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Fare thee well to Randy Herring

I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of my friend of 30-35 years’ standing, tattoo artist nonpareil Randy Herring, who worked for a good many of those years out of the venerable Skin Art tattoo shop, cpl-three doors down from Tony’s Ice Cream parlor on Franklin Blvd in Gastonia. Randy died in a terrible car crash on Saturday evening.

Randy did at least half of my 20-some-odd tattoos, and the overwhelming majority of the ones I love best. His nickname was Ol’ Heavy Hand, and I can attest to its absolute and excruciating veracity. Basically, there are two schools of thought among tattoo artists: 1) pound that ink in deep, hard, and slow, or 2) use a feather-light touch. If there’s a happy medium between them, I never have run across it in four decades-plus of going under the needle.

The debate betwixt the two approaches involves which of them will allow the piece to retain its appearance longer. The lines are going to spread a little no matter what, so the goal is to have the colors hold their brightness and integrity as long as possible, see. The light-touch contingent relies on something a dermatologist’s nurse gf of mine once told me: contrary to popular assumption, the tattoo doesn’t fade over time and depending on exposure to the sun, the skin itself does.

On the one hand, then, all the dig-deep work Randy did on me has held up extremely well. On the other hand, I have one (1) piece from a light-touch advocate, Colin LaRocque, and it has too, so who the hell knows?

Colin’s work is on my left forearm, a rendition of Sailor Jerry’s classic “Venomous Maximus” traditional-style flash: a cartoon cobra rampant, sporting clownishly-outsized fangs, tongue, and google-moogly eyes, with old-school crossbones spread like a set of wings behind his head. The piece is positioned so that most of Venomous’s hood and head cover what is known in the tattooist’s trade as “The Ditch”—a particularly tender patch of fleshly real estate that had me dreading the pain I anticipated when Colin passed the gun over it (hell no, I wasn’t watching him work; salty-dog tattooees wouldn’t dream of succumbing to such a greenhorn temptation).

But nope, not a bit of it. Fact is, I hardly noticed Colin digging around in The Ditch region at all, and the piece still looks nice despite many years of being beaten half to death by Trucker’s Tan every summer.

Now, immediately above Venomous Max is Randy’s variation on the hallowed Sacred Heart design, which Randy custom-converted into a Sacred Piston just pour moi. A stray gob of Pennzoil drips from the bottom of the Sacred Connecting Rod onto the tippy-top of VM’s head, not quite making it all the down into The Ditch proper.

Nevertheless, I almost cried like a little girl when Ol’ Heavy Hands got to pounding that one into me with the 14-needle Magnum shader. No, it wasn’t The Ditch, but it was damned well close enough.YEEEOWTCH!

Once I’d gotten to know him, Randy liked to josh me when I was in the chair and under the gun or just hanging around the shop shooting the breeze with him and the rest of the Skin Art crew (which I used to do frequently) that the only reason he ever got into tattooing at all was because he really enjoyed hurting people. If he’d told me that after the first time he inked me, I’d have taken him at his word.

But by then I knew the man better than that. A little-known fact among non-tattooed people is the powerful bond forged between artist and human canvas, particularly those who become regular customers. This bond is something a truly good tattooist will insist upon, as opposed to those fad-factory hacks derided by their betters in the trade as “scratchers.”

When you think about it, it’s almost inevitable: tattooing, at its highest level, is a profoundly personal, even intimate experience for both customer and artist. You’re in the chair for hours and hours, feeling those needles drill into you painfully, chit-chatting all the while, alternating between him telling you his life story and you telling him yours.

Ideally, the best tattooists try to nurture that bond and help it to grow and expand to its fullest potential; as every one of them I’ve known well has told me, the better they understand who you really are and what brought you to them in the first place, the better-quality work they’ll be able to do on/for you, and the more satisfied you’re going to be in the long run. Unlike any other commercial enterprise, good tattooing is a collaboration, not a simple exchange of money for services rendered. That’s what elevates top-shelf tattooing to the level of bona fide, upper-case Art.

And exactly like my old H-D shop boss Goose, Randy—despite his fondness for pretending to be a grouchy, grumpy old fart with noobs, Normies, and looky-loos—was a true master at fostering that critical bond with dedicated victims like myself. Trust me, he was nothing of the sort (also like Goose). Always quick with a horrible joke, a warm smile, or a raucous guffaw, Randy was the best imaginable example of his craft, a real credit to the profession.

He was renowned for his eagerness to take in talented youngsters for apprenticeship; nearly all the best tattooists in the area, up to and including one of the most talented tattooists currently extant, my friend Rodney Raines, bear the Herring stamp on themselves and their work.

Twenty or so years ago, Randy got religion and became a devout, sincere Christian. Every Monday night he took to the lanes with his Christian bowling team to compete in a local Gastonia league. Over the years, he repeatedly invited me to come out and bowl with ‘em sometime, which I never did get around to doing despite the best of intentions. Alas, to my eternal regret, now I never will.

The above are but a few of many more great stories I have about the man; our long, close relationship both in the tattoo shop and outside of it enriched my life, to a degree I can’t even begin to calculate or describe. He was a good man, a great tattooist, and a cherished friend. So rest ye well, Randy Herring. May the good Lord accept you into the warmth of his loving embrace, your unchainable spirit be forever at ease.

Update! After much poking and digging around the last two days, the obits are finally starting to show up.

Randy Herring Obituary, Death:
The vibrant city of Gastonia, N.C is shrouded in sorrow as news of Randy Herring’s tragic passing spreads throughout the community. As the owner and artist of Skin Art Tattoo at Living Arts, Randy’s sudden and untimely death in a deadly car accident has left friends, family, and patrons reeling with shock and grief.

Randy was not merely a tattoo artist; he was a creative force whose talent, passion, and kindness touched the lives of all who had the privilege of crossing paths with him. As we come together to mourn his loss, we also celebrate the indelible mark Randy left on the world through his artistry and spirit.

“Last night, my dear friend and iconic tattoo artist lost his life in a terrible car accident. Randy Herring was a passionate human being who mentored many artists into greatness. He was also my student for many years. I am honored to have his skin art on my body. My heart aches for his family and friends. He will be sorely missed by an army of people whose lives he touched. Rest in peace ‘Ole Heavy Hands! May you rejoice in heaven with our brother Piotr Kopytek.”

A Master of the Craft
Randy Herring was more than just a tattoo artist; he was a master of his craft. His journey in the world of tattooing began with a passion for art and self-expression, which he honed over the years through dedication and hard work. As the owner of Skin Art Tattoo, Randy’s studio became a sanctuary for creativity, where clients entrusted him with their most personal stories and visions. With each stroke of his needle, Randy transformed skin into living art, leaving behind a legacy of beauty and expression that will endure for generations to come.

A Beacon of Creativity
Randy’s artistry extended far beyond the confines of his studio; it was a reflection of his boundless imagination and love for the craft. Whether he was creating intricate designs inspired by nature, mythology, or pop culture, Randy approached each piece with meticulous attention to detail and a deep reverence for the art form. His passion for tattooing was infectious, inspiring countless aspiring artists to pursue their creative endeavors with courage and conviction.

A-Pillar of the Community
Beyond his role as a tattoo artist, Randy was a beloved figure in the Gastonia community. His warm smile and generous spirit endeared him to all who knew him, and his studio served as a gathering place for artists, musicians, and free spirits alike. Randy’s commitment to his craft was matched only by his dedication to supporting local artists and small businesses, making him a cherished friend and ally to many.

Although they might seem to be pouring on the hyperbole pretty thick and heavy here, I assure you that such is not the case. Every word is perfectly true and accurate, if somewhat thin on the details, which I’d say is pretty dang good for a crusty old tattoo-slinging reprobate. Original-article link is here, albeit paywalled. I 12 Foot Ladder’d it, but can’t find a good link-path that will allow me to just link directly to their de-paywalled version. Alternatively, you can always just disable Javascript in your preferred web browser; that’s how all those paywall thingamabobs work, or so I’m given to understand.

Another, probably better obit—one that reads less like it was AI-generated.

Tattoo artist dies after crash with Gaston County police officer
A Gastonia tattoo artist was killed in a crash with a Gaston County Police Department officer over the weekend.

Investigators said the Gaston County officer was responding to a shooting call Saturday when he collided with Randy Herring’s truck on West Franklin Boulevard.

Police said the officer had his lights and siren on when he drove through the Webb Street intersection. The police cruiser was gone by the time a Channel 9 crew arrived at the scene, but we were able to see a pickup truck smashed against a pole.

Herring’s daughter, Brittany Thomas, told Channel 9′s Ken Lemon she just wants to know how the crash turned fatal when her father was in such a large and protective truck. She said her dad meant everything to her.

“Everything,” she said crying. “My kids lost their Paw Paw.”

The crash happened about two miles from Herring’s tattoo shop, where so many people say he touched their lives.

“He loved painting, drawing, he would even draw on my kids with a pen,” Thomas said.

Herring’s son, Randall Herring II, told Lemon he found out about the crash when loved ones realized his father was missing.

He said there were no details about what happened but he recognized some of the faces at the crash scene.

“A lot of the police officers on the scene, my father tattooed them,” he said.

He said his father would have been happy to see that.

I’m sure he would’ve at that. I know exactly where that Webb St intersection is, horribly enough; it isn’t far from where my ex-wife lives just off West Franklin, where I go to pick my daughter up. I musta driven through that same fateful junction about, oh, a bazillion and a half times over the years, going back to drag-racing up and down Franklin as a teenage hot-rodder.

I still can’t quite wrap my head around all this, folks. What a godawful tragedy, all the way around.

Updated update! Okay, another story I just gotta tell. The day I went in to have “Bang Zoom” tattooed on my knuckles, Randy sat me down before we got started and gave me the spiel, seriously and somberly, in that soft redneck drawl of his: “Look, Mike, I know you very well, and I already know how you feel and what you’re gonna say. I don’t mean to lecture or sound preachy, but I still have to warn you just the same: knuckles are the Final Frontier, ain’t no turning back from here. This, you won’t be able to cover up or hide, no way. It means you’ll never work a straight job in an office ever again. Are you sure you want to go through with it?”

Now at that time I was working at the H-D shop with Goose, who is more heavily tatted up than I am, even. This was in the halcyon days before every yuppie idjit and his sister’s cat’s grandmother started getting ink, mind. Tattooing was still strictly an outlaw, taboo sort of thing, the by and large exclusive province of sailors, bikers, Marines, ex-cons, and other sundry misfits. The usual reaction of Joe Normal, as he crossed the street to avoid passing close to you, could be summed up as: You’re tattooed? Ya loser!

By then, Randy had already finished both my arms shoulder to wrist, as well as the black cat on my neck—Lucky, we called him, done in loving memory of the incomparable Mr Kitty. Thus, I considered myself to be fully and firmly committed; I’d already gone well past the point of no return as a fully-paid-up Tattooed Freak, and didn’t give a tinker’s damn. I was perfectly content with my lifestyle choices to date, foolish though the Squarejohn world would doubtless think them.

Too, I’d spent a month in the office as dispatch manager at Airborne Express not long before and had loathed every second of it, considering the job a thirty-day sentence in the very bowels of Hell. Wanting no more of such, I wound up telling my boss to put me back in a truck again before I went bugfuck nuts and broke down in a frothing hissy fit out on the loading dock. T’weren’t no going back indoors for me, not if I had anything to say about it.

As it developed—UNEXPECTED!!!™—I was wrong about that: some years later, I would be hired on by Outlaw Biker/Art & Ink Publications, working in an office with people who cared not a whit that I was a tattooed, to-the-bone old-school biker; an itinerant rock and roll musician; a seedster Harley wrench, all that bushwa. Yeah, it was an office job, but I was among like-minded souls there, so it worked out pretty nicely for all concerned.

Even so, I always appreciated Randy being thoughtful enough, caring enough, to remind me of how high the stakes were, and have never forgotten it, bless his heart. Although I haven’t seen him in four-five years, I’ll always miss the man.

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6 thoughts on “Fare thee well to Randy Herring

  1. Randy did a Memorial piece for my Dad on my right biceps many years ago. It is still as bright and vibrant as ever. And yes, I felt Randy’s “heavy hand”, in a good way. A good man, gone too soon.

    1. Got one for my Dad from him when he passed myself. My mom saw it and wanted to know when I was gonna get one that said “Mom” on it. That line of enquiry was shut down immediately when I told her that traditionally, she’d have to die before I could. Never has been. brought up again since. 😉

  2. Thank you for such a fine eulogy, Mike. I have to admit that I’ve never understood the appeal of tattooing but your excellent prose took care of that. Bravo! But not surprised, due to your terrific blogging. Best to you!

    1. Thankee much, Jim, very kind of you to say. Been thinking of doing a follow-up post with more of the tattoo lore I’ve learned over the years, including the story of what first sparked my own interest in tattoos, namely, my maternal grandpa. The art has a rich, varied history that encompasses the entire world—every nation, every culture, both developed and tribal, which even those completely unfamiliar with it might find interesting, or so I was thinking.

      We’ll see about that; these days, the curse of blogging is not that there are too few things worth writing about, but way too damned many.

  3. Like Jim, I’ve never quite understood the appeal of the tattoo, but I have no issue with them, each to his own.

    I was stunned by the absolute artistry on the bodies of many of the Texas Corrections inmates. I was there to help them with a thorny machinery update and problem. I first noticed beautiful artwork on the walls. You would believe Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Picasso, and a handful of others had been transported time and distance to current day Texas Corrections.

    Then some of the inmates walked by on the way to the showers. Naked, but damn little skin displayed. Instead they were covered with exquisite artwork. Truly unbelievable. I had to ask – is it possible these folks did this inside? Yes, almost all of it.

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