Is that a catfish on your arm?

Jeff Leigh makes sure all of his customers read the sign mounted on the counter before he sets to work with any needles."The tattoo you choose to get will be with you for the rest of your life," the placard reads. "So before asking how much, ask first about the skill and talent of the artist. You are getting tattooed, not buying groceries." It’s a warning that has been passed down through the tattooing community for the past 30 years, he said. Leigh opened Hillbilly Mother Fucker Tattoo — known as HMF Tattoo to the children — on Cloud Springs Road last January, after a friend’s unfortunate encounter with a train provided him enough money to fund the start-up. He had worked at five or six shops and was glad to get his own place. The 36-year-old specializes in free-hand, custom artwork, while his employee, Scott Anschuetz, 29, takes care of piercings and "flash" art, or tattoos based on pre-drawn designs. Leigh said the demand for tattoos in Fort Oglethorpe is high. He estimates that he produces 15 to 20 tattoos a week and spends an average of two to three hours on each session. He charges $100 an hour and requires a $60 shop minimum. He said the most original tattoos he’s produced recently (that he can mention) have been a chicken drumstick and a catfish. "Fourteen years and I’ve never done a catfish," he said. He noted that he has done a few bass. When people come into the shop with ideas, Leigh starts by sketching the design onto their skin with a permanent marker. Once both he and the client are pleased with the look, he sets to work with the needles. Leigh describes his style as "traditional new school," or his own twist on the traditional tattooing aesthetic. Allen Tate, 32, who hangs around the shop and sometimes volunteers to take out the trash, said that when people see Leigh’s trademark skull drawing, they know it’s his work. "Everyone is well pleased," he said. Leigh got his first tattoo, a dream catcher on his left upper arm, in 1991. Since then, he has gotten more than 20 tattoos, which have blended together to form solid masses of design on his forearms. His favorite is the mohawk on his head, a strip composed of a skull with question marks and exclamation points streaming from its forehead. Leigh said that like himself, most people he knows are "in progress." They periodically drop by the shop to add a new portion to the design spreading across their skin. "You don’t see people with just one most of the time," he said. He said he enjoys creating artwork that has the ability to hold memory. Every tattoo on a person’s body marks a spot in time, he said. "And it’s going to be here a lot longer than I will." Published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press, April 3, 2006