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Lasting tribute

Earnhardt fans are heading to tattoo shops to make permanent the indelible mark he left on

By LEANORA MINAI and EILEEN SCHULTE

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2001


On the day of race car driver Dale Earnhardt's funeral, longtime NASCAR fan Greg Dowden retired his Earnhardt hat, saying he would never wear it again.

He did the same for his Earnhardt T-shirt collection.

But that didn't mean Dowden, a Snap-On tools driver and salesman, was done honoring his hero. He wanted a more permanent memorial, one that would be with him wherever he goes.

The idea came to him in a dream.

"I haven't had some ink in a while," said Dowden, 31, of Safety Harbor. "Got to get some ink."

Thursday evening, he showed up at Lou's National Tattoos in Clearwater, where a tattoo artist named "Litos" injected drops of black and chrome-colored ink into the back of Dowden's left calf, creating a $300, one-of-a-kind design with the word "Intimidator" on top of a number "3." Tucked into the 3 are the words "last lap" and the number 500. Underneath is the date of the crash.

Around the Tampa Bay area and beyond, grief-stricken fans are sprinkling into tattoo parlors and memorializing Earnhardt with body ink.

Since Earnhardt died in a crash Sunday, mourners clutching photos are walking into tattoo parlors in St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Tampa and Charlotte, N.C. Others are calling shops, asking: Can you do the number "3"? Can you do "The Intimidator?"

"They really have to be committed," said Kevin Buckley, owner of Valhalla, a parlor in Ybor City. "That's to show their undying love."

At Immortal Images and Alternative Arts in Charlotte, the area where most NASCAR teams are based, fans have come in for the Goodyear emblem and Earnhardt's face.

Mark Evans, an artist at Immortal Images, said a man paid him $250 on Wednesday for an image of Earnhardt on his forearm.

"It's heavy duty," Evans said. "It's intense right there."

The design was a number 3 "with the lightning coming off of it and his signature."

At another tattoo parlor in Charlotte, the loss hit closer to home.

"The owner of the shop, he was good friends with Earnhardt since he was 8," David Boags, 26, told the Times. "He took all his racing plaques off the wall and took a couple of days off. He didn't want to deal with the racing scene after that."

At Custom Tattoos by Precision Ink in St. Petersburg, owner Steve "Munchkin" Lyons has done three or four Earnhardt-related tattoos this week. Among the designs: two crossing race track flags with the number 3 underscored.

"It's a normal thing," said Lyons, 52. "When somebody passes away in the public eye, people want to hold on to something. They want to remember."

Many fans feel significant loss because they invested time and money, fantasizing about what it would be like to be Earnhardt.

When Earnhardt was behind the wheel, they were behind the wheel. They wore Earnhardt hats, Earnhardt sunglasses and drove Chevrolets, like Earnhardt.

"It becomes a personal experience, even though they may never had met that star," said John Wheeler, a Charlotte psychologist. "They take on that person's identity and even characteristics. A walk. A haircut. Any variety of ways playing out that identification."

The phenomenon is not new.

To say goodbye, fans got tattoos of gangsta rapper Tupac Shakur after he was slain in a drive-by shooting. Tattoo artists also regularly receive requests for portraits of mothers and grandparents or even friends and loved ones who die.

Some tattoo shops have been busy with Earnhardt designs throughout his racing career.

"We do Dale Earnhardt all the time," said Doc Wyandt, co-owner of Aces and Eights Tattoo Shop in Pinellas Park.

He plans to do eight to 10 designs this weekend, he said.

At prices starting at $50 or $60, people can remember Earnhardt forever.

"You'll have it the rest of your life," said Buckley, the owner of Valhalla.

But some parlors haven't received inquiries for Earnhardt art.

"Tattoos express individuality, and I guess that would be a good expression, if that's what you're in to," said Jason Avery, a 27-year-old artist at Mean Machine Tattoo Co. in Tampa.

Avery usually does flowers and butterflies.

At Lou's National Tattoos, another man came in for an Earnhardt tattoo while Dowden was getting his done. Dowden, who had seven tattoos before the Earnhardt piece, said this would be his best.

"I'll wear this one with more pride than any of my other tattoos."

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