When Mark Davern started tattooing 40 years ago, his craft’s professional journal was a stapled broadside with an incongruous name.
“Tattoo Life Magazine and Needlepoint” featured crude black-and-white daggers, anchors, roses and, of course, “Mom” with a heart. It must have done well in prisons.
Today’s “Tattoo Life International” is a glossy color magazine spotlighting human works of art.
Davern has been around long enough to see tattoos travel from sailors’ biceps to anyone with a lust for ink — doctors, plumbers, attorneys, bartenders, nurses, police officers.
As a kid in upstate New York, he always liked to draw but went to welding school and in 1978 moved to Corpus Christi, Texas, to pursue that trade. Still, tattoos fascinated him.
He started out inking images called “flash”— clips from sheets of tattoo designs. Aside from an elderly Corpus Christi tattooist, he had no competition, no tattoo parlors on every corner. And because it was a port city, there were plenty of customers: sailors from all over the world, blue-collar workers, bikers.
“I dumped welding pretty quick,” said Davern. “With tattooing I could make in a day what I used to make in a week.”
And he joined the growing ranks of those elevating the craft to an art form.
“Tattooing had been around for centuries, but it started to change very quickly in the 70s, with a cultural shift and the rise of fantasy art,” he remembered. “People who were real artists started getting into the field. So, more people got tattoos because they actually looked good.”
He stayed in Corpus Christi for a few more years, then moved back to New York, where he continued a thriving tattoo business.
By the early 80s, he saw an increase in women getting tattoos. At least 50 percent of his clients were and still are women.
Throughout the 1980s, people began increasing the size and detail of their inked areas, now full sleeves, legs and backs. In the mid-80s, permanent makeup — tattooed-on eyeliner and lipstick — made an appearance, though Davern does only eyebrow work.
In January 1997, when the New York cold became too much for him, he moved his family and business to Port Charlotte, where he opened his current shop in a strip mall that’s had five different landlords and seen many businesses come and go.
At first Port Charlotte proved surprisingly unwelcoming.
“You’d think Florida would be ideal for tattooing, given that people have more skin exposed,” Davern said. “But this is also a very small town with a lot of elderly people.”
For a couple of years, only a trickle of business found its way to his door.
Then came the tattoo boom of the 2000s, fueled by reality tattoo shows like the inside-the-shop story “Miami Ink,” “Ink Master” competitions and “Tattoo Fixers,” focusing on beautiful correction of dreadful ink jobs, one of Davern’s specialties. (The correction, not the dreadful.)
His trickle of clients became a flood of loyal regulars who come back for more tattoos from as far as California.
Davern still does tattoo work at night, but larger-scale artwork — wood sculptures, paintings, murals and airbrushed motorcycles — during the day.
A member of both the Englewood Art Center and the Charlotte Arts and Humanities Council, Davern participates in the council’s Art in Public Places, which exhibits the work of local artists for two months at a time in locations around Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte. His paintings have been shown at Cayo Costa Dental in Punta Gorda and will hang next in the Charlotte County Administration building.
Behind the Old West lettering on his storefront hides an unlikely grotto that he built of ivy-covered faux rock. Spiritual messages on its walls tell the rest of the Daverns’ story.
“I became a Christian shortly before my first wife passed,” Mark confided. “When she was diagnosed with cancer, we were told she could go any day, and I had two kids to raise. I was beside myself and took to drinking.
“But the man next door was a preacher, and we both became born-again Christians after talking with him. I woke up the morning after we took Jesus into our hearts and told my wife, ‘I actually feel happy!’
“She said, ‘I do, too.’ There was something to this God stuff. It changed my life right then and there.
“We started going to the preacher’s little Baptist church, and when we saw his daughter, Heather, there, my wife told me, ‘She’d make a good wife for you.’”
With that kind of endorsement, what else could he do? Now, 25 years later, Heather and Mark Davern run the business together.
Mark is in the Mark Davern Tattoo shop at 2270 Tamiami Trail, Port Charlotte, doing tattoos Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 6:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Call 941-764-7225 for an appointment.