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His indelible mark

The television networks may not know it, but Doc Dog has made a name for himself among people who know tattoos.

By JUSTIN GEORGE
Published September 27, 2005


  photo
[Times photos: Daniel Wallace]
Doc Dog, a.k.a. Tony Baker, owner of Las Vegas Tattoo Co. in Ybor City, lights a cigar while overseeing his shop on a recent Friday night. Now 58, Doc Dog has been doing tattoos for 43 years and is the creator of a reality television show on the business, Tattoo Underground, that airs on the WB network.
Josh Miller, left, and Katie Powell, both 18, flip through examples of tattoos at Doc Dog’s Ybor City shop. Powell, who had just turned 18, decided on a simple star design.

TAMPA - Doc Dog sucked a Crown Royal and Coke from a straw. His broad Las Vegas mobster-looking glasses flopped upside down on the bar and his Saint Luis Rey cigar fumed in an ashtray.

Doc Dog was mostly alone, one of the Boneyard's last patrons on this night in Ybor City.

Kiss Off, the Violent Femmes' song, played.

They'll hurt me bad but I won't mind.

They'll hurt me bad; they do it all the time.

Doc Dog felt robbed. Someone's rich. He's not.

"It's disheartening," he said. "I don't know how to put it. The blood, sweat and tears I put into it?"

His palm moved to the side of his face in resignation, displaying a drawn playing card tattooed on his ink-covered forearm.

It exposed the "ace" he keeps under his sleeve.

"Yes, I do get no recognition. And it does hurt," he said. "It's probably my fault."

Doc Dog doesn't like giving out his real name. "Groupies," he claimed. But it's Tony Baker. He is 58.

He owns an Ybor City tattoo shop called Las Vegas Tattoo Co. It glows red from neon light bulbs that shine out a storefront window that has a skull painted on it. A reality television show he created, Tattoo Underground, is filmed there and airs on the WB before dawn on Saturdays.

He thinks his idea was stolen by two cable television networks which began airing their own reality series about tattoo shops this year. Doc Dog has no proof they copied his idea other than he thinks his show was first.

He wanted to take his show nationwide.

"This is my last great idea to become a millionaire or a multimillionaire," he said.

Instead, he pays the WB to air Tattoo Underground like an infomercial.

Going national, Doc Dog said, was a chance to leave a legacy and give back to the art of tattooing, which has given him everything, including the demons and women that cover his skin. He is a well-known pioneer in the industry who has left his mark on many, and all he wanted to do was tattoo his way into the minds of more.

Vegas adventure

Tattoo Underground. Season 1, Episode 1.

A mix of punk and Pulp Fiction-like surfer rock blares as the opening credits air followed by a Reservoir Dogs styled opening walk by the Las Vegas Tattoo Co. crew led by Doc Dog. The camera closes in. Doc is in latex gloves tattooing sleeves on a man.

"I'd like to introduce myself," he said. "I'm Doc Dog. I've been tattooing 43 years. I'm kind of known for my good looks and fantastic artwork . . ."

He got his name because people called him "Dog." He had business cards made once. The card maker thought he said "Doc."

He wears guayaberas. He has green eyes, and a neatly clipped mustache. His hair is styled like actor Harvey Keitel.

He grew up in the San Fernando Valley of California and left home early.

"A professional hobo at an early age," he said.

He crashed on the beach, surfing his way into extra roles in early 1960s beach movies. Annette Funicello, Frankie Avalon and Doc Dog all appeared in Beach Party and Beach Blanket Bingo.

He was always in trouble, he said, stealing cars to joyride. From age 13, he said, he was in and out of the California Youth Authority system.

He got his first tattoo at age 13. "Sue" or "Pam," he said, unsure of what it was.

He gave his first tattoo to someone who went by Caveman Curtis. It was a big dagger. He became so good that guards woke him for a tattoo.

Ink was in his blood. At 26 he opened the World Famous Emporium of Tattoos in California. He made money and spent it in Las Vegas, where he discovered sin city didn't have a single tattoo parlor. It was an "untapped gold mine."

He sold his California shops and opened the original Las Vegas Tattoo Co. in 1977.

"I opened Las Vegas," he said.

"He was the one," acknowledged Billy Tinney, Tattoo magazine editor in chief. "He was the king of Vegas for tattoos."

For 23 years, Doc Dog tattooed eagles on arms, hearts on chests and roses on hips.

He became rich. He tattooed the World Wrestling Federation's "Undertaker." He tattooed actors on the B and XXX list. A picture of Cher hangs on his wall.

He tattooed her backup dancers.

He met his wife, Belle - whose real name is Michell Amoroso - in his parlor. She was a topless dancer, who had been dating guitarist Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi.

She dumped him for Doc Dog for better or worse, Doc Dog says.

They had a son, Colt, named after Samuel Colt, inventor of the "Colt Peacemaker," the handgun that tamed the West. He was born 21 inches long, 7 pounds 11 ounces: Las Vegas numbers.

When he was 5, Doc tattooed a star the size of a freckle on Colt's shoulder. Colt, 19, is now an aspiring and apprenticing tattoo artist.

Doc retired well-off in 1998. But his investments tanked with Enron.

He moved to Tampa and went back to work. He bought an existing parlor and reshaped it into the Las Vegas Tattoo Co.

He brought rules with him. Workers should be clean. Presentable. Friendly. Knocking other tattoo shops became a fireable offense.

He gave tattoo artist Willard Gilbow, who goes by Billy, $100 to cut his long hair. Lose the leather vest. "Stop hitting people."

"Doc's views on the industry are different than what I'm used to," Gilbow said.

But he can't argue with the results. He no longer lives in a trailer, but a four-bedroom home. He, like many in the shop, view Doc Dog as a father, which is how he comes off on the television show.

"You might not want to hear what he has to say," Gilbow said, "but he'll give you his honest opinion."

Doc Dog tells young men not to get tattoos below their wrists. You'll need to shake hands to get jobs. He shows them the fading flowers on his knuckles.

He's against cosmetic tattooing, too, even though, he pioneered the practice. Too many people end up with permanent black eyes instead of eye shadow.

But he will tattoo the blind. He described the color green once.

And he will tattoo the elderly. An 84-year-old woman waited for her mother to die her whole life just to get one. She did, and it was on the shop.

Creating commitments

An atheist, Doc believes in tattoos.

"You commit to something for life," he said. "You conscientiously submit to it and are submissive to it for life."

He thinks tattooing preceded cave drawings. Getting one is primordial.

"Why would people do it?" he asked. "Something deep. "Hey, I want to be marked.' "

Thirteen-year-old Sarah Lunde's siblings got them to commemorate their sister, murdered in Ruskin last April. Mike Busto, 36, spent more than four hours getting a picture of his late father, Frank, tattooed to his arm. He called it "self-medicating."

Jamie Keller, 39, made the long drive from Lake Wales to put a picture of her brother, murdered 25 years ago, on her leg.

She chose Las Vegas Tattoo because she saw tattoo artist Mike Parsons copy a portrait perfectly on Tattoo Underground.

Doc figured a reality show about a tattoo shop would sell. Three years ago, he began buying television cameras. Invested about $30,000 in equipment. Contacted local television stations.

One network committed to it, then pulled the plug.

The WB bought the idea but Doc had to buy air time. An infomercial was born.

But it doesn't seem like one.

Tattoo Underground once pitted a young woman getting 138 piercings on her back against a man getting his arm "sleeved." Why? To see who would quit first.

Other episodes have taken real story lines and transformed them into the surreal. When a piercer was fired, the show made it seem like he was abducted by aliens.

Bets are common - this is the Las Vegas Tattoo Co. after all - and plots always follow the rule:

"You never gamble with a man named Doc," said tattoo artist Parsons.

He writes the scripts, which are rigged to let Doc win.

The show seems to be winning an audience even though it airs at 1:30 a.m. on Saturdays.

Girls run into the shop screaming on their cell phone that they're on "tattoo TV." Women have asked tattoo artists to sign their chests. People ask for "pictures, business cards, anything they could get out of here," Parsons said.

Doc and his artists were local celebrities. But they wanted to go national.

But before he could do anything, A&E came out with Inked, set at Hart & Huntington Tattoo Co. in Las Vegas. TLC countered with Miami Ink. Both began airing weekly in the fall.

Doc Dog thinks they have cornered the market on tattoo shows. Taken all the space. He thinks they stole his idea.

"I've been ripped off, man!"

Doc Dog wishes he knew more about the television industry. After the cable shows aired, he became discouraged and put a temporary halt to Tattoo Underground. Reruns air now.

But lately, he's felt a need to begin filming, especially after he watched the two cable shows. "I fell asleep," he said.

Recently, his wife, Belle, flipped through a phone-book-thick catalog she received in the mail and daydreamed as if it was the Publisher's Clearinghouse entry form.

The book had the listings of about 200 reality television producers. Anyone interested?

Times researchers Carolyn Edds and Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Justin George can be reached at 813 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com

[Last modified September 26, 2005, 12:49:48]


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