Maybe it's the newly implanted, stainless steel triangles under the skin on the tops of his hands, or the bamboo plugs the size of small saucers in his ears. Every visible inch of his skin is covered with tattoos and piercings, even his face. People who see him on the street sometimes stare; some wonder what's gone wrong to compel him to do this. He, on the other hand, considers himself simply a participant in body-art rituals that date back thousands of years.
Ronnie Shaw is one of the three piercers who work at Apogee Body Piercing in Ocean Beach. He's standing in front of a half-length mirror in the shop's lobby, trying to ease bigger ear plugs into his already dangling earlobes. He cocks his head to one side, jiggling the plugs into place while John, his boss and friend for more than a decade, cheers him on. Afraid his earlobes may snap from the pressure, Shaw tries not to force them, but with a little lubricant, they slip in, leaving his lobes rosy pink as they adjust around this newest modification.
Shaw has spent 15 years slaving over one piece of art, but what separates him from other artists is that his canvas is his own pale flesh. Under his thrift-store, checkered blazer, Halloween socks and black converse high tops is a lean, 5-foot-2 frame that he considers a work in progress. He estimates he's spent hundreds of hours in the tattoo chair. He's also paid out enough money to finance a house. Having tattoo artists as buddies helps-he's never had to pay full price. He is, after all, an excellent customer.
He says his goal is one massive web of tattoos covering his whole body.
"When people ask me how many I have, I just tell them it's one big one that isn't finished yet," he says. "It's just easier than counting them all up."
Shaw adds to his body when inspiration hits him. Usually, when he hangs out with his friends, a new tattoo is involved. "It varies," he says, "sometimes once a week, sometimes once a month. Sometimes I won't be tattooed for like a month or two, then I'll start fiendin' it."
On his stomach is the word "Dedicated" in Old English font, spanning the space under his navel. It's the word that best describes him. His "alone" tattoo, located in the center of his breastplate, is how he's lived his life since he was 13. On his top left wrist is "Family," and forever memorialized on his backside is the name of one of his former hardcore punk bands: on one cheek "Excre" and on the other, "Ments."
The words "Coup d'etat"-a French word that, roughly translated to English, means a government takeover by the people, is among his favorites. It's his badge of honor, representing his well-ingrained, anti-conformist, punk-rock mentality.
Shaw's first tattoo came from a shaky, half-functioning, homemade tattoo gun that he and a buddy assembled from a radio battery, a pen cap and a guitar string. He was 13. That maiden tattoo of his name on his forearm has long since been covered by solid black ink.
This gesture of self-expression empowered him. At the time, he didn't realize tattoos would eventually-literally-consume his body, but he knew he wanted more. "Something about it just grabbed me, you know? I liked getting it," he says of that first tattoo.
Born in Los Angeles, Shaw was the kid who was always testing the waters, jumping in headfirst while others only dipped a big toe. He skateboarded wherever he could and tried to stay out of trouble. He had a few run-ins with the law over a certain couple of stolen cars, and he shakes his head when he thinks about how much trouble he caused. He shrugs, mentally writing it off as a lesson learned the hard way. He isn't the kind of guy who dwells on things.
Shaw was born late in his parents' lives. When he was 13, his dad, a 63-year-old World War II veteran, died of a stroke. Unable to cope with her husband's death, Shaw's mother just stopped talking. Less than six months later, she too was dead. Shaw recalls people around him at the time saying she died of a broken heart.
It's hard to get him to talk about his parents' deaths and what effect they had on him. He talks about it with a cool acceptance; he's allowed the events to sink in and simply be a fact of his life.
Not yet 18 when his parents died, he got a monthly social security check to cover living expenses and moved in with his much older brother. The relationship was rocky at best. Shaw was just entering his teenage years while his brother was already an adult and they didn't stand on much of the same ground. Shaw had friends in San Diego and decided to get out of L.A. He crashed on friends' sofas and made it through Crawford High School. He's been on his own ever since.
Shortly after moving to San Diego, he started hanging around a tattoo shop, watching the artists while they worked.
He says he became fascinated with the concept of body alteration and started to experiment. "I would always, like, just pierce myself," he recalls. "Safety pins and stuff, when I was really young. Just to do it. Shoving stuff through my ears-the totally wrong thing to do."
Hanging around the tattoo/piercing parlor was like attending trade school. One of the piercers noticed the teen's growing interest in the craft and offered him an apprenticeship.
He apprenticed for about a year, and then worked there for three years before coming to work at Apogee, where he's been ever since.
Six years ago, when Shaw was 22, he chose to alter his appearance so drastically and permanently that even the tattoo artist who did the work questioned whether Shaw was making the right decision: He had his face and some of his scalp covered with a tribal design. When he talks about making the decision to do it, he regards it like it was something he wanted all his life. For him, it was never a question of if he would do it, but when.
Finding an artist to do it wasn't easy.
Brendon Embrey, who works at Seth's Chop Shop in Ocean Beach, has worked on Shaw in the past. He tattooed a Mexican-style skull on one of his kneecaps and a black cross on his neck. Embrey says that while he respected Shaw's choice to tattoo his face, he always tries to be mindful of how a tattoo can impact a person's life. "If people come in and want their hands, neck or face tattooed, I usually won't do it because it'll ruin your job," he says.
In Shaw's line of work, that isn't a problem. In fact, it makes him a commodity, an attraction. People wander into Apogee just to catch an eyeful of him. It takes a few glances to drink him in, and he's frequently asked whether or not the tattoos are permanent. "I told somebody, "Yeah,' and they couldn't believe that it was real, so then I was like, "I'm kidding, you got me-I draw it on every day,'" he says. "They couldn't believe that somebody would tattoo their face."
It almost seems a foreign concept to Shaw that, in the view of some people, altering your appearance in such a way just isn't an option. When people ask him why he thought to tattoo his whole face, he asks, in a confused, imploring way, "Why not?"
"It's a way of respecting yourself," he explains. This might seem an odd statement to some, but for Shaw, this sort of self-adornment would be another person's idea of good grooming. He doesn't see it as desecrating his body, but rather reaffirming his sense of self. His tattoos, he says, haven't obscured his features nearly so much as they've brought his inner personality to the surface. "A lot of people I know, who knew me before I had my face tattooed, say I look better now than I did then, like in terms of what it did to my personality."
No stranger to pain, Shaw breezed through the multiple sessions it required to complete the job. He tolerated the needles scraping over his nose, cheeks, forehead, neck and scalp, but when they pulsed and pecked into his tender, nerve-filled upper lip, it tested his pain threshold the most.
With little skin visible on his body, it's easy to sometimes forget that Shaw is human. He gets more than his fair share of crooked looks on the street. "It can be overwhelming because sometimes people can be really rude," he says. "Just because you're tattooed, they think they can cross the boundary."
He's proud of his work; it's the prejudice that gets to him.
"I went to a liquor store and the guy behind the counter was staring at me all weird," he recalls. "I paid, he made the transaction and gave me my money, and then said, "Where's da Halla-ween pardee at?' I was just so shocked he waited to get my money first. If you don't like the way I look or you don't like me, then say, "Get out' from the beginning."
In addition to the tattoos, he's had just about everything pierce-able pierced at one time or another. Currently, he has eight piercings. Three are in the cartilage of his ears-two in the inner cartilage, called flat piercings, and two-inch plugs in his earlobes. He has a gold ring through his septum and a P.A. or "Prince Albert" in his penis. A P.A. is a ring inserted in the urethral opening of the penis and exits through the underside of the shaft. Named after Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, the ring was rumored to have been used to help keep the male's member in place inside the stylishly tight trousers of the day.
Shaw says getting his penis pierced wasn't the most painful piercing; his nipples were. In fact, they were so unpleasant he had to take them out.
Neither is the P.A. his most wildly unimaginable piercing. Every once in a while, for fun and spiritual enlightenment, Shaw gets anywhere from two to four, eight-gauge hooks temporarily inserted into the thick skin covering his shoulder blades. He then attaches the hooks to a suspension rig, which is a frame that evenly distributes his body weight so his flesh doesn't tear. After he's done hanging there for a while, the hooks are removed and the air pockets that have gathered under his skin are pushed out and some antiseptic solution is applied to the wounds. He says he subjects himself to this to gain perspective on his life.
"If you can get yourself off the ground with your own flesh... it lets you know you're real," he says.
While the amount of time he'll suspend himself varies, the last time he did it, he hung for almost 45 minutes. Whether it's because he's numb or euphoric, time seems to slip by. "It could be five minutes or two hours," he says. "It's until you feel like you got what you wanted out of it."
Shaw's been on the other side of the chair so often that he anticipates the concerns of the folks he pierces. He'll caution them on how to care for their new piercings before they even ask, and he performs his job with the icy precision of a skilled surgeon.
The most popular piercing is naval rings for girls, he says. He gets some strange requests, too. With a smirk, he recalls being asked to pierce a male's "taint" or perineum. That's the space between the genitals and the anus.
Rodrigo Munoz is a Hillcrest psychiatrist who's worked with patients who mutilate their bodies. "Obviously, any self-inflicted injury to the body can be considered self-mutilation," he says. He says he tends to believe extensive tattooing could be a result of a psychological disorder, unless it's part of a person's culture. Dr. Munoz acknowledges that history is full of religious rituals in which self-mutilation is practiced, like the Padaung tribe of Burma, whose female members stretch their necks, or female genital mutilations in parts of Africa and the Middle East. While he urges mutilators to seek counseling, he also points out that just because someone takes part in a self-mutilating ritual, that doesn't mean they're in need of help.
What Munoz looks for in people he counsels are signs of guilt, depression and suicidal thoughts.
"A lot of depressed people are self-mutilators," Munoz says. "Especially adolescents."
Joe Everal, one of Shaw's minimally tattooed friends of five years, is quick to vouch for his pal's mentally stability. He even chuckles when pressed for insight into the degree of Shaw's abnormalities. "He's just real headstrong," Everal says. "He's probably more mentally stable than anyone else I know."
After the death of his parents, Shaw was counseled by a psychiatrist. "He was cool to me. He didn't agree with what I did, but he wasn't against it," Shaw recalls. "For a shrink, that's surprising that he wasn't."
Shaw was interested to hear Munoz's thoughts on self-mutilation. Despite what he's been through, he doesn't think his tattoos and piercings are responses to losing his parents at such a young age.
"My parents were very open for me to express myself. Even if they didn't agree with it, they were still supportive. It would have made me at least think about [their opinion] if they were still around, but I would have still done it," he says. "Maybe not with such an, "I don't give a fuck attitude,' though."
He doesn't modify his body as a way of dealing with his problems, he said-he does it to celebrate the fact that he's survived them. "Everyone needs a little bit of counseling," he says. "Why am I crazy? Because I've been doing something that's been done for thousands and thousands of years?"
Shaw's right. Tattooing was first practiced in Ancient Egypt around 4000 B.C. and, from there, it spread across South Asia and to Japan before filtering through to the rest of the world.
The ritual of piercing dates back even further. The University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archeology and Anthropology has a 4,000-year-old clay figurine on display with multiple piercings in its ears. The museum also displays earplugs from Guatemala, circa A.D. 900-1500, that closely resemble the ones Shaw wears today.
Shaw belongs to his own tribe of sorts. Along with a group of piercers and tattoo artists, he attends the One Festival to take part in activities like fire walking, suspension, yoga, hiking and bloodletting. It's one of the few places he goes where he isn't the center of attention. The three-day "invite-only" event is "dedicated to the cultivation and preservation of indigenous culture, ritual and community," according to the invite sent to attendees.
Shaw realizes his appearance makes it more difficult to meet and get close to new people. "Some people just want to know me because of my tattoos and don't really want to get to know me," he says. "But those people, I can usually see for what they are."
Shaw doesn't discriminate when it comes to women-in other words, they don't necessarily need to share his penchant for tattoos and piercings. It's just easier to relate to those who do. "They look past that shit because they're modified as well," he says. "They understand modification."
He doesn't have trouble meeting women; the difficulty lies in meeting women who aren't just looking for someone to bring home to freak out their parents.
Surprisingly, especially with his initial DIY tattoos, Shaw has never suffered any complications or infections from his tattoos or piercings.
"I don't regret getting tattoos when I was younger, but what I got tattooed, it was done crappily, and as I got older, I was like, "I don't want [the image of] a dude ripping his flesh on his face on my arm,'" he explains. "When you're younger, you're more rebellious, I guess."
Shaw's worst choice for a tattoo was the one on his back of Jesus, with his hands outstretched, while the devil's holding him like a slingshot. "It was just done wrong and I didn't like it," he shrugs.
When he runs out of skin and places to pierce, Shaw plans to concentrate on maintaining what he has. "It's like a never-ending process, you know? You'll be covered and have all the stuff you want, but you gotta go back and hit shit again that's faded," he says. "I'll probably be all the way covered in a few more years."
His next tattoo is going to be squeezed in on the outside of his right calf. "It's going to be a bunny, hanging from a noose, with one of his feet cut off," he announces, while pointing to the slated location. He was born in the Chinese Year of the Rabbit, but the symbolism tied to the bunny seems to end there. Basically, it's an image he spotted while out with Embrey-the two chuckled at it and decided, what the heck. When Shaw chooses a tattoo, it's an impulse rather than a decision. After all, if it doesn't work out, he can always cover it over.