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For foodies like Marc Carroll, grub is way more than just fuel. In fact, it’s almost an obsession.
“I hold food as my No. 1 love — besides my family,” the 47-year-old marketing manager said.
Three years ago, Carroll made a lifelong commitment to his No. 1 love, tattooing his right shoulder with an image of a pig labeled with butcher cuts, surrounded by wine, fruit and baked goods, with the word “magical” written above it. His intent was to show that “feasting is a magical thing that brings people together,” and also to pay homage to a classic conversation in an episode of the “The Simpsons” titled “Lisa the Vegetarian,” which goes like this:
Homer: Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. Lisa, honey, are you saying you're never going to eat any animal again? What about bacon?
Homer: Pork chops?
Lisa: Dad! Those all come from the same animal!
Homer: [Chuckles] Yeah, right, Lisa. A wonderful, magical animal.
Carroll didn’t stop there. He also has a large eggplant on a bed of olives and beans covering his back. He started the Food Tattoos Flickr account and posted photos of his tasty tats, and found that soon, many other foodies started posting theirs. The account now has almost 600 members and even more food tattoo images.
“I’ve been surprised about how many people are into it,” said Carroll, who lives in North Carolina. “But it makes sense — because food culture is so mainstream nowadays and getting tattoos is also more acceptable than in the past.”
Carroll is part of a small but growing group of people using their bodies as a canvas to showcase the food they love, tattoo artists say — from cupcakes, burgers and pizza to brand logos. And at least a handful of restaurants are encouraging their customers to show their dedication by getting inked in exchange for discounted or free meals.
Joining the club
Cleveland-based grilled-cheese restaurant Melt Bar and Grilled started a promotion in September 2009 offering a lifelong 25 percent discount for customers who get inked with one of their three logos. So far, 160 patrons have gone under the needle for the love of grilled cheese.
“It’s not just your die-hard tattoo guy who has 40 to 50 tattoos [to whom] it doesn’t matter if he could slide another Melt tattoo in there,” said owner Matt Fish. “We’ve seen mothers of five that have no tattoos and never planned on getting a tattoo in their life and they have a Melt tattoo.”
Customer Dan Pederson proved that he’s a die-hard Melt fan when he got its logo tattooed on his left arm. “Ever since the first day it opened, I came up and it was like instant obsession,” he said. “It’s kind of like a badge of honor. You’re part of a club almost. Plus, the restaurant is awesome. It’s the same reason you get a tattoo of anything else: because you love it.”
Pederson, 30, says he goes to the restaurant at least twice a week and that after a few trips, the tattoo paid for itself.
“I would get five more grilled-cheese tattoos, it’s just so good,” he joked, knowing that he’d still only get the same discount he’s already getting.
Melt isn’t the first restaurant to offer a promotion like this. In 1999, San Francisco Mexican eatery Casa Sanchez offered free tacos for life to the first 50 patrons who tattooed its corn-riding mascot Jimmy.
“It turned into an underground phenomenon and we had to cap it at 50,” says owner Marta Sanchez.
The promotion was named by Forbes magazine as one of the top five marketing campaigns of the year. Now, the restaurant has brought it back as a “stimulus special.”
“So far 15 people have gotten the tattoo,” Sanchez said, adding that the promotion has helped create a close-knit community of tattoo-bearing food fans. “If you’re willing to get our logo on your body for life, then it’s only fair we feed you for free — for life!”
Greg Tietz, 47, was one of the patrons who got inked with Jimmy on his right shoulder during the original promotion a decade ago. He confesses that he got the logo more for the novelty of it, but says he wouldn’t have done it if he didn’t love the food, and that he’s never regretted getting the image.
“It’s paid for itself many, many times over — for years I was eating at Casa Sanchez once every two weeks.”
Living to eat and loving it
Restaurant promotions aside, most foodies who are opting to get inked do it simply for the love of eating.
“More people live to eat rather than eat to live, and they are just showing that off,” said Carroll. “Some of them are just absurd — like a piece of toast. But it’s great shock value, and a cool conversation piece.”
Conor Sanderson, a tattoo artist who goes by the moniker “Conor Blue Eyes,” runs the blog Yummy Tattoos.
“A great deal of inspiration for the site came from a lot of my customers,” says Sanderson, adding that about one in 10 get a food-related tattoo of some sort. “I always thought it was so funny how many people wanted to immortalize what they ate.”
Sanderson started the blog about two years ago, and gets content by scouring the websites of tattoo artists whom he admires and through submissions from those who are inked.
“What really surprised me was the quality of food tattoos, the element of artistry in these food tattoos,” he said. “I was just surprised how many different artists were doing them. I always thought it was a novelty when a customer asked for them — but I learned it’s really a growing trend.”
Based on his research and on what his customers ask for, Sanderson, who has been tattooing for seven years at his Florida shop Brainwave Tattoo, says that women tend to go for the sweet stuff — most commonly cupcakes, ice-cream cones and candy — while men often go for something meatier, like hamburgers, hot dogs or pizza.
He worked on 23-year-old Breezy Darden, who doesn’t necessarily consider herself a foodie, but loves cupcakes enough to get tattooed with two of them, one just above each of her breasts.
“I wanted something different that represented a devil and an angel, and cupcakes were perfect, because they are just so fun,” said Darden, a waitress who lives in Sarasota, Fla. “I like to cook and can make about 50 different types of cupcakes — Captain Morgan cupcakes are my favorite.”
Former chef Travis Mason, 38, is dedicating both his career and his left leg to food-related tattoos. “It’s a great way for me to express how much I love to eat and cook,” he said.
Currently, Mason has the logo of Sriracha hot sauce on the back of his leg and his favorite chef’s knife on the outer side. He’s reserving the rest of that leg for future grub ink. He is also spending all of his time building up his online magazine, Food and Ink, which focuses on the intersection of food and tattoo enthusiasts.
Mason says Portland, Ore., where he is based, is “a super-hip food town, and most of the artists around here have done food tattoos. A lot of chef friends of mine were getting more food-related tattoos — that’s where I got the idea for the site.”
Among his set, Mason says pig tattoos celebrating pork are very popular, as are images of fruits and vegetables because “artists can do a lot of cool, colorful work with those.”
Still, overall, food images represent only a small portion of what people get inked, according to Pat Sinatra, president of the Alliance of Professional Tattooists.
One of those abstaining is Matt Fish, owner of Melt, who says it’s actually his love of food that’s held him back from getting a Melt tattoo. His explanation?
“It’s considered taboo and bad luck to get your significant other’s [name] tattooed on you … I look at Melt the restaurant, the corporation, as my significant other,” he said. “I really don’t want to put any hex or taboo onto Melt, so I’ve decided just not to get one.”