Elf (just Elf) and his wife Angie Murphy are the proprietors of Body Art by Elf in Charlotte, NC. While this is their first foray into shop ownership, Elf has been working as a tattoo artist for six years and has spent more than two decades as a fixture in the art and rock scene in Charlotte. DGT&G caught up with them in February, days before the grand opening celebration (the shop has been operational since last fall) at their shop, which is tucked into the corner of Infinity’s End East, a Charlotte retail institution in its own right catering to the rock and counterculture crowd.
DGT&G: How did you get started doing design and art in the first place?
Elf: Actually, it’s something I’ve always done, since as long as I can remember. My mom gave me a box of crayons and, I just never stopped. But I didn’t really get serious about it until I was about 18. I kind of got out of the music thing for years and started getting really serious about my artwork, but I wanted to work in the comic book industry and do book covers and stuff like that. I actually had no interest in the tattoo industry. I collected tattoo magazines, not because I was into tattoos but because of the subject matter of the art. Compared to, like, book covers and album covers and stuff like that, the tattoo art seemed inferior. My wife and I were at a comic book convention, and I had my table set up. This guy came up and bought a few things off my table, and I had just started doing tattoo flash for Tattoo Johnny…
DGT&G: What is tattoo flash?
Elf: Flash is like when you walk into a tattoo shop, you see all the designs that are on the racks. There’s a company called Tattoo Johnny, and that’s all they do. I’d started doing stuff for them, so I was getting interested in what people were getting tattooed. So, anyway, this guy comes up to my table, and he bought some things. And I noticed he had some tattoos, so I said, “Hey, man, let me see what you have.”
He pulled up his sleeve, and there was this portrait of Ghost Rider. The image was from a particular painting that I was very familiar with. The original painting was done by one of my favorite artists, Boris Vallejo. I had seen a lot of Boris’ stuff reproduced on skin, and it always looked like shit. It was just always bad, but this was flawless. It looked like they had just taken the painting and stuck it on the arm. As soon as I saw that, I realized, “Wow, look how far tattooing has come,” and I turned around to [my wife] and said, “I’m getting into this. I’m going to start doing this.” I actually wound up at the shop with the girl who did that tattoo, who’s now the guitarist in my band. But it was that single tattoo that made me go, “Yeah, I’m getting into this.”
Angie: Years before that he was doing backdrops for local bands, flyers for local bands. There used to be a rock club here called Rocky’s, and he did all of the artwork in Rocky’s. All of those murals there.
Elf: That was basically my job. I was there every day just changing the murals.
Angie: So it was like album covers, Motley Crue, Metallica, KISS, Destroyer. I mean, he would have all these different big, giant paintings on the wall. He would do them on fabric, and then they would change them out periodically with other pieces. So there was always artwork there, and a lot of times big bands would come to play the Charlotte Coliseum, and then they would go to Rocky’s and hang out afterwards. Because we were always there, a lot of times we got to hang out with some of these bands. We hung out with Metallica one night in the side room, and they had seen all of the artwork, so they had so much to talk about.
Elf: I got high with Cheap Trick!
Angie: (laughing) He did. In ’91… ’91, ’92….
Elf: Wait a minute. I’m not done with the Cheap Trick thing. Robin Zander fired on my wife and then took my pot! That’s bullshit, Robin Zander! I hope you’re reading this.
DGT&G: Me too!
Angie: Anyway, in like ’91 or ’92, a local radio station put on a contest to meet Ozzy. He was coming. It was the No More Tears tour.
Elf: It was called the Ozzy Banner Contest. You had to do this huge banner that had to have Ozzy on it, and it had to have the radio station’s call letters on it. Actually, we were out one night somewhere, and they started talking about it on the radio. Very arrogantly I looked at her and said, “Hey, we’re going to meet Ozzy!” I didn’t think we actually would. But I did this huge banner. I didn’t even get it finished, actually. I worked on that thing—what—two weeks? Right up ‘til time to go.
There were so many people out there with their banners. We showed up and unrolled the banner, and everybody goes, “Aww, man!” Some people started dropping their banners on the ground. And then somebody goes, “It doesn’t have Ozzy on it! It doesn’t have Ozzy on it!” Everybody started cheering and picked their banners back up.
Sam Stone was working for The Rock [the radio station sponsoring the contest] at the time, and she was the one judging it. She looked at the banner and she goes, “No, it sure doesn’t have Ozzy on it.” But the rules said it had to have Ozzy on it, they didn’t say it had to be written, just said it had to have Ozzy on it. I had two portraits of Ozzy on either side of my banner.
So I won and got to go backstage. We also won a CD library and videos and posters and t-shirts and all kinds of stuff. But the coolest part about that was when Ozzy came out—at the time I weighed, what? 89 pounds, maybe– maybe 90 pounds– and my hair was down. There was a big group of us in the room, and Ozzy came in and stopped and looked at me real funny, like he’d seen a ghost or something. And then he talked to me the whole time. Someone would come up and ask him a question or he’d sign an autograph, and then he’d go back to talking to me.
Angie: At the time we didn’t know that Ozzy was a painter as well. So that was what they talked about the whole time, was artwork and the different mediums. So he’s sitting there with Ozzy Osbourne talking about art.
Elf: Talking about art stuff, yeah. But a year later, Ozzy came back through Charlotte, and he was playing at Blockbuster Pavilion [now Verizon Wireless Amphitheater]. The venue hired me to come out and do this big banner. They paid me a little bit, but part of the payment was that they let me go backstage again. So I got to go backstage and meet him again, and he remembered me. I asked his personal assistant–Jordy, at the time– I said, “Man, when you guys were here last year, Ozzy walked into the room and he looked at me real funny.” He said, “Yeah, as soon as we got back on the bus, the first thing Ozzy said to me when he turned to me was ‘Yeah, that little guy, Elf, did he remind you of Randy or what?’” So I reminded him of Randy Rhoads. That was the coolest part of that whole Ozzy Osbourne thing.
DGT&G: I can see how that would be.
Angie: While he worked at Rocky’s he also got a call one day. Brad Gillis was in town; Night Ranger was going to be playing there, and he wanted Elf to paint one of his guitars—or was it two?
Elf: It was his jacket.
Angie: He wanted Elf to paint his jacket, so we had to go get the jacket, come home, paint, and then we ended up taking it back. I actually have a picture of him with Brad on their bus.
Elf: Yeah, but a few years later he didn’t know who the hell I was.
DGT&G: What did you paint on his jacket?
Elf: I actually painted his guitars on his jacket, and on the bottom it said “Gill Rock” or something like that. But I saw him a few years later– I had a little airbrush booth at a place called The Ritz– and Night Ranger played there. I walked up to him and said, “Hey man you still have that jacket?” and it took him a second. He had no memory of who I was until I explained. And then he was all, “Ah, yeah, yeah, yeah, I remember that.” But Ozzy knew me!
DGT&G: Elf, you mentioned you play in a band. Have you always played music along with doing art, or is this something you’ve picked up more recently?
Elf: No, I did that seriously first, before I even started painting. Actually, I was a guitar player. When I was younger I was in a band and, you know, were were gonna be rock stars. I was in this band that our bass player left one day—he had a job so he had to keep his hair short—and he left one day to get a haircut. Well, that was 30 years ago, and nobody’s seen him since. So the next day we were rehearsing and my drummer at the time had a bass, and he goes, “Hey, man, can you just take this?” I was like, “Man, I don’t wanna be a damn bass player.” But I started and it was just like (angel sound). I fell in love with this instrument. And that was it.
Angie: He’s always tinkered with playing, just at home and here and there. And then a few years ago the tattoo artist he worked with, she started a band up and he started playing bass for her. So he’s actually in an all-girl band. He’s the only guy.
Elf: I’m in an all-girl band with three attractive women and I’m the bass player, so I get absolutely no attention. I have to dress in really weird outfits and stuff in order to just get seen, otherwise nobody would—you can see videos of the band on YouTube and stuff, but you don’t see me.
Angie: You see the girls.
DGT&G: What’s the name of the band?
Elf: Shot Silk.
Angie: We’ve got a CD of them, I’ll give it to you.
Elf: It’s all original stuff; we don’t do any covers. The guitarist and myself, we’re both painters and tattoo artists, so we kind of want to create our own thing. Our singer, her husband is a tattoo artist that works with my guitarist. Our singer is a schoolteacher.
DGT&G: There seems to be such a longstanding connection between rock music and tattoos. Where do you think that connection comes from?
Angie: My theory would be it’s because art was always such a big part of an album cover. It helped sell the albums. Years ago, back in the days when you couldn’t sample an album at the store, you couldn’t hear part of it, we didn’t have iTunes. I think art and music have always gone hand in hand because of that to begin with. And then it just became something people wanted to wear onstage.
Elf: Yeah, you know, you couldn’t go on the internet, you had to go by the album cover, and that sold so many albums. So many musicians doing music anyway, they’re already expressing themselves. People like that, really creative people, are always expressing themselves in one way or another. And I think that getting tattooed is another way of expressing yourself.
Coming up next week: Elf and Angie talk more about music, how tattoos have become mainstream, the challenges of running a tattoo shop, and some of their more unique experiences in the world of tattoo art.