How Friday the 13th Became Black Friday for Tattoos

You can thank (or blame) sailors, and a little shop in Big D.

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Oct 13 2017, 9:00pm

Image from Oliver Peck's Instagram

Atlanta resident Brit Dunn has a tattoo of a pair of boobs on his butt. Disembodied, cartoon-y, and "exaggerated," above them hangs a necklace with a dangling "13" pendant. He got it on Friday the 13th a few years ago, one of an extraordinary 30 he's gotten on the date. He says his eight-year saga of inking his body on Friday the 13th started when he wanted a tattoo but a thin wallet got in the way, so he hit a local shop taking part in the then developing tattoo tradition, Friday the 13th flash-sheet deals. The day boasts $13 tattoos, most with the number 13 worked into them somehow, or some other appropriately spooky theme—black cats, blood, coffins, a hockey mask. Most designs are about the size of a silver dollar.

Friday the 13th is like Black Friday for many tattoo parlors, which experience a crush of customers hoping to take advantage of the cheap deals. Difference is, Fridays falling on the 13th can occur up to three times a year. The "holiday" usually entails a themed flash sheet (a group of designs to choose from but traditionally not open for modification), typically priced at $13 a pop, with a $7 tip thrown in for good luck. If you know someone who is heavily tatted, chances are they have at least one.

How did this start? And why? Part of it can be attributed (or blamed) on a little shop in the Big D.

"I definitely wasn't the first person to do it, the number 13 tattoo on the Friday the 13th," says Oliver Peck, of Elm St. Tattoo in Dallas. "But, I definitely made it an event." Peck is widely credited for kickstarting what has now grown into quite a big day for tattooers and the tattooed. He started DIY-tattooing himself and friends in 1988, then professionally in 1991, and threw his first big Friday the 13th shindig in 1995 at the now shuttered Pair O' Dice shop in Dallas. The party lasted 24 hours, and Peck never looked back. Feeling inspired by tattoo artist Dave Lum's Halloween specials, he wanted to start his own tradition. (If Peck's name rings a bell it's because, yes, he's the dude from Ink Master who also was briefly married to Kat Von D.)

The cheap price is one of the reasons the tradition has grown. The $13 tat is quite attractive when you consider many shops' minimums hover between $50 and $80. Hourly rates average more like $150. The downside is, on Friday the 13th, long lines start forming outside shops before the doors open. Peck says Elm Street expects to tattoo around 1,200 customers on this or any Friday the 13th. Like that first big banger, Friday the 13th is a 24-hour affair, in part to accommodate for the sheer volume of customers who come through the door.

The phones start lighting up around the 11th of the month, Atlanta-based Only You Tattoo owner and artist Danielle Distefano says. She describes the repeat Friday the 13th customer: "They're at the point where they have a lot of tattoos, and they just want more and aren't always concerned as much of what it is or they have a little space that they want to fill in, and our Friday the 13th tattoo is kind of the perfect way."

Distefano herself has about 13 Friday the 13th tattoos. Peck reckons he now has more than 100. "There's been certain Fridays where I got 13 on one Friday the 13th," he says.

Before Peck's big party, he says sailors—historically enthusiastic about etching ink into their bodies—were a key reason people started getting "13" tattoos. It's interesting why. Because the number has always been considered bad luck, he says, sailors would get "13" tattooed as an antidote, to keep bad luck away. "Bad luck would come your way, it would see the number 13, see that bad luck is already there, and it would pass on by," he says.

Though most Friday the 13th designs feature "13" somewhere, Las Vegas–based tattooist Iron Monk says that's not always the case. "Numbers can play a lot of politics in tattoos," he says, noting gangs, specifically. "If you don't think about it, you could be walking in the wrong place or the wrong hood or the wrong city and… they might check you with those numbers on you."

Instead, Monk says he tends to theme his flash sheets a bit differently, which he designs anew each Friday the 13th. This time around, for the second Friday the 13th of 2017, he's going with ghosts and imagery from The Addams Family. Peck says one of his favorite designs is a pair of blood-soaked white panties wherein the blood forms the number "13." (Dunn has this particular design tattooed on his arm.)

All Friday the 13ths are busy days at parlors, and one that falls in October especially so, its close proximity to Halloween making it the perfect ink storm. "This is definitely the ideal one, because some of the images end up being kind of like the spooky Halloween kind of theme anyway," Distefano says.

Because the hours are long and the money is short, some tattoo artists are less than thrilled about the budding "holiday."

"We haven't done it in a couple of years," Distefano says of Only You. Some of her newer artists regard tales of Friday the 13ths at shops like grizzled war stories—they're not interested in keeping the tradition going. "Like, they don't really see the benefit—you're super busy, and you work so hard to make not that much money."

To those disillusioned artists, Peck says cheap, themed tats on Friday the 13th is a way for shops to give back to customers. "You don't have to profit at your business every single day of the year."

Customers like Dunn will continue waiting in lines for upward of seven hours, which may seem like a lot to save about $40. But tattoos on Friday the 13th are now part of the tattoo culture he and others feel drawn to. It's likely here to stay, regardless of the bottom line.

Follow Beca Grimm on Twitter.

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