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Inking Obama

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Lying prone on a table at Cannibal Crew Tattoo, Chris Sinceno shows almost no sign of pain. “No pain, no gain. The pain is only temporary. The joy is forever.”
Photo: Sarah Feldberg

Presidential Ink

Lying on his back, shirtless, with legs crossed and an arm folded under his head, Chris Sinceno’s face registers nothing. The New York Yankees logo tattooed onto his chest above a long, jutting scar rises and falls in a steady rhythm. Further down on his stomach, an inky scorpion (his first piece, tattooed in New York at age 16 or 17) moves to the same gentle beat. His eyes are closed, his mouth creased in ambivalence. If it weren’t for his left hand, clasping and unclasping into a slow fist, the 37-year-old would seem asleep.

Sinceno may be drifting, but he’s not sleeping. The buzz of the machine keeps him awake, along with the steady conversation in the small street-facing workroom at Cannibal Crew Tattoo. Every so often, Sinceno’s fist closes and opens as tattoo artist Penny Schuhrke pulls a damp paper towel across the freshly punctured skin of his upper arm.

Forming along the inside of his left bicep is a face. “My man,” says Sinceno. “The first black president.”

Inking Obama

Leaning up against Sinceno’s wide chest is a glossy black and white headshot of Barack Obama. In it, his hands are pressed palm to palm almost as if he were praying. Obama’s eyes look at something in the distance and his lips are closed in a casual smile. He appears every bit the president America has chosen him to be.

“I think this picture gives an overall view of how he feels about the American people,” says Schuhrke, explaining why she chose this photo for Sinceno’s tattoo. “He is of the people, for the people. I don’t think we’ve had a president in the last 20 years that knew what a gallon of milk cost.”

Schuhrke has been tattooing for 15 years, but says this is the first time she has ever put a politician’s image onto anyone’s skin.

“Most of the tattoos that I usually do are memorial tattoos of portraits. That’s what people go for; they want to remember something. Well, this is; they want to remember that this is the year of change. This is the beginning of something incredible.”

For Sinceno, that incredible change made an impact even before the results were called on November 4.

“I was going to get it either way … if he won or if he lost,” says Sinceno. “Either way it was going to get done. … I was at work when he got elected. First break I got, we called family, called each other, like, ‘Yo, it’s on.’”

Sinceno’s body is a growing catalogue of tattoos.

“I got a couple,” he mumbles, when I ask him how many. “You don’t even keep count after a while, you just keep trying to add on.”

He and Schuhrke have worked together before – she did the tops of his hands, where ornate letters spell out “Bronx Bomber” for his hometown as well as the outsides of his pinkies, where “Pay up sucka” is sketched in a simple font.

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On the inside of each wrist, a dotted line traces along the skin’s curve. Above it, the words, “Cut along the lines.”

The Obama portrait will be Chris’ first tattoo in Schuhrke’s new shop. Cannibal Crew, located at 1955 East Tropicana Avenue at Spencer Street, is just a month old and Schuhrke has only been working there a week. The shop sits in a strip mall next to a small market and near a Mexican seafood restaurant. Nearly invisible from the street, the shop’s sign blew down in a recent windstorm.

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Schuhrke says goes into a sort of trance when she tattoos. Nothing distracts her from her work.

Cannibal is quiet as Sinceno lies topless along the bed in one of the tattoo rooms. A bright light frames his upper arm as Schuhrke dips her needle into an array of inks. While they all appear black, some have been diluted with purified water for the progressively lighter shades of gray that will add the depth and expression to Obama’s visage.

“Portraits are something that I love to do,” says Schuhrke. “They’re probably one of the hardest things to get right.”

And getting it right is crucial for Schuhrke, who thinks of her clients as friends.

“It’s so personal,” she says. “You spend hours and hours with these people. You know their kids’ names.”

Schuhrke is just as picky with her own ink. Unlike many tattoo artists who wear their craft on their arms, neck and hands, only a single tattoo is visible on the 37-year-old artist, a dark serpent behind one ear.

“It’s unbelievable how many people come to me and give me their skin freely,” she says. “(They) trust that I can give them what they want.”

Lying prone on the table beneath Schuhrke’s needle, Sinceno is calm enough to seem detached from the entire four-hour process. He can’t really see the face developing on his skin, the creases at the edges of Obama’s eyes, the light shading in his forehead.

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The completed tattoo with the photo that inspired it.

As Schuhrke outlines the curves of the President’s ears, a line of dark blood crests on Sinceno’s skin.

“He bleeds. He is human,” Schuhrke laughs.

But Sinceno is barely listening. Eyes closed and face blank, he is back in his sleeplike trance. For now there is nothing for him to do but breath and wait for a glimpse of Schuhrke’s work.

“That’s history right there,” Sinceno says. “I’ll always sit there and say, ‘My girl Pen put it on me right there.’ Regardless if I’m an old man in East Jibip somewhere, I still got my Barack done here in Vegas and I made it poppin’.”

And what would the president think of his commemorative tat?

“He’s gonna love it,” Sinceno says, smiling. “Maybe Barack will get a tattoo of me on the inside of his arm.”

He pauses, considering how the President would look with his own face etched into his skin.

“Naw,” he says laughing. “Michelle would kill him.”

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