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Photographer captures the tattoo culture

She's someone people pass on the street without stopping. She's young with old eyes, homeless, often seen sitting on a South Street sidewalk with her dog. The words tattooed across her knuckles are telling: "Lost Girl."

She's someone people pass on the street without stopping. She's young with old eyes, homeless, often seen sitting on a South Street sidewalk with her dog. The words tattooed across her knuckles are telling: "Lost Girl."

But photographer Marianne Bernstein stopped. She talked to the girl, asked her to write down what her tattoos meant to her, asked if she'd agree to have her picture taken. The image is one of the last in Bernstein's new book, Tatted.

The photo shows the girl, Reba, staring straight at the camera. The line and dots tattooed across her face don't mask the smile or the strength in her eyes. On the opposite page is a sheet torn from Reba's spiral notebook, in which she had written: "The difference between being lost & not being lost is whether you care or not."

"People are so much more interesting when you look closely," said Bernstein, 53. "How many times do you walk by somebody like that and wonder what their story is? It was a chance to connect with somebody. I took the time to talk to her, and it struck me that this woman is really interesting."

Tatted is a book about people who express themselves through their body arts. People show off their tattoos and offer handwritten explanations and descriptions.

The photos are both stark and intimate: Many of the men (and one woman) take off their shirts, often in public. The backgrounds are often white or gray walls. While some tattoos are elaborate and colorful - like those that cover the torso of the man on the book's cover - others are simple black lines, like the outline of a crucifix with the initials "HTH," one man's tribute to his late father who, he said, always believed in him.

The notes can be poignant, telling, even funny: A prostitute has the word "PIMP" on her back, but she writes that the initials stand for a "positive, intellectual, motivated person." A man explains he got an angel wing after surviving a gunshot wound to the face. A girl shows the two Chinese characters high on her inner thighs, pulling back the legs of her short shorts to do so. She wrote, "Pleasure and Sacred (don't tell mom) : )"

Bernstein, who lives in Society Hill, began noticing more and more people with ink in 2007 and wondered why. She has no tattoos, perhaps, she said, because she changes her mind so often about what to get.

"In a day and age that's so transient, tattoos are permanent. Maybe that's why they're all the rage," Bernstein said. "I think tattoos must function as a talisman in some way. A power source."

For a year Bernstein prowled a three-block stretch of South Street, asking strangers if she could photograph them and their tattoos. She approached about 100 people - and only one turned her down.

"People like being asked about their tattoos," Bernstein said. "Some of them hadn't even thought of the significance of their tattoos before."

Philadelphia has an ink-filled history. In one of Tatted's opening essays, Independence Seaport Museum curator Craig Bruns calls the city "the cradle of the American tattoo." While some may think of tattoos as a new phenomenon, Bruns notes that sailors brought the body art to the New World when Philadelphia was the new nation's largest port.

One of the earliest tattoo artists to work on land, as opposed to aboard ship, worked here, training a Philadelphian in the craft before moving on. During the World Wars, when servicemen filled the city before shipping overseas, tattoo parlors sprouted up throughout Philadelphia with modern electric equipment.

"It's alive and around us, Bruns said. "A book like this is a freeze-frame, a snapshot of an era. When it's all around you, you might not see the trends. We're going to be able to look back through this book and really be able to see what was going on."

Publishers Brian Jacobson and Nathan Purcell of GritCityInc. - both of whom sport large assortments of tattoos - knew they wanted their year-old company's second book to be on the subject.

"We spend a lot of time around tattoo shops and tattoo artists and with people who are passionate about ink," said Jacobson, whose favorite tattoo reads, "Less is More," the design axiom he lives by. "We've always felt Philly is this gritty hotbed for all things culturally significant," he said.

At an opening party earlier this month at Pure Gold Gallery at the Piazza at Schmidt's, almost 150 of Bernstein's images and accompanying handwritten descriptions were on display and for sale. Jacobson said there was something nice about seeing some of his more straitlaced family and friends from out of town mingling with the city's tattoo culture.

"They hold a common misconception that people with tattoos are different," Jacobson said. "Being there with people covered in tattoos and seeing the images on the walls, I think it surprised them to see that the only difference is these people literally put their emotions on their bodies. I hope it changed their perception of tattoos."

Sam Meola, 31, of Levittown, intimidates some people with his appearance: "I'm an exterminator, and a lot of people won't let me in." He has an arm sleeve of tattoos and countless others, including the words "Stay Down" across the knuckles of his two hands from his days as a bouncer. (Meola's photo was displayed at Pure Gold but is not in the book.)

A closer examination of Meola's tattoos reveals a fascination with, of all things, Disney World. He loves the Haunted Mansion ride and has the hitchhiking ghosts and other images from it on his body. About his tattoos, he wrote something like, "I want to go to Disney World. It's the only place that I'm happy."

When he and his friends take their annual trip there, he said, he tries not to get upset when people herd their children out of the way.

Darien "Brax" Schell, 33, appears in Tatted. Initially he resisted when Bernstein began photographing him on South Street. But she described how he began to open up with each passing minute. Eventually, he took off his shirt so she could see the "1/2" tattooed on his upper arm. It's a tribute to his identical twin brother, who has a matching fraction.

"She made me appreciate it even more because she appreciated it," said Schell, of North Philadelphia. "She's captured the essence of the Philly scene in this book."