T hey say a picture is worth a thousand words. But what about a tattoo — a picture permanently inked onto flesh? Anyone who has one probably has a story to tell about where, when, and why they got it — its significance, obvious or symbolized. Tattoos act as mile markers of sorts for their wearers, art in the form of body modification that stands as tribute to moments of importance.
T hough I had seen tattoos here and there on friends and in movies and magazines, I wasn’t really introduced to the world of tattoos until a few years ago. While working on my journalism degree at the University of Memphis, I got a job as a receptionist at Trilogy, a popular tattoo studio near campus. Over the months, I came to realize a few things about the culture in which I found myself submerged. Tattoos weren’t just for bad-decision-making college kids or hardened criminals or weirdos who had an affinity for pain. I saw people of all ages (well, 18 and up; that’s the law) — people who wanted to immortalize a moment, people who’d lost loved ones, people who’d survived cancer or some other harsh life event, people who wanted to be branded with their passions. I found that these people were not unlike you and me.
Granted, I saw some people getting marked with things I thought were ridiculous — like cheeseburgers and names of (probably fleeting) significant others. But it didn’t matter what I thought because it wasn’t my body. (Though before I ended my tenure there, I did get my own, and only, ink — my zodiac symbol discreetly applied to the wet flesh inside my bottom lip. As fickle as I am, I figured I couldn’t change my mind about being a Capricorn. Plus, my grandma would never see it there.)
It was while working at Trilogy that I met Babak Tabatabai. Talented tattoo artists are held in high regard among those who are part of the tattoo community, treated as rock stars or celebrities in a way, as (I assume) are renowned artists in other mediums. And from what I could tell, Babak was one of the most reputable tattoo artists in town. His work was in high demand. Even then, just a few years into his tattooing career, he had become somewhat of a local legend.
If I’m to be honest, he’s always been a notoriously late man. So much so that back then his business cards had a place to write in your appointment time, right next to a line noting, “Bring a lunch.” Late or not, people waited. With many days booked out a month or more in advance, a scheduled time to get inked by Babak was coveted. And those who sport his art do so with pride.
In the years since I left Trilogy, I’ve maintained a friendship with Babak, occasionally meeting for a quick lunch if our schedules were too busy to hang on a weekend. Every time we’ve gone anywhere together, he’s been stopped by at least one person — usually more than one — who wants to say hi or set up some ink time. So who is this man who seems to be known by half of Memphis? (He even played soccer in a rec club league with our own editor and publisher, Ken Neill, in the ’90s.) Who is this rock star tattooist whose art is forever etched on thousands of people?
His Vision Quest
T he youngest of five children, Babak was born in Frankfurt, Germany, to Iranian parents. His mother and father were visiting relatives at the time and decided to wait out the pregnancy before heading back to Iran when Babak was about a month old. When he was 6, they packed up and moved to the Canary Islands of Spain, so his mother could do missionary work. At age 11, he moved to Holland to live with his sister for about a year-and-a-half before going back to Spain until he was 15. His parents then sent him to live with one of his brothers who had come to the United States to study zoology at what was then Memphis State. “When I first came here, I didn’t really speak English. I just drew a lot, and I got to make friends through that,” Babak says. That, and he attended a lot of live music shows in town. “I came here in ’79, and it was a pretty good time for [the music scene] and we’d hang out at all the metal shows in the early ’80s,” he says. Kids in school started asking him to draw band logos, and he began to explore different types of subject matter. He found himself getting in trouble for drawing in class. But soon, he enrolled in the Creative and Performing Arts program at Overton High School, where creativity was encouraged, and he spent much of his time in AP art classes. There, his passion for art further blossomed, though he didn’t care much for other subjects.
Without a clear idea of what he wanted to do after high school, Babak set out on what he refers to as a “vision quest” — hitchhiking from Memphis to California alone. He landed in a carnival there, working as a carny for about a year. Of course, Babak saw many tattooed people in that atmosphere. He had seen some of his classmates in high school who had tattoos, too. But he didn’t have one yet.
His earliest memories of tattoos were those worn by the Greco-Roman wrestlers he idolized as a child. “Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling is really big in Iran, and they have wrestling clubs all over the cities and towns,” he says. “They used to have calendars where all the wrestlers in each club would pose. And when I was little, I remember seeing these guys have tattoos.”
Though he didn’t know as a child what tattoos were exactly, he was fascinated by them. “These guys were wrestlers, and they were hardcore dudes,” he says. “It was almost like the same fascination people in Spain have for bullfighters. They have this whole culture and reverence for bullfighting.”
Unlike wrestling in the United States, these guys were what Babak calls “real wrestlers.” At the time, the fascination wasn’t about art. “I just saw the markings on their bodies. It was tough-guy cool,” he says. “It’s like the biker guy that you see or that your dad hangs out with. He’s got all these tattoos, and you’re sort of afraid of him, but at the same time, you kind of want to be like that. It’s like the archetype, the anti-hero.”
Back in the carnival, Babak took his first step toward that archetype. He and a group of his coworkers got together and all got tattooed by “some weird runaway biker that was hiding in the carnival” in ’83. Though he laughingly says that first tattoo came out of sheer stupidity (a “ridiculous” and “bizarre” tattoo of a unicorn with a super-small head applied by a guy named Happy), its significance was not to be belittled.
Babak says there were three kinds of people who worked for the carnival. “There were the people who were running away from whatever was going on in their personal life,” he says. “There were the career/family multigenerational workers that had been there forever, and their home was the carnival. And then there were people like me who would come in and work for a little while and grow up,” he says.
Between hitchhiking and working so far from home directly out of high school, Babak basically grew up on the road. “That was a really important year, and I feel like if that tattoo and the circumstances under which I got it didn’t exist, then I wouldn’t have been able to value the lessons I learned during that year traveling around on my own,” he says. “When I came back to Memphis, I was a completely different person.”
More Than Just a Passing Thing
U pon his return to Memphis, Babak worked carpentry and high-end remodeling jobs. He painted murals in people’s homes and did some commercial art, like creating logos, before acquiring a position at Rainbow Studio, where he made signs and learned how to do stained glass and gold-leafing — all of these skills he’d utilize later in one way or another.
It wasn’t until around 1994 that Babak got an inkling he might want to become a tattoo artist. He was working with an artist at Underground Art to design a tattoo for himself. “I put a lot of thought into what I was getting,” he says. “I designed it and took it up there and really got to see the whole process. That’s when I became interested in it as more than just a passing thing.”
Over the next four years, Babak was in and out of town working remodeling jobs and continuing his work for Rainbow Studio when he was in Memphis. It wasn’t until 1999, when he was 34, that he finally got an apprenticeship at Trilogy to become a tattoo artist. He honed his skills there for just over a year before receiving an offer to help open a tattoo shop in Chattanooga, Standard Ink, where he worked for four years to establish and maintain a successful shop — one that is still in business today.
When he left Chattanooga, he came back to Trilogy full-time and stayed there from 2004 to late 2010, making a name for himself as one of the best tattoo artists in the city. (It was during this time that I met him.) He worked at Underground Art for a stint in 2011 as he began the search for a spot to open his own tattoo parlor and art studio.
Later that year, he signed a lease for a place on Broad Avenue, in what was then a fledgling arts district, but the district was not zoned to allow tattoo shops. After a long battle with the Historic Broad Business Association, which fought against having a tattoo shop in the Broad Avenue Arts District, he was awarded the city’s first-ever conditional use permit by the Board of Adjustment in October 2012. He was able to officially open up shop in 2013 at 2615 Broad. Ronin Design & Manufacturing, a dream many years in the making, was born.
Leaving His Mark
T he name Ronin represents this cul mination — this chance to own his own shop and work for himself. The term references Samurai in feudal Japan who once worked for shoguns. “Whenever the shoguns were overthrown, the Samurai would become masterless and go out on their own. Then they were called ronin,” he says. “I remember watching Samurai movies as a kid, and that’s where I originally heard the word. I was involved in martial arts for a long time and always had a big interest in the warrior culture.”
He also had an interest in anatomy, an interest that has recently led to new artistic endeavors — mounting animal skulls and bones. “My dad was a doctor, and I would look through his anatomy books,” he says. “And when I moved here to live with my brother who was working on his doctorate in zoology, I got really interested in animal anatomy. We grew up in a family that hunted a lot, so I was around different kinds of mounts and taxidermy.”
Using the woodworking skills he learned as a carpenter and animal bones he’s acquired through his brother’s collection or through trade deals with friends, he mounts skulls and skeletons to create a sort of suspended animation for these deceased animals. “The skeletal structure is like the scaffolding, but the bones don’t hold themselves together without the tendons and muscles,” he says. “Everything in the world is a combination of systems that work together.” Using a little bit of wood, wire, and metal, he’s able to reanimate and display these pieces.
As much as he enjoys tattooing, he doesn’t take ownership of the art as his own. “They’re something that someone else wants — they’ve basically commissioned me to do the artwork,” he says. “You almost have to develop a certain level of detachment from what you do, but not in a way that you don’t feel pride in your work.” The skull and bone mounts are an alternative creative outlet. “I’m not doing it for anyone else,” he says. “With tattooing, I constantly have to do artwork for other people, so this has been an avenue for me that isn’t drawing.”
Ronin Design & Manufacturing serves as Babak’s tattoo studio, as well as his woodworking and art studio. He built all of the woodwork interior of the shop, put up the dividing walls, and refurbished and transformed antique furniture to create the reception desk, a hand-washing station, and built-in cabinetry.
The front of the shop serves as an art gallery. Some of his mount-work is on display, along with artwork by other local artists, many of them local college students or recent graduates. “I always wanted to have a place to display art. Not just my own art — because I don’t produce enough. I can’t hang up my tattoos,” he says. “People need more places to display their art, and we’re providing that.”
At 50, Babak is happy to have a chance to do what he loves. In his 16 years as a tattooist, he’s tattooed people from all over the world, including countless tourists who came in for TCB tattoos and the like during Elvis Week. He was the artist to do former Grizzlies player Rudy Gay’s first tattoo. He tattooed Mike Miller and Hamed Haddadi, also former Grizzlies. He’s tattooed former Memphis police director Larry Godwin and a handful of famous musicians.
He has left his mark on thousands of people — from family crests and portraits of loved ones or role models to cartoon characters and spirit animals and everything in between. The body can be a blank canvas, and the wearer of tattoos can speak volumes about their personality and passions through the art they choose. “Sometimes it seems like society has all these predetermined plans and [norms],” he says. “And I think getting tattoos gives you the feeling that at least you have some control.”