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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.



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Over time, Devon learned to be rugged and independent. He rode his bike all around town, kept sketch pads full of drawings and paintings, and skateboarded at all the hot spots — most notably the Embarcadero, Fort Miley, and Union Square in San Francisco. He could do just about everything: front-side heel flips, 360 kick flips, half pipes, no complies, and back-side ollies. He was small and agile. "I didn't hit puberty until I was eighteen," he said. "There are pictures of me tattooing with no facial hair.

In the seventh grade, Devon begged his mother for a tattoo. "She said that when she and her friends were seventeen they used to go to the art store, buy a needle and thread, and give themselves tattoos," he remembered. Linda capitulated. She took a regular sewing needle, wrapped thread around it to soak up the ink and ensure it would only go to a certain depth, and wrote Devon's name on his leg, with clovers. In the business that's called a stick-and-poke. It's perhaps the most primitive and unsanitary way to ink up the human body, but it works. Devon decided to try the art on all his friends, much to their parent's dismay. One friend's tattoo got infected. "It's not clean. Too much cross-contamination going on," said Devon, who eschews the stick-and-poke method today. But even then, he saw the makings of a new enterprise.

In the mid-nineties Linda moved the family from Pacifica to Fremont. They rented a house in the Niles district, and after it was foreclosed on, they found a large Victorian on Decoto Road. That was Linda's dream house, remembers Devon's friend Jimmy Tobias. It lay on a full acre of land, had multiple floors, bedrooms for all the kids, and ample space for everyone to run around. How they lost it remains a matter of debate.

At the time, Devon was fully ensconced in the local skateboarding scene. He attended a secondary school and ran with a pretty mixed group of kids. "It had a smoking section and a day care, just to give you an idea," Devon recalled. Not to mention that each of his nine siblings had their own friends. People were constantly coming and going from the house on Decoto Road, Devon said. The presence of so many punk teenagers gave the Fremont cops a reason to be suspicious. Not to mention that Linda had a hard time turning people down when they needed a place to stay. She let Devon's friends Aaron and Joe shack up in the basement, even though Joe was on probation — supposedly for carjacking in another state. "He was wanted by the FBI," said Linda. "He got a driver's license and used my home address."

Devon doesn't recall those details, but says that overcrowding and constant loitering at the Decoto spot made it look as though the Bloods were running a large drug operation. Then, one day, a bunch of cops pulled up to the house, drew their guns, and kicked the doors in. It turned out Joe had a warrant out for his arrest, Linda said. "The sheriff of Alameda County said, 'You have to leave the property until we find this guy.'" So they packed up and moved to an "extended stay" motel with one bedroom and a kitchenette, while Linda waited for a new apartment to open up. Devon opted to couch-surf and stay in his car.

"It made me cry," Devon recalled. "It was my mom, my step dad, and one of my sisters on the floor. And everybody else on the bed. It was like a sardine can. I was like, 'You know what? I'll just sleep in my car. It's fine.'"

For the next few years, Devon's housing situation was shaky. In tenth grade he got a job at a local sandwich shop and rented an apartment with some friends. When that disintegrated, he tried couchsurfing. He lived in his car intermittently. Cops would knock on the car window at 3 or 4 a.m. and tell him to leave.

But all the while, his friends say, Devon was on his way to becoming one of the most respected tattooers in the East Bay. Devon distinguishes between a "tattoo artist," someone who merely applies art to skin, and a "tattooer," a tattoo artist who also makes his own supplies, tunes his machines, and imparts historical facts about tattooing. In high school, Devon started apprenticing with a man named Donnie Irish, who ran a fully licensed tattoo parlor out of his Fremont home. Under Irish's wing, he graduated from the stick-and-poke method to operating a machine. He learned how to properly outline and shade stuff. At age nineteen he took a job tattooing at Industrial in Berkeley, which paved the way for another job at Sacred Tattoo — one of the better-known parlors in Oakland.

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