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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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It wasn't clear if he'd ever regain consciousness. At one point, the doctors gathered Blood's close friends and family members in a conference room. "It was his mom, stepdad, brothers, sisters, a couple uncles, his girlfriend, and I — the place was standing-room only," Howse said. "The doctors showed us some x-rays and CAT scans on an overhead. They said, 'This is where the bullet is, this is where the fragments are sitting, and this is what to expect from this point: He could stay days or months like this. He might never wake up."

"The doctors said he could experience brain damage, motor-skill loss, memory loss," said Howse. "Because it was a brain thing they didn't know — and that was all based on if he was gonna wake up at all."

Blood gradually woke up over the next five or six days after spending twelve days in a full coma. But he wasn't aware of everything going on around him; these were probably the times when he heard voices in the room, and felt like they were percolating into his dreams. He seemed bleary and would say the kind of garbled, incoherent things that people say when they're coming out of a deep sleep. His blood pressure was still touch and go.

When he woke up for good, he remembers people and lights all around him. His head was wrapped in a huge bandage, and all his shaggy, tangly brown hair had been shorn off. A feeding tube dangled uselessly from its stand — apparently he had pulled it out of his nose several times.

The tattoo machine lay in a drawer beside his hospital bed.

Blood spent about three weeks in the ICU and two additional weeks in a regular hospital bed. His mother fed him ice chips. His friends still came to visit every day. Then on August 20 he transferred to Fairmont Rehab in San Leandro, which Howse describes as "something out of a David Lynch film."

"There were a lot of people in various states of disrepair," he recalled. "Honestly, no hospital is a very pleasant place to be. I have yet to go into a hospital where I say, 'Oh yeah, I could see staying here for a while.'"

At that point, Blood's brain was still swelling, and a large piece of his skull was still sitting in his gut, like a single pickle fermenting in a jar. The bullet remained encased in scar tissue, resting right against his brain stem. He had absolutely no muscle control in his right hand. He couldn't walk, feed himself, or even hold a pen. He wore a hockey helmet to protect the hole in his skull. His future in the art business was uncertain.

"My little brother was a hyperactive child, so he had to go to special school with padded rooms and stuff," said Blood. "He was picked up by these short yellow buses that were full of kids wearing helmets and in wheelchairs. I used to make fun of him all the time. Well, he came to the rehab and was like, 'Remember when you used to make fun of me for having to ride the short yellow bus with the kids in the helmets and the wheelchairs? Now you're wearing a helmet in a wheelchair. Ha ha!"

At some point during the Highland stint, Blood realized that his right hand was toast. "The whole right side of his body was pretty much numb," his friend James said. "I did a tattoo on his leg, and he couldn't hardly feel the tattoo getting done."

"I think the medical term is 'micro tremors,'" added Blood's friend Tobias. "When he tries to focus and do something, it doesn't do what he wants it to do because of the damage to his brain and spinal chord."

So, hoping he could tattoo again one day, Blood began focusing on his left hand. His rehab nurse objected. She came in on Mondays and tried to get Blood to throw darts with his right hand. "Throw darts, put smaller box in a bigger box. Hand-eye coordination, dexterity shit," said Blood. "I was already dealing with not being able to walk, having to be in this hospital bed, and wear this stupid hockey helmet. And this fuckin' lady is telling me to do shit with my right hand," he said. "It pissed me off."

The medics at Fairmont were more open to the idea, but still didn't understand what motor skills Blood needed for tattooing, said James. "His occupational therapist didn't get the concept. Squeezing some Play-Doh is good for normal people, but Blood wanted to use his hand for a whole different thing."

Tattooing requires two hands, one to stretch the skin tight, the other to handle the machine. Blood eventually trained his right hand to the point that it could perform simple functions, like holding flesh in place. But his left hand is the one with all the dexterity.

Over six months of living with his friend James in Petaluma, Blood went from using a walker and wearing a helmet to walking upright, riding a big tricycle around, having an in-depth conversation, and drawing and painting again — albeit left-handed. He learned to live in a world where most objects — from scissors to cabinets to refrigerators — are designed for right-handed people. He drew his first left-handed tattoo on his mother Linda in March of 2007: a Felix the Cat with the number 13 under it. Two years later, he plunked out his autobiography on a 1960s Olympia typewriter. He finished it in three months, starting in April, 2009 and typing the last word on July 12, the anniversary of the shooting. He had a friend tattoo the book's title on his stomach, right over the scar where his skull had been: "Keep Laughing."

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