys probably thought they were burglarizing the pot club next door in the same building. They had come the night before, plundered a few bags of marijuana, and driven off with their loot. But no one had told Blood or Wartvee about that incident, much less warned them that the suspects were still at large.

What's frustrating is that it should have been an easy crime to solve. The pot club had a surveillance camera, which caught footage of both the July 11 caper and Blood's shooting on July 12. All the details were clear as day. "You could see the guys pull up in the getaway car, break in, score a bunch of bags of marijuana, then come back the next night," Blood recalled. "Same car, same guys, leaving with nothing. The whole time on the videos you could see the rear license plate of the car and you could see what the guys looked like." What happened next gets a little more hazy.

Blood was still conscious when he got to Highland Hospital, shortly after 1 a.m. He could raise and lower his limbs on command, but when the doctors took a scan of his head they found a black hole filled with a bunch of shrapnel, and a rapidly swelling brain. Blood needed a major crainiectomy. So that night the doctors put him in a drug-induced coma, cut his head open, removed his right skull cap, and sewed it inside his stomach to preserve it in an environment in which the bone and tissue would survive until it could be returned to his head months later — if he lived that long. They swaddled his head in bandages and moved him to a hospital bed beneath a sign that read: "Do not turn patient on his right-hand side."

In the Intensive Care Unit, Blood was hooked up to a respirator, heart monitor, and blood pressure monitor. He had tubes running from his nose and oxygen sensors on his fingers. At one point, things got pretty bleak. The doctors performed tests on Blood a couple times a day by holding his eyes open. "One would stay looking one way, the other would fall," said Blood's close friend and fellow tattooer, Matt Howse. "They would say, 'That's a bad sign.'"

Before the shooting, Devon Blood was one of the most prominent tattooers in Oakland and a ruthless skateboarder to boot. He was twenty-six years old, thin but tough-looking, and had scads of friends in the local tattoo scene. He had a pierced septum and enough tattoos to make his body resemble a Neo-Expressionist painting. An ink butterfly spreads across his throat and a small blue diamond gleamed below his right eye. His left and right knuckles bore the words "Born Rebel."

Now it wasn't clear if he'd ever wake up, or if he'd live the rest of his life in a quasi-vegetative state. Because so many Oakland shootings are gang-related, raising fears that someone might come back to finish the job, Blood's friends and family had to furnish code names just to enter his room and keep watch. Blood's mother, Linda, enlisted friends to pray over her son's bed. Howse brought a tattoo machine to the ICU, placed it in Blood's limp right hand, and turned it on.

Blood is Linda's maiden name, and it runs thick in her family. "My husband changed his name consistently," she said, "but my kids all have the Blood name." Linda had an on-again, off-again relationship with Devon's father, a rock musician who left the house for good in 1984. Linda had just given birth to twins, one of whom died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome that March. The loss put a strain on their relationship, and dad ultimately decamped to pursue his music career in Los Angeles. "He dug out on all the kids," Linda said. "He didn't pay child support. When the district attorney finally found him, he said, 'None of the kids are mine.' The poor kids had to have blood tests."

Linda made do the best she could as a hair stylist and doll maker. She raised the kids in a small house in Pacifica, encouraged them to play sports, and made them attend church each Sunday. She kept a full roster of hair clients and sold dolls at San Francisco art and wine festivals. Devon spent his early school years at Coastside Christian Center, where he had to arrive every day in a maroon vest and corduroys. The principal doubled as a pastor in the local church, and Devon remembers him having a sweet tooth for corporal punishment. "He had a paddle framed on his wall like a shadow box," Devon said. "It had a peace dove painted on it. If you were really bad, he would paddle you with it."

And Devon got paddled, even though Linda remembers him as the type of kid who almost never got into scrapes. Once he came to school with holes in his corduroys and got sent to the principal's office. It turned out the principal had a secret cache of paddles in a drawer. "He pulled out a paddle with holes in it, so it let the wind through," Devon said. Another time, Devon got in trouble for throwing bark at another kid on the playground. This time, the paddle had big wooden pegs. Devon was happy when, during first grade, a fire burned the academy to the ground. He got transferred to a public school.