Growing up in the 1980s, a child of the steel mills and Hammerjacks, Bob Manning III was addicted to professional wrestling, heavy metal, tattoos, and piercings. With the buzz of needles, Mercyful Fate, and imported Cannibal Corpse records banging away in his head and the whiff of cold antiseptic in his nose, Manning hung out in tattoo parlors and learned how to make a homemade tattoo gun from an uncle who had done time.
The machine used a Walkman motor which, Manning says, "was so weak, you had to hook it up to a lot of D batteries. We used a toothbrush for a handle and ran a guitar string through the inside of a pen and [then] through a sewing needle. That's how they did it in prison."
Now, Manning, a substantially built, well-whiskered, and heavily inked 35-year-old-who is also a member of the horrorcore band Wolfpac in his off time-keeps the inks flowing at the country's oldest continuously working tattoo parlor, Tattoo Charlie's Place, on the Block, where he's worked for over a decade.
"I came in as a piercer and Gail [Watkins] saw me drawing a design," Manning says. "She gave me an application and I filled it out then and there. They [Gail and her husband, Dennis,] taught me how to tattoo. It's a great opportunity working here. I get to see where everything started, from the 1930s until now. It's really a history of tattooing."
Manning is standing in front of a wall of photographs whose yellow hue comes from actual age rather than new-fangled age replicators like Instagram. If the faded prints of pomaded men grinning and flexing their anchors, eagles, ropes, and roses are any indication, "Tattoo Charlie" Geizer inked every sailor that came through Baltimore for some 40-odd years before his death in 1980.
"We don't get many sailors or dancers anymore," Manning says. "I don't deal with dancers. They're so used to men kissing their ass and I won't do it. I won't kiss their ass. And I don't work for trade."
A small photo of Charlie himself hangs wedged in between the seamen and other smiling Block denizens and bright, Technicolored samples of swooping swallows, saucy women, and, of course, anchors.
"It's really cool seeing all of Charlie's handmade stencils and acetates and stuff," he says. The techniques of the trade have definitely changed since the studio opened in 1938, when artists like Charlie would make an acetate stencil and place it over the skin. After rubbing on an ointment, they would charcoal over the stencil and lift it, leaving a perfect pattern on which the ink would be applied.
"All that's gone now," Manning says. "We no longer use things like acetate. The skill of artists back then was better, but the quality of the tattoo is far superior now. You can do crazier things and you have classically trained artists, not just some guy with some [drawing] skills."
Over the years, the studio has branded numerous celebrities such as hip-hop artist Lil' Mo, the iconic horror-rap-cum-Christian-act Insane Clown Posse, and extreme-metal band Slipknot. But one kind of client once associated with the words "tattoo parlor" is no longer welcome. "We do not service drunks," Manning says. "That was in the old days. I hate drunks."
It's late afternoon and the neon lights of the Block are about to flicker to life, signaling the end of the day shift, and two women clomp up the long staircase and into the bright parlor. Manning greets them warmly and they smile.They're looking to have name tattoos made.
After the two women disappear into the studio, Manning mentions the strangest thing he's ever inked.
"I had to tattoo a guy's genitals once," he says. "He wanted his wife's name on there. I drew a reasonably sized stencil, but I had to keep shrinking the design, it was so small-the penis. Not the stencil. But the guy didn't mind. He stood there with his chest out and his chin up. He took it like a trooper. He really didn't care. That's a dedicated customer."