INKING OUT A LIFE
ARTIST'S ADVENTURES IN ROUGH-AND-TUMBLE TATTOO WORLD
St. James City tattoo artist, writer and former reality show star Lisa Fasulo is sharing stories of intrigue, her craft and the ink scene, even a murder.
THAT WAS THE OPENING LINE to one of TLC television network’s most controversial reality shows, Tattoo School. But those 16 words describe—in a nutshell—what propelled Lisa Fasulo to write In Living Ink, an autobiography about her very colorful life in the tumultuous tattoo scene. Fasulo, who spent the first half of her life in different parts of New York state, now resides on the complete opposite “planet”—in St. James City on Pine Island, along with her husband, Jeff Looman.
Creating art has been Fasulo’s life and she has made it on just about every canvas. It started with a 20-year career of hand painting clothing, a craft that paid the bills and kept her busy going to shows and fairs at least 45 weeks a year. “It’s not that I picked that certain field, it was just that I made money at it; I couldn’t stop it,” she explains.
Although the color of money enticed Fasulo to stick with the craft for two decades, that wasn’t the color she always wanted to pursue. Instead, she wanted her life to flow with the turquoise and other soft colors that resemble the land where she would one day live—Florida. “I always loved painting with Florida colors, even though I never lived there,” Fasulo says. “Everyone started telling me I should move to Florida. Even my ink [a sleeve tattoo on her right arm] I got in New York, features sea turtles and a ‘Florida look’ to it.”
It was time for a change: “I was 37-ish and I decided I’d rather be a cleaning woman than paint one more T-shirt,” Fasulo adds.
While still in New York state, she went through a divorce and then met Looman, her husband-to-be. That’s when her entry into the “ink world” started—as a Christmas gift from Looman in the form of a tattoo starter kit. It actually took a few months for Fasulo to work up the courage to take the tattoo machine out of its wrapping, and a few more months to start gaining confidence in giving tattoos to friends and family members.
Eventually, though, she harnessed her strong innerartist talent. Word spread, and what started as a basement business grew into a fulltime career. Changing her canvas from clothing to skin was a smooth transition for Fasulo: “It was kind of natural for me. When I tattoo, people tell me I look like I’m painting.”
While the end result is a natural, beautiful piece of art on someone’s body, the tattoo business can be dark, brutal and cutthroat. Fasulo says she found that out early. When she showed her first works to a fellow tattoo artist whom Fasulo thought of as a friend, the response was: “It sucks!”
“Hi! I’m Lisa Fasulo, owner of The Tattoo Learning Center, and the tattoo world hates me.”
From the time she and Looman opened The Tattoo Learning Center in 2003 in upstate New York, then in San Diego and finally in Fort Myers, to the July 14, 2011, premiere of TLC’s Tattoo
School, they kept getting brutal lessons in the world of tattoos. As Fasulo depicted in In Living Ink, tattoo artists around the globe came to despise her for her business and the education she was giving to blossoming artists. Fasulo says she was teaching her students respect and giving away “trade secrets,” and that the tattoo artist community literally hated her for doing it. “It’s a worldwide thing; tattoo artists automatically don’t like each other,” Fasulo adds. “I don’t know how else to explain it.”
In her book, she described her tattoo school as “… a positive
atmosphere for our students, as opposed to the ‘you suck’ approach employed by most ‘teachers’ in the tattoo world. … Tattoo people and ethics do not go hand in hand. … [My] school was the antithesis of an apprenticeship. My students didn’t scrub our school’s toilets, I did.”
Fasulo says the fact that a potential reality series was going to be made about her school enraged the tattoo artist community on a global level. As the premiere approached, Fasulo reports she was pounded with hate emails and messages. In her book, she described the hundreds of death threats she and her family received. “We just survived it, we just did,” Fasulo says of that dark time. “They never came to the door hating, they just talked it.”
A big reason that Fasulo and Looman were able to “survive” the relentless attacks is because both of them had gone through worse nightmares earlier in their lives:
Fasulo’s brush with the ugliness in humans came when she was 2½ years old. On Jan. 28, 1964, a gunman walked into her home in Albany, New York, where she, her mother and siblings were having a normal afternoon. The gunman demanded money and tied up the family. In the ensuing tense moments, Sgt. Thomas P. McAvoy was fatally shot by the gunman, in view of the family. It took eight days and a cross-country manhunt to apprehend the murderer, who was captured in a Chicago hospital.
For Looman, a dark veil was thrown over his world on Oct. 23, 1983, when he was stationed in Beirut as an 18-year-old Marine sniper. He and his partner were on patrol, and witnessed a speeding truck smash through barricades and self-detonate into the Marine barracks, killing 241 U.S. troops and wounding 128. Looman had the grisly detail of search and recover. The traumatic ordeal has affected the survivors throughout their lives, including Looman.
In essence, a very large mob of tattoo artists who got upset over Fasulo’s Tattoo Learning Center and the compassion she showed her students, made it an easier path to “survive.” Even though there was a supposed mass boycott of the
Tattoo School premiere, more than 1.2 million viewers watched it, according to the Nielsen ratings. However, that wasn’t enough for the reality show to be picked up as a series, which suited Fasulo just fine. “We kept filling out classes and had a waiting list,” she notes.
One of Fasulo’s former prize students is Caleb Morgan, who now owns and runs the Fort Myers–based Tattoo Learning Center and Elysium Tattoo with his wife, Alisha. Several years ago, Morgan made the trip to New York from Rhode Island to take Fasulo’s two-week comprehensive course, despite not having any tattooing experience. He says it changed his life; now he and Alisha travel around the U.S. and Europe competing in tattoo tours and conventions.
Morgan explains, “She [Fasulo] taught me the basic technique, proper line, proper shadow and proper blend. I was able to do basic tattoos very well by the time I left.” And Alisha adds: “We call Lisa our ‘Tattoo Mother.’ ”
The typical learning process for tattoo artists is by apprenticeship, and the “teacher” decides if he or she will share any “secrets” to make students better. Apparently it doesn’t happen often. “That was a part of her course, she was going to give you the trade secrets,” Morgan says. “There aren’t one or two certain secrets, but more like 30 to 40 tips which come together for you to make you a better [artist]. But what she taught me the most was patience. In this industry, you need patience. You are marking people forever.”
Currently, Fasulo is chasing another dream—becoming a painter. She has closed her downtown Pine Island shop, Lisa’s Art Camp, and is launching Lisa’s Art Safari, an art camp for adults. Fasulo says, “The word ‘safari,’ in Swahili, means ‘journey.’ People can come and stay with me for a week, either here on Pine Island or in New York City, and fall in love with art again. It won’t be a school, but more of an art adventure.”
She sold her school in upstate New York but still teaches there and at the Fort Myers school, located downtown at 2506 Second St. But sooner rather than later, Fasulo wants to transform herself into a full-fledged painter. “I want to paint a picture and not have to worry how it turns out,” she explains. “The pressure after 15 years of doing tattoos and giving exactly what the customer wants—because it’s on them for life—is exhausting. My dream is to be just a painter, but I’ve never really focused on it, because I haven’t been able to leave tattoos.”
Even though Fasulo had experienced the worst in humans, and had hate-filled speech directed toward her and Looman for teaching the art of tattoos, neither has ever struck back with the bile they were shown. Instead, they just keep setting the bar higher.
Proof is what Fasulo wisely wrote in In Living Ink: “Success, they say, is the best revenge.”
Pine Island-based Lisa Fasulo (left and above) spends an increasing amount of time painting at home. She recently created and inked this tattoo (bottom left) on a new mother, who wanted to signify devotion to her infant son. Fasulo inked a leopard (bottom middle) on a client in a 2013 competition. This owl with skull tattoo (bottom right) was recently done by Fasulo on a 20-year-old woman who loves animals.
Fasulo’s range includes graffiti such as the wall art mural she sprayed ( this and opposite page) in upstate New York.
Fasulo’s sleeve tattoo, which she got in New York, has a “Florida look” to it.