Some People Are Born Freaks. Jim Hall Turned Himself Into One.
Jim Hall paused on a busy corner across from Cross Street Market on a fine summer's day watching the traffic--or, more accurately, watching the traffic watch him.
Hall, 67, a recent retiree from Baltimore City's Planning Department, stands 6-foot-3 and his cut-off jeans and T-shirt reveal shaved-head-to-toe tattooed skin, inked blue and swarming with black swirls and crescents. Hall proudly explains that his tattoo is singular, one big skin-adorning tapestry, much as a Miro extravaganza is one painting with lots of free floating forms. A skin-scape.
He is no less shocking on the streets of Baltimore than what the Romans encountered during their first failed invasion of the British Isles in the 1st century A.D. The Picts merely painted themselves blue for battle. Hall has inked himself blue for life.
Passers-by slow to a stop, car passengers press their faces to their windows. Some point. The contortions of people's shocked faces alone are worth an admission price. Everyone loves a freak show.
Just being the sideshow to the main attraction on one of Hall's walks works the nerves as you find yourself counting down the moments before each new blah midday block erupts into gasps.
Hall has lived in Federal Hill since 1972, but has kept his blue-skinned project a relative secret. In fact, Hall has been something of an urban hermit, avoiding publicity. But now Hall is interested in talking about his transformation into what he describes as "a new human species." You see, Hall's metamorphosis from a boxed-in city bureaucrat to a walking spectacle isn't just skin deep.
What started out as a penis extension turned into three extra testicles, butt implants, chest implants, and more alterations to his penis, including a spike through it fastened by two rings the size of silver dollars. Not only did Hall have to endure the pain and the commitment of sticking with a body-modification plan 35 years in the making, also he estimates he has forked over more than $135,000.
"Most people are born freaks, I turned myself into one," Hall says, laughing. There's another catchy saying he repeats innumerable times over the course of several interviews: "I'm glad you have to figure it out and not me."
"It makes me feel connected, part of the human race, part of something that people like," he says drinking his morning coffee from an orange tin cup. He sits in a kitchen that's not too far removed from its 19th-century mud-room origins, with his back door wide open for the mosquitoes and the backyard ivy creeping across the threshold. There's a pre-Depression-era sink and wooden washboards, while his beloved vintage refrigerator, built in 1941, the same year he was born, hums. Hall furrows what would be his eyebrows if he hadn't shaved them off and gives one of his signature laughs, a kind of Herman Munster chortle with slightly less bass.
"I don't know what it all means," he says of his body modifications. "It breaks the barriers down because it's so crazy.
"A lot of tattoo[ed] people push [other] people away," he adds. "I take responsibility for it. It takes a little more time, but it feels good. I had a clerk at the grocery store take his shirt off to show me his [tattooed] back [in the] grocery store. I was embarrassed, but that is the power."
Hall believes once he finishes up a few more tattoo appointments (mostly to cover the rest of his hands and feet) he will be one of two fully tattooed people in the world, the other being New Zealand-born Lucky Diamond Rich. At the very least, Hall says, no one has just one tattoo--not a series of images, but one continuous design, which is asymmetrical to boot, he adds proudly. Thanks to the color and the swirling, bending nature of the design, Hall has redubbed himself "bluecomma."
Don't let the free-flow imagery fool you, Hall cautions: Every inch has been planned, and corrected if necessary, to the consternation of tattooist Tom Beasley, co-owner of Dragon Moon Studio in Glen Burnie.
During a recent visit, Dragon Moon Tattoo Studio was as clean as any beauty salon, its walls turned over to framed tattoo prints for those looking for ideas. Hall passed them by to stretch out on the table, the first client of the day.
Having gotten his start in the 1970s inking soldiers and bikers, Beasley is well-versed in body art and has seen and done all kinds, but never anything like Hall's work. "Jim is the last full-face tattoo I'll ever do, unless someone has a million dollars" Beasley says while filling in a "comma" on Hall's hand. "It's just hard. People think it's easy, but it's not."
Hall has rarely made things easy for Beasley. He knows what he wants, and despite having sketches, isn't sure it's right until after the work is done. Sometimes Beasley will find himself changing a pattern by one line. "OCD," says the stoned-faced Beasley, nodding toward his client of 21 years.
"OCD?" Hall asks.
"Obsessive compulsive disorder."
"It only looks right to him," Beasley says. "The way I drew it on him the first time, it looked OK to me. . . ."
Indeed, Beasley only agreed to do a full-head tattoo for Hall because of their long relationship, and because Hall had been talking about it for years. Then one day in October 2007, Beasley says, " he walked in with a photograph and his beard and hair were gone." The photograph was a head shot of Hall with lines drawn on his face--a map for Beasley's needle.
Two years ago, before he retired in January 2007, Hall was still a city planner, his head and face unaltered, his body art hidden by the suit-and-tie dress code of his profession. He lived the stereotype of the urban idealist, convinced that the correct placement of buildings and streets can influence a city's fortunes. He even managed to saddle himself with a quixotic, decades-long, live-in urban renewal project of his own--rehabbing three adjoining 1880s homes in Federal Hill. All the while, he was working on his secret project.
"I didn't have a life except my job," he says. "I didn't realize how total that was. My worth to the culture, to the world, was defined by what I did [for a living] for 35 years. Now I want to be rather than do."
No matter how calmly Hall utters his "life is short" explanations, there's still the spectacle looming, large and blue, and his teeth, so white and grinning most of the time, thwarting rational explanations.
Jim Hall, the city planner, and bluecomma, the walking art installation, are intertwined in and rooted by a love of design and of Baltimore. On the one hand, he's a customized human sex toy, a self-imposed social experiment who frets over whether or not his tattoo should cover his lips. On the other hand, he's a restless civil-service retiree who bought himself expensive computer software and an industrial printer the size of an upright piano to work on his houses, which he plans to will in part to the city to fund the restoration of the Federal Hill signal tower. Hall explains that there once was an ornate tower at the northwest corner of the hill that was used by late-18th-century ship owners to spot their vessels cruising in past where the Key Bridge stands in the haze today. "I saw pictures [of it] and I just sat down," he says. "It was a beautiful thing. I couldn't believe that nobody had thought of restoring it".
His body modifications are, of course, personal, even intimate. "It's sexual," he acknowledges. "I'll have lots of self sex. It sure adds to the strength to me. It still shocks me, and that's part of its power."
But there's a public aspect to Hall's skin art that dovetails with the passion that brought him to Baltimore as an idealistic urban planner in 1967. Says his 24-year-old nephew Daniel Hall, who lived with his uncle for over half a year prior to him getting the first lines put on his face: "If he wasn't talking about naked guys, he was talking about the beauty of Baltimore, [and] if he wasn't talking about Baltimore, he was talking about intricacies of his tattoo."
Hall grew up in Freeport, Texas, which at the time was dominated by Dow Chemical, where his father worked as an electrical engineer. Hall went on to earn a bachelor's degree in architecture from the University of Texas at Austin and a master's in city planning from Cornell University. Hall was first attracted to Baltimore when a bus he was riding between Washington, D.C., and Ithaca, N.Y., meandered through downtown Baltimore in the early 1960s. Hall can still remember gazing out the window of the bus onto Calvert Street and being overwhelmed by the ornate architecture of Mount Vernon. "I wanted to save Baltimore," Hall says. "I totally fell in love with this place."
Hall landed in Baltimore straight from Cornell in 1967, just as city planners were receiving national notice for tearing down old buildings downtown and creating Charles Center. The prevailing school of thought among planners wrote off aging American cities as obsolete 19th-century monoliths desperate for a makeover, and there was a mounting drive to modernize the city with space-age compactness and boxy functional buildings--drywall over plaster, drop ceiling over ornate moldings. While studying at Cornell, Hall had written his thesis on urban-planning guru Jane Jacobs' battle to save New York's old Lower East Side from planning giant Robert Moses. Now Hall found himself in the middle of Baltimore's design battles.
"The city was disorder," he says, echoing the popular perception. Hall recalls there was serious talk about demolishing Mount Vernon Square to make way for taller, more functional buildings. Hall, in his own small way, began working to preserve the Baltimore he had fallen in love with.
"It was a neat job," he says. "I would have worked for free if I could've afforded it."
Hall's fingerprints are all over the patchwork that is Baltimore's neighborhoods. He has worked on city planning for Mount Vernon, Reservoir Hill, Upton, and Otterbein, among others areas. He tried to preserve Federal Hill's water view amid the recent wall of condos that now stands on the harbor's south side. He worked on the Charles Village and Midtown benefits districts projects. He designed the mini-railroad at Leakin Park and Safety City in Druid Hill Park and worked on the re-design of the Harford Road corridor, as well as several libraries and fire stations. He also re-designed Key Highway, trying to find ways to merge its use as truck access to I-95 with its more recent status as a waterfront boulevard.
"Key Highway is a little window into his personality," Hall's nephew, Daniel, says. "He designed the most unstraight street in the entire city of Baltimore."
Hall makes no claims for himself as a leader of Baltimore's preservation movement. He says he was happy to be appreciated by his boss, Planning Director Larry Reich, and kept his head down on the drawing board, content to remain a background player.
Eric Holcomb, who is a planner at the city's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation and worked with Hall for years, hasn't laid eyes on Hall's new post-retirement self, though he's heard stories. "I'm just trying wrap my mind around it," Holcomb says. "All I got was the professional planner Jim Hall."
Hall can trace the impulse to tattoo himself to architectural school, where he spotted a bulletin board featuring a Life magazine photograph of a heavily tattooed man sitting for inking. He already knew he was gay, but he came to another revelation that day in 1961: He visualized himself completely tattooed. He didn't want a series of images. He wanted one continuous tattoo, a design.
The idea of transformation, physical as well as sexual, is how Hall initially attempts to describe the sudden imprint of inner desire. "I really did stew," he says. " I fantasized. I thought about it." He laughs: "A fetish is a really strong thing."
But Hall didn't act impulsively. He kept his urges boiling for a decade while he finished at Cornell and landed his first planning job in Baltimore. He found friends and developed a sense of home in a new city where he says he felt comfortable enough to embark on the tattoo. It is perhaps a measure of the profundity of Hall's fetish that he got his very first design inked on his penis.
He wanted to start there because, as he puts it, "If I can't do it there, then why bother." Tattooing "below the belt" was highly taboo at the time, but Hall learned about the legendary underground tattooist Spider Web, who took the job.
He still remembers traveling home from Web's studio in New York state to Baltimore on the train, "warm and wounded," realizing that his life was now much more complicated. As far as Hall was concerned, he had committed to this project, and he would keep it a secret, tattooing himself where he could and getting others to cover impossible-to-reach areas.
Hall remained an affable presence in wire-rimmed glasses and a beard to his neighbors and colleagues, a man who leaned heavily on the word "neat" and rarely uttered a curse, even as the ink spread under his office attire. (He wore long-sleeve shirts even during heat waves.) But friends knew the real Hall.
"It's not the tattoo that makes him bizarre," says Stephen Varitikias, Hall's neighbor for the past decade. "It's the house, the scaffolding, the peeling paint, it's the photographs, it's the amount of the sugar he uses."
When Varitikias bought his Grindall Street home 10 years ago, other neighbors briefed him about the guy across the street, whose perennially under-renovation home had sported scaffolding for years. A civil engineer, Varitikias soon befriended Hall and was shocked to see 2 x 4s holding up the toilet of his second-floor bathroom.
"I told him one day you're going to be sitting on that toilet and you'll come crashing down," Varitikias says. "He laughed [and said], 'It's been like this for 20 years.'"
Those closest to Hall have accepted his modifications, but they haven't embraced them all. His friend Dave, who asked that his last name not be used for professional reasons, says he urged Hall to try out a temporary face tattoo before committing to real ink. "To walk down the street and have everyone look at you could be a difficult thing and could change how you relate to world," Dave says. Varitikias says he also warned Hall about the social ramification of tattooing his face, but adds that he was equally worried about the more "experimental" surgeries Hall has taken on. Varitikias recalls seeing Hall suffer when his buttock implants got infected.
"I get worried that doctors have taken advantage of him," Varitikias says, adding that he asked Hall how many times his doctor had done the testicle-implant surgery before. "He told me, 'Once.'"
Most of all, Varitikias is concerned that people will look at Hall and see only his skin. "I do really worry about him," he says. "I'm little concerned [that] what he did he can't take it back."
Hall refuses to reveal his doctor's identity and acknowledges that he has participated in "edgy procedures" that could be met with some trepidation from the medical community. "He was doing me a favor and he was pushing the limits of what he knows in his environment, and he didn't have to," Hall says. "He understood my goal--sort of enhancing pieces of my sexuality along with my tattoo--and we sort of collaborated.
"I know the risk and it's nothing I haven't been able to handle," Hall says. "It's a calculated risk, and I'm probably going to win."
There are other risks. Being tattooed head to toe, Hall lingers unnaturally in the zone of first impressions, where, in his case, fear, longing, acceptance, and disdain play out in a quick twist of the face or the dropping of the jaw. Hall looked forward to lingering in this zone until March 2008, when he says he was mugged at gunpoint by three young African-American men near the Maryland Science Center. Since then, Hall says, he has had to beat back his own racial backlash, trying not to tense up when seeing young African-American men approaching. He spent the next few months practically sequestered in his home, wondering if his new skin was a calling card for trouble. Slowly, he emerged to find not only an amazing amount of acceptance from strangers on the street, but that his unique skin opens up conversations.
On a warm November day, Hall has his trip home from an appointment at Mercy Medical Center interrupted by questions from three men sipping from Styrofoam cups in front of the Mitchell Courthouse on Calvert Street.
"That real?" asks Dante Price. "It don't come off? It's all over your body?" Without invitation, he leans over and touches Hall's exposed shins.
Hall lifts his shirt to reveal more of the tapestry.
"Good Lord," Price says. He stands and rubs Hall's face, his eyelid, and looks down at his fingers, evidently expecting to see blue blush, while Price's friend George Smith pokes inside Hall's ear. Hall howls and leans his towering frame over to ask, "Where do you think I started?"
There's laughter, until Price squints his eyes at Hall. "Blue and dark blue?" he asks. Then he just has to know if Hall had to remain erect for his tattooist to cover all. (Answer: No.) Finally, Smith asks, "Where do you go from here, as far as employment-wise?"
This produces the biggest laugh yet. "I'm retired," Hall answers. "I have a real nice pension from the city of Baltimore. I had a great job. I was a city planner."
"Oh yeah?" Price says. "Can you help us get a job. Everybody else is getting a city job, I just can't for some reason."
On the way back home, Hall chortles about how reaction lately has been so positive. "It's shocking how pleasant it's all has been," he says.
Go with Hall shopping for shaving cream, sit with him in the hospital while he waits for a blood test, watch him lie on the tattoo table, accompany him through his beloved Federal Hill, and he ignites a happening. Once, while waiting for a new license photo--a reasonable need now that he's blue--he says he stampeded half of the Glen Burnie MVA across the waiting room.
These days Hall tends to approach anyone who shows interest on the street, striking up conversations and posing for photographs. As a former city planner with a compulsion to expound upon all things Baltimore, he has a particular thing for approaching tourists clutching maps.
But while he interacts, an observer can spot those just out of his vision who turn away in disgust or detour around him. There is a sneering couple in matching sweaters on Pratt Street, a man lurking in the pasta aisle of a grocery who finally utters "spooky," although he continues to loiter. There's the woman who steps off the bus and screams, the construction workers goldfish-gaping from behind windows, their hands pressed to the glass.
Upon his return home, Hall goes over a day's reactions the way an anthropologist reviews notes after returning from the field. "Our brain is a bunch of little cubbyholes, and people look at me and their cubbyholes don't work anymore," he says. "I can't explain, but I can see it in their eyes and there's this puzzled, funky look in their faces."
Hall admits delightedly that he has no idea where he's headed, which to him is a major thrill. For most of his life, he subsisted on the thrill of his secret, from getting his first tattoo and slowly working his way outward. Now, he thrives on the thrill of his constant unveiling, which brings suspense to every day.
"This is a way of taking the tail end of my life and getting all excited instead of slowly going down hill, because our culture puts away retired people," he says. Just shy of 70, Hall's walking pace is that of a child bounding down the stairs.
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