Gulf & Main - - Contents - BY BRIAN WIERIMA

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.”

Fa­sulo’s range in­cludes graf­fiti such as the wall art mu­ral she sprayed ( this and op­po­site page) in up­state New York.

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...

Fa­sulo’s sleeve tat­too, which she got in New York, has a “Florida look” to it.

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