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Etching Columbus tattoo history with Hell City founder Durb Morrison. When I was growing up, the cool kids weren’t wearing designer clothes, or scoring on a sports field. They were hanging out behind a tattoo and skateboard shop in Westerville, smoking cigarettes and telling stories. My heroes wore t-shirts and Vans. I saw a parade [...]
Jeni Ruisch



Etching Columbus tattoo history with Hell City founder Durb Morrison.

When I was growing up, the cool kids weren’t wearing designer clothes, or scoring on a sports field. They were hanging out behind a tattoo and skateboard shop in Westerville, smoking cigarettes and telling stories. My heroes wore t-shirts and Vans.

I saw a parade of people all shapes, ages, and colors come through that shop, telling their stories to tattooers as they, in turn, etched them into their skin.

I wouldn’t have known back then (but I could have guessed), that I’d go on to spend hundreds of hours in that same position, choosing designs to put on my own body that I would carry forever.

I also couldn’t have known that one day I’d be a magazine writer, or that I’d get to sit in the chair of living Columbus tattoo history.

Durb Morrison isn’t just the founder of the Hell City tattoo convention, he’s also an inventor, promoter, painter, and traveler. And with his blessing, I thought the best way to tell his story was to ask him to help me tell mine—by throwing myself under his machine at Red Tree Gallery, and asking him to add a page to the book that is my skin.

Durb doesn’t carry himself like a king—but during our session, people approach his work area like a throne—quietly, with respect and happy greetings.

He pauses to receive friends, old tattoo clients, personal assistants, a Jiu Jitsu instructor who he is going to buy nunchucks with after our interview is over. Always and effortlessly “on,” he affords each their individual audience.

“Tattooers are like therapists,” he said. “It’s an awesome part of being a tattooer. So when people are here, they divulge a lot of information to you. And you put somebody in a little bit of pain, the endorphins that get released, they get very emotional. It’s a natural thing. I’ve heard some crazy stories. At the same time that you become their therapist, you become their friend. Every day they look down [at their tattoo] and go ‘my buddy Durb did that!’ Some of the best friends I have come from tattooing.”

He says this all while pummeling me with a buzzing, ink-dipped, electric needle. It buzzes and furrows hotly across my hip, and my nostrils flare involuntarily. He pauses to speak to his assistant about emails, and like some roided-out Terry Gross, I reach determinedly for my recorder. I need to capture this in the moment.

The conversation flows easily as I ask Durb about growing up in Ohio. He was 13 when he gave and received his first tattoos after invading his mom’s sewing kit for needles. Straight edge Xs on him and his punk rock skateboard buddies, their first tattoos were a rite of passage. Like most who get tattooed, the first of many symbols carved into his skin would signal movements into new stages of his life.

Early on, it was warm memories of his grandfather’s woodworking shop where he cobbled together the first steps of his artistic path. A hardscrabble start in a broken home propelled him out onto his own, getting kicked out at 17 for tattooing a friend in his father’s house. Turns out he could make enough cash inking his pals to support himself while staying with friends as he finished school.

He shipped off to Huntington Beach, California and pressed the accelerator on his career. From there to Biloxi and back to Columbus, Morrison had led a nomadic life of study, which led to him becoming an advanced tattooer at a nearly unprecedented young age.

By 21, he’d started Stained Skin on the north side of the city. The year was 1994, and it was the sixth tattoo shop ever in Franklin County. From the very beginning, he and his crew of young, energetic artists put a new spin on inked skin.

“Nobody was seeing that type of tattooing in this town,” he said. “We weren’t the bikers, we were the young artistic kids. So, my shop at the time got known as one of the premier shops. Everybody was talking about it in interviews and articles everywhere. We [were] a bunch of young kids, tattooing our asses off, going to conventions and competitions. When my shop got recognized as a powerhouse studio, and I started getting interviews in major tattoo magazines, that was when all that hard work I had done over all those years came to a culmination, and I got recognized.”

Perhaps only someone like Durb, with a massive client list and a national reputation, would be ambitious enough to turn Columbus, Ohio into the site of one of the country’s largest tattoo conventions.

Or actually have the balls to sell the shop that helped him gain that rep. Maybe it didn’t matter; as Hell City got off the ground, Morrison’s celebrity client roster was also growing. Musicians, athletes, and X gamers all bear his permanent marks. Album art and merch design for bands passed through his tattooed and skilled hands. His celebrity began to grow as well.

The fame was good for business, sure. But did it really matter to Morrison whether he was inking a guy from Poison or a dude from Pataskala?

“Not to me,” he said. “Here’s the way I look at tattoo artists: we are the rock stars to the rock stars. You can’t be a rock star without your tattoos!”

That notoriety fed into the cyclical nature of promotion, and the convention mushroomed. Now in its 20th iteration (combined with a yearly sister event in Phoenix, Arizona), Hell City has become a year-round gig, involving full-time employees that book tattoo artists from around the world and fly them to the same city that once had only a handful of shops. Hosting bands, live paintings by 30 artists, and much more, the event draws 6,000-8,000 people over three days.

A trade show—but one with fire breathers and stilt walkers.

“We want to show people that we’re not just tattooers—we’re artists off the skin as well,” Morrison said. “We want to show people an entertaining time, whether it’s a freak show, or aerial, or burlesque. It all encompasses that alternative lifestyle. Conventions nowadays are a way for the kids to really see tattooing at its finest, take seminars, meet others in the community, and help their own career thrive.”

Ever humble in his everyday approach, Morrison takes none of his success for granted. He’s not afraid to take credit for it, either.

“Ever since Hell City started, people knew there was something special about it. The quality of the artists, the look of the show, the way it functions, the visuals, the big screens at the main stage so the audience can see the tattoos getting judged … I made tattoo conventions better. Other convention promoters saw what I was doing. I get them coming to my show just to look around and see how we’re doing things. If people copy me …. it’s flattering.”

While I try to keep my focus on simply having a conversation, the slow burn is spreading across my side, from hip to ribs. Luckily for me—and this interview—Morrison is always doing multiple things at once. He is at the height of planning for Hell City, and as the onslaught of phone calls and e-mails is abated by employees, Morrison himself never leaves the helm, delegating to his trustees from his work stool. Never for a moment do I feel his attention waver from the increasingly colorful wings of the moth on my waist.

You need that kind of focus in Durb’s world. As his roster of clients swelled, and his job descriptions multiplied, he developed a pattern of travel around the world, remaining ever studious in his craft. This year, he will travel to Malta, Greece, Paris, London, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, New Zealand, and Romania for conventions, with some stints on television along the way. (TLC’s Say Yes to the Dress is featuring Morrison and his 18-years-younger wife, international tattoo model Cervena Fox, on a future episode.)

It’s all gained him valuable perspective on the artform—one that has made a complete revolution, not only with much wider acceptance and appreciation from the world over, but from is own inner circle. His once-disapproving mom recently sat in her son’s chair to get a small piece on her wrist, no doubt a larger sign that tattooing was never just some idle punk piss-off.

“Tattooing is a universal language—been around longer than cave paintings. We were tattooing each other before we could talk. Tattoos are a human thing. It represents your level in your tribe. The imagery is [different around the world]. New Zealand, they have the moko tattoos. In Paris, you’ll see people wearing dragons. If you go to Japan, they have more of the kimono yakuza style. Different cultures have different styles of tattooing anywhere you go.”

Someone with Durb’s credentials doesn’t spend much time seeking validation—where would he even find the time?—but he’s certainly more reflective about his chosen path as he’s gotten older, now a father of a 22-year-old (himself a seek-your-own-path MMA fighter).

Tattooing is at an all-time high in popularity, which creates a potential paradox: if tattoos are cool with everyone, are they that cool anymore? Is Durb jaded at all about a new generation of young punks trying to make their literal mark on the tattoo community? With all that social capital, when you’re seeing reality shows based on tattoo shops, does he worry about that counter-culture fading?

“The TV shows and all that, it’s nothing but good. It’s created more tattooers, which sells more of my products, which brings people to Hell City, which brings more artists. It just adds to the whole art form of it,” he said. “I think before the shows, people didn’t know what the f*ck was going on in tattoo shops. Now they can see, so I think it’s good to take the veil off all that. Pull the curtain and let people see what tattooing really is. It’s allowed people that would have never gone into a tattoo shop—because they thought it was a bunch of rough biker dudes—a chance to see that it’s just creative kids. We’re not what people think we were.”

Plus the next generation, like with any artform, is injecting new creativity into the industry.

“These kids that are tattooing came out of art school,” he said. [It’s] fashion nowadays. If we have a modern renaissance, it’s tattooing.”

If this is the Tattoo Renaissance, then Durb, around here and beyond, is Michelangelo, another  with a variety of skills commissioned to make art for notable public figures of his day. He’s not just an artist, but an innovator, changing the shape of conventions and convention. He designed the first steel-tipped, disposable tattoo machine tubes, as well as memory foam grips, and a revolutionary disposable, adjustable grip with silicone rings that can morph its shape to fit the hand of the artist. They’re now sold from 60-plus supply companies around the world.

In the almost 25 years since Stained Skin, Durb’s more than made his mark on the city, and the industry as a whole. Our interaction has been relatively brief, but his art will be with me until the day I die.

Can you imagine your work having that kind of lasting impact? Could a young punk have imagined that when the same skill meant he had to find a new roof over his head as a teenager?

This is what it means to be a tattoo artist. This is the lifestyle—it’s bent spines and sharp lines. It’s hard work. It’s lifelong study. And it’s given Durb as much as he’s given it.

“To improve as a tattooer, you have to go home and do your homework. It’s going home and studying how a dragon’s claw forms—that’s your homework. And the next day when you go in [to do the tattoo], that’s class. I always say you have to spend more time at the art table than the bar. You have to block out distractions.

“And if you do that, if you dedicate your life to tattooing, it will give you so much back. It doesn’t feel like work—it’s my lifestyle. I’m not in a cubicle, I don’t have a suit and tie on. I get to listen to my music. I get to hang out with other artists. Some people would kill for that.”

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Columbus Does Good: Empowerbus helps close the employment gap

614now Staff



Aslyne Rodriguez is pitch perfect, though not necessarily in any sort of musical sense. Her passion for transportation innovation demands immediate attention in any room, and by the time she’s done making the case for bringing equity to employment through a tiny fleet of commuter buses, folks often find themselves singing the same tune.

But when she was handed the microphone at a gathering of stakeholders at Rev1 Ventures discussing the city’s ongoing efforts to increase economic inclusion, the set list suddenly changed. Instead of delivering her polished pitch on urban mobility to a capacity crowd, she was overcome by her own unlikely origin story. She reflected on her grandparents’ journey from Puerto Rico with only an elementary education, and welled up as she revealed her grandmother’s dream of opening a cake shop that never came to be. Raised near Youngstown, her parents both worked for the local school district—her mother a guidance counselor, her father a school bus mechanic. It was an early epiphany, realizing the parents of the kids who rode those same buses to school every day often struggled to get to work themselves, that would become the inspiration and driving force behind EmpowerBus.

Photos: Rebecca Tien

“That was a raw moment. Something came over me and I needed to tell that story,” confessed Rodriguez, founder of EmpowerBus. “There are communities with the desire to be entrepreneurs, but they don’t have the pathway. Not everyone can do a friends-and- family round of fundraising for their startup. I’m only one generation removed from coming here with limited education and not knowing the language.”

What started with a single 25-passenger bus that shuttled employees from the Morse Road corridor to New Albany has in two years pivoted to a more nimble 14-passenger model with routes throughout Central Ohio, including the recent addition of an autonomous shuttle service in the underserved neighborhood of Linden as part of the Smart Columbus initiative. It wasn’t a contract she pursued, but one that found her based on a reputation of earnest intentions in a community that can prove short on trust after decades of disappointment.

“We have been loved by the community in a way most companies aren’t. But we’re still very careful about how we use the term ‘social enterprise.’ People think, ‘Oh, you’re a nonprofit and you do good work.’ ‘No, we’re a for-profit business that wants to do good work,’” she explained. “In some circles of Columbus, social enterprises are still misunderstood. We want to grow our business, and take care of our people. It’s how we expand to serve more communities.”

Like most midsize cities, Columbus wasn’t created for cars, but evolved to rely on them almost exclusively. Half a century of urban flight only amplified our cultural dependency on single-occupancy vehicles. Recent years have seen an overdue disruption in transportation, from Uber and Lyft to scooters and self-driving vehicles. But depending on any of those to get to work, an internship, or a doctor’s appointment reliably is dicey at best and undeniably cost prohibitive. For those of more modest means, the transportation revolution is still leaving them behind, and the face of who is left out is changing.

“Everyday in America, 10,000 adults turn 65 years old. They all don’t need shared transportation, but they may be taking care of aging parents who do—and they could soon too, or may just want to opt out of driving,” she explained. “They call it the ‘Silver Tsunami’. But people are also moving back into cities, they want walkability and maybe don’t want to have or need a car.”

The dynamics of demographics are changing all around. A relatively recent return to city centers has actually reduced the pool of potential employees for companies with warehouses beyond suburbia. Bus routes tend to cover the hours and destinations of those heading into downtown, not out of it. It’s a gap EmpowerBus closes, often cutting travel times by municipal buses in half with fewer stops, and with routes and a scope that have both expanded to bring employees in rural Licking county closer to Columbus, as well as transport employees from the Southeast side to destinations in Delaware.

“How do we get people to a job that helps them advance their lives? Workforce is still a central conversation for us,” Rodriguez noted. “Maybe they are working a job they can walk to that pays them $10 an hour, but maybe with transportation they can get to a job that pays $17 an hour with benefits and a 401k? That’s a big deal; it changes their lives.”

Mobility means more than just transportation, and Rodriguez is the first to admit her ambitions are audacious. Recent partnerships with Spectrum and Accenture will introduce an educational component to EmpowerBus during the ride with tablets as teaching tools. Second-chance employment for those exiting incarceration combined with low unemployment create a catalyst for hiring that wouldn’t happen without access to locations that are desperate for workers, but often in areas where they are in short supply.

“Smart Columbus prompted a broader conversation about workforce transportation. A lot of companies created ‘mobility ambassadors’ to discuss opportunities they wouldn’t have considered otherwise,” she revealed. “We’re also a logistics hub with a lot of manufacturing and distribution that happens here, and the market is tight. Employers are more open now to second- chance employment than they have been in the past. But how do those potential employees get to a job that allows them to restart?”

As with any startup, the future is where the rubber hits the road. Helping prospective employers identify “opportunity zones” based on their current workforce, or simply reducing the demand and cost for employee parking, illustrate the balance of creative and comprehensive solutions the company can offer— more than just in Columbus. Invitations to expand to cities elsewhere in Ohio, as well as surrounding states, show just how far and wide word has spread about EmpowerBus, its founder, and her dream. Aslyne Rodriguez moves people.

“The next step for EmpowerBus is to fulfill everything we set out to do and see what that looks like at scale. Our goal is to deliver upward mobility for all by providing dignified, reliable, on-time transportation to work, education, and healthcare,” she explained. “Expanding into another city and just scraping by isn’t a strategy. We’re a startup that has bootstrapped it so far, and we have to decide if we’re going to go big or grow incrementally. But for now, we’re investing in our people and processes, so when the time comes to scale up, we’ll be ready.”

For more information on EmpowerBus, visit

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Former OSU player starts career as Columbus Firefighter

614now Staff



Former Buckeye and New Orleans Saints running back running back Antonio Pittman is trading the pads and helmet of the gridiron for a fire hose and a...different helmet in his new career, according to ABC6.

Having recently graduated from the Columbus Fire Academy, Pittman is now on his first week on the job at fire station 12 on the city's west side.

A native of Akron, Pittman played for Ohio State from 2004 to 2006, and was part of the number 1 ranked team that defeated number 2 Michigan 42-39 in the "Game of the Century."

Pittman was then drafted by the New Orleans Saints, but was forced to retire from the NFL following a persistent knee injury.

"My goal was just to play football and honestly, I did that. And the dream was to have a ten-year career and to retire at 32 years old and be off in the sunset and just living comfortably. But you know, plans change and in life, you have to adapt to the change," Pittman told ABC6.

"My goal was to one day give back to a community, a city that's given me so much. A city that changed my whole outlook on life as a kid growing up in Akron."

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The Rest Is History: Couples in Columbus share their stories of falling in love

Mitch Hooper



Illustration by Sarah Moore

If Hollywood would ever pick up a romantic comedy about a couple falling in love in Columbus, how would it look? Would it be an epic story ending in an intimate proposal on the Scioto Mile, or two strangers bumping into each other at the Varsity Club on game day?

Funny enough, both are very plausible.

This month, we wanted to answer the question: what do love stories in Columbus look like? And what we found is sometimes love stories don’t happen in Columbus; instead they happen because of Columbus. While some folks were high school sweethearts who rekindled the flame, others struck up conversation in countries far away just because they shared the same ZIP code. In part, where you’re from shapes who you are, and for these couples, the capital city holds a special spot in their hearts. And, as the saying goes, the rest is history.

Rachel Grauer and Aaron Guilkey

Aaron and I first met in the early 2000s at Eli Pinney Elementary in Dublin. He was my first boyfriend in fourth grade and broke my heart on AIM (AOL Instant Messenger, for the young folk). We didn’t speak a word to each other all of high school, thank you high school social hierarchy. I went on to OU and he to OSU. We reconnected after college while on a bar crawl in the Short North and the rest is history. We are getting married September 2020!

Lauren Sheridan and David Tripp

All of this is true: We met at a Clippers baseball game. It was a team outing for work. I worked with his mom and she was setting us up. This story is meant to be a complete disaster. Thankfully, it wasn’t. Our first o cial date was at 16-Bit, where we would take our engagement pictures over two years later. He lived in Arizona for 10 years before moving back to Columbus in 2016. It’s been fun reintroducing him to the city, especially our food and beer scene. I can’t imagine having these adventures with anyone else.

Misty and Erin Dickinson

We met at Rendezvous Hair Salon, where she is a hairstylist. Then we spent time together at Drauma at the Bluestone, followed by a night out for a Nina West show at Axis complete with dinner at Union and after party drinks at Macs. We were with my friends and I o ered to walk her to her car which had been towed because, well, Columbus. I stayed with her until we finally found her car at 3 a.m. We started hanging out a lot after that while we both swore we were “just friends”! Almost five years later and we are back in Columbus after a two year move to Tampa. We married (twice, but the story will be way over 100 words! Second time at LaNavona), and have a thousand Columbus stories. Columbus is our home. The place we love and always come back to. There is no place like it.

Kellie Anne and Carl Rainey

I moved to Columbus from LA in 2014 and met my now-husband a month after the move. We found out quickly that we were both California sports fans and went on our first date on Halloween. Lakers vs. Clippers was on the TV at the bar, so we made a bet and the loser had to pick up the tab. My Clippers beat his Lakers, so he had to pay up. We’ve been inseparable ever since. We got married March 23, 2019, and I’m so happy to call Columbus my forever home now!

Daniel Custer and Jenny Harris

I met Jenny on a wine cruise in Santorini, Greece. I saw her from across the pier before we boarded and knew I wanted to chat her up—she was gorgeous. She and her friends sat by me on the catamaran and we began telling one another where we were from. When it got to Jenny, she said she was from Columbus. I said, “Where?!” and she said “Grandview!” We spent the rest of the weekend together, along with the past three years.

Brittany and Ethan Monk

We met as employees at Scioto Country Club in UA. He was a broke server and I was a broke student working as a hostess. We spent many holidays away from family but with each other. We are complete opposites that were impossibly attracted to one another. We married and have 2 children. Still opposites—I work in clinical research and he is a musician and stay-at-home dad. We both have made Columbus our home!

Nicole Erdeljac and Andrew Crowell

We spent the day (separately) at the 2019 Memorial Tournament and were hanging out at the Bogey Inn afterwards. He was standing at the bar and I was behind him, waiting to be served. His friend kept accidentally hitting my shoulder while trying to reach over me to get his attention. I was visibly annoyed when he asked me to tap him. But, I did. We spent the rest of the night dancing to the live band and had our first date a week later at the Columbus Arts Fest, once again, dancing to the live sounds of Anderson East. The rest is history!

Tracie Lynn and Adam Douglas Keller

It was one month to the day after my mother had lost her battle to cancer in 2007. It was one of my favorite nights for being out in Columbus—Red, White, and Boom. After my sister’s and my friend’s group persistently encouraged us to go out for fireworks and time with friends, we agreed. We needed something light and fun. What could possibly come of that?

I’ll never forget the moment that I made eye contact with this handsome, tall and smiling man. He had happened to be out with a mutual friend of our group. We made small talk, listened to live bands, and, well—the rest is history. Nearly 13 years later, we now have two great kids, two dogs, and a rich, full life in Columbus. This is the city we met in, and the one we made a life in. I couldn’t ask for a better love story.

Rebecca Scha er and Peter Yeager

We met at Ledo’s, the first bar on our OSU senior bar crawl list. Flash forward 12 hours later at World of Beer, we bumped into each other again and he handed me a raw russet potato with his name and number written on it in Sharpie. Super weird and random but it did the trick. I called him my soul mate to his face that night. Last winter he took me around town. We stopped at both those bars, reminiscing about our time together. He asked me to be his wife in the middle of the same World of Beer where he gave me that first potato, hiding the ring in a large toy Mrs. Potato head. There’s no other way I would have liked the beginning of our story to go.

Victoria and Ryan Metzinger

I met my amazing husband in Columbus on a blind date set up by mutual friends (sounds very 1995, but it was actually 2011). He suggested a casual drink at Grandview Cafe and I upped the ante for dinner at Third & Hollywood. We continued to Spagio and ended at Grandview Cafe and the rest is history! Now, with two beautiful boys, our WiFi network will always be labeled “Third and Hollywood” as an ode to the perfect setting for a first date. We also visit the restaurant every year on our anniversary and it will never lose its luster.

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