Drawing the distinction between human and beast is one that has troubled scientists, philosophers, theologians and even the average Joe in the street for some time now. The creation of tools? Self-awareness? A soul? These all sound like plausible defining characteristics unique to human beings on some level, but the one not mentioned as often, which does stand out as obviously and exclusively human, is the act of self-adornment. From jewelry and clothing to hairstyles and tattoos—we love to adorn ourselves. It’s just damn unlikely you will run into a mongoose with a mullet or a giraffe with a dragon tattoo. Nope. These things seem entirely reserved for we vain humans. The shocking 1992 discovery of an amazingly well preserved and heavily tattooed Bronze Age Man in the frozen Alps between Italy and Austria clearly proves that tattooing, as a form of personal adornment, has been with us for at least five thousand years. And the almighty coif has been a messenger of style, status and station atop the heads of pharaohs and warriors, clerics and queens and even magistrates in England who still sport the traditional white wig atop their heads as a symbol of their station. But these days, most folks engage in a bit of whimsy with a new hairstyle, or adorn themselves with a small work of art made to last beneath their skin. So Local Happenings has decided to explore the application of these time honored traditions at Bombshell Hair and Ink in Benicia, California.

But first the disclaimer:

The author of this article is not in possession of either hair atop his head, or tattoos in places visible or unmentionable. As such, the author is able to render opinions on the topic of hair and ink without the influence of personal bias.

OK. That was nonsense. I have no idea why I got this assignment, but here we go!

Bombshell Hair and Ink is located at 120 East G Street just off Second Street in downtown Benicia. The sign outside Bombshell is of a 40’s style pinup with a dame on the wing of an airplane. “That’s aunt Brenda,” explains proprietor Cheri Graf as she welcomes me inside.

The place is cool and cozy with lots of stainless steel and a retro mod feel. Several stylists are busy plying their trade on the follicles of customers in various states of transformation. Graf is considerably tattooed herself, notably sporting a macabre “ghoul girl” on her right shoulder, the figure in turn displaying a scissors and comb logo on her right shoulder. We sit on the comfy chairs near the front window and discuss the state of hair. “The big thing today is The Hombre,” Graf explains, which is a style that involves color, starting dark at the roots and getting lighter along the length of the hair. “But we can really do anything. Color, retro, whatever you can think of. If you bring me a picture, I can usually do it.”  Right about this time a woman vending lemon tarts walks in and Graf buys several and hands me one. “They’re good,” she says. I take a sweet bite and find myself thinking about follicles.

A Magician in the Ink

The tattoo department of Bombshell is directly through a door adjacent to the hair department. John Kulikoff is the man behind the needle. A client is on the table. The needle purring across his flesh is spelling out the name Bella over a lotus blossom on the inside of his left arm. When I ask him if I can take his picture he smiles and nodding towards the work in progress adds, “That’s my baby girl.”

The actual needle is driven by a device that resembles the doorbell in your grandmother’s house. Two electrified vertical copper coils drive an armature causing the needle to move up and down with a buzzing sound. Kulikoff pulls out a drawer displaying several more of the devices, intuitively known as tattoo machines, explaining that each can be adjusted for depth of stroke and controlled by turning the knob of a variable power supply sitting on the rolling cart next to him. The machines look old, decrepit even, but he assures me that while the look is retro, the devices are in fact recently hand built, state of the art, and that the actual needle that pierces the skin is handled in rigorous compliance with sterile requirements. How deep does it go in? “Only about this much,” says Kulikoff holding his rubber gloved thumb and finger apart about the width of a credit card.”

The tattoo room is spotlessly clean. Kulikoff himself has a tidiness and precision about him. Black hair combed with exactitude, black shirt and a neatly trimmed moustache with an hourglass-shaped soul chip of a beard. His forearms, which are illustrated with the King of Spades and the Queen of Hearts, gives one the sense that he might be slightly dangerous. Until his broad smile completely shatters that illusion.

John is one of those few, rare artists who has the technical facility and versatility to capture almost any line or image, be it on paper, canvas or his canvas of choice: flesh. Among tattoo artists, portrait work is generally considered the most demanding. Capturing a likeness that embodies all the subtleties of the original and captures the feel and essence of the subject is a challenge for any artist. As I viewed examples in a book on the counter it became clear that John excels in this area. “I do a lot of portrait work,” he says, “We can do pets too.”

“He is the best tattoo artist we’ve had,” says Graf who is now leaning against the wall of the tattoo room smiling, “Actually, he’s one of the best I’ve seen. He’s been working here for around one and a half years up from L.A.”

Not sure if I’ll take the plunge and get inked, but Bombshell would be the place I’d go. John Kulikoff is really good. And Cheri Graf is easy going and hip. Both are easy to talk to and clearly have a finely honed sense of style both mainstream and alternative. “We never try to push anyone into anything,” says Graf. “Actually, we really prefer it if they take their time and think about it first.” So don’t plan on showing up drunk and demanding a tattoo of a laughing horse’s head with the words LOVE MOM underneath. Not going to happen at Bombshell. And you’ll probably thank them in the morning.

Bombshell Hair and Ink is located at 120 East G Street in Benicia, CA

Business hours are: Tuesday 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Wednesday-Friday 10 a.m.-9 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

Phone: (707) 748-7950

Online at: www.BombshellHairandInk.com

Marc Garman is a watch repairer and videographer who lives in Vallejo, CA. He grew up crewing on and racing sailboats in upstate New York, mostly on the Hudson River.