2005 East Carson St., South Side
412-481-3380 or inthebloodtattoo.com
When you're a tattoo artist, helping customers find just the right tattoo comes with the territory. So it's no surprise that on a late-autumn afternoon, Justin Palencsar is pondering an e-mail from a woman who had been thinking of getting a couple of stars.
"But she's been praying about it," Palencsar says, "and now she thinks she should get two birds facing each other."
In many studios, moral quandaries rarely extend much beyond "How do I get this loser's name off my shoulder?" But the stakes are often higher at In the Blood. It was chosen by City Paper readers as the city's best. And it's closely affiliated with the Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community, a non-traditional South Side church.
Palencsar, 31, grew up Catholic outside Johnstown, where he underwent his tattooing apprenticeship. He came to Pittsburgh for a girl: It didn't work out because, she told him, "All your life is God, tattoos, dirt bikes and rock 'n' roll." But he's since married, and he opened up In the Blood around 2005. The store is on the site of the former South Side Body Bazaar, where Palencsar had worked.
"I felt in my heart that God was talking to me about running a tattoo studio," he says. "We wanted to be a community, a place that would break down the barriers of a typical studio."
In the Blood hosts three tattoo artists, including Palencsar, and a piercer. The base price for a simple tattoo is $50; more elaborate designs will run you $100 an hour. And while the phrase "wholesome tattoo studio" may not trip off the tongue, it applies here: The space is decorated with vintage monster-movie posters and Christian iconography. Palencsar's baptismal certificate is proudly displayed on the wall of his work area -- not far from his motocross trophies. The studio's basement houses a weekly Bible-study group.
Palencsar's own tattoos are a form of ministry, bearing witness to his spiritual rebirth at age 21. There's a cross tattooed on his Adam's apple, and on the back of his palms is a verse from 1 Philippians: "To live is Christ, to die is gain." His right forearm features a scaly claw reaching from a lake of fire, trying to drag down an angel: His left features another angel, bearing aloft the Virgin Mary.
Sound preachy? It's not, really. Employees stress they aren't out to convert anyone, and plenty of their designs feature straightforward motifs of animals and other topics. So if you just want to come in and get a tattoo of a skull, that's OK too. It doesn't even have to represent your soul before you found Christ. "We do more things like stars and skulls than religious stuff," says Palencsar.
"We're not setting out to feel better than anyone; everyone's welcome here," says Melissa Levantry, who works the desk (and whose fingers sport the seemingly secular message "Rock out!") "People who get tattooed here come from all walks of life."
Still, there are some designs you'd be better off taking elsewhere. "I won't do anything straight-up demonic," says Palencsar. While he'll tattoo a pin-up style rendering of a woman, "when it's outright lustful, I try to step away from that."
Despite having ties to local churches -- the floor tiles were donated by a congregation in Tarentum, for example -- In the Blood has drawn criticism from some conservative Christians. Some leave Bible tracts in the mailbox. Others cite Leviticus 19:28 -- "Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you."
Palencsar counters, jokingly, with Revelation 19:16, which describes Jesus having "on his thigh a name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS."
"When Jesus comes back," Palencsar says with a wry smile, "he's coming with a tattoo."