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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

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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 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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The Interview: Wil Haygood

Author / Journalist / Curator Everyone loves an underdog. And in our interview, celebrated Columbus author Wil Haygood referenced many feel-good sports stories woven into the fabric of American culture. From Remember the Titans, to Hoosiers and Friday Night Lights, he maintains that the feat accomplished at East High during the 1968-69 school year, in [...]
Kevin J. Elliott

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Author / Journalist / Curator

Everyone loves an underdog. And in our interview, celebrated Columbus author Wil Haygood referenced many feel-good sports stories woven into the fabric of American culture. From Remember the Titans, to Hoosiers and Friday Night Lights, he maintains that the feat accomplished at East High during the 1968-69 school year, in which the Tigers won championships in basketball and baseball 55 days apart, eclipses them all.

“I would never like to be called an activist,” says Wil Haygood when asked if he might consider himself such. “That’s not my game. I’m here just to find a good story. It’s my calling to be objective. I could never just tell one side of the story.”

Yet, in reading his latest book, Tigerland, and immersing the reader in the strife East High faced in the wake of the assassinations of MLK and RFK, the “feel-good” triumph of two championships takes on a higher purpose. There’s so much more to the story. It’s the tale of a segregated city getting its first African-American principal in Jack Gibbs. Of the white basketball coach Bob Hart, choosing to settle in an East side neighborhood he was warned against. The players, and mothers of players, who persevered in the newly developed housing projects despite overwhelming odds. Haygood may not want the title activist, but Tigerland could easily serve as guide in how to counter civil unrest, especially now, fifty years removed.

That objective journalism is becoming more of a rarity is troubling. Haygood’s storytelling is a resistance, and in Tigerland it’s a redemption story brought “from the shadows” that is uniquely complex and distinctly of Columbus. He insists there are many more stories of Tigerland’s ilk which must be exposed. The uncovering of a zeitgeist forgotten is a theme consistent with Haygood’s recent curation of the Harlem Renaissance exhibit at the Columbus Museum of Art. In I, Too, Sing America (also an award-winning art book), he chose to spotlight lesser-known writers and artists of the era that continue to play “an enduring role in moving us forward.” How that dais influenced the cultural rise of African-Americans in the Mt. Vernon neighborhood where the sub-plots in Tigerland play out, is palpable in Haygood’s words.

In talking with Haygood, he’s acutely aware of how Tigerland’s legacy and the continued re-awakening of the Harlem Renaissance add to the social discourse that accumulates to this day. Our interview here is abridged, if only because we spent a taut 45 minutes veering down rabbit holes created by the vivid representation Haygood paints of Columbus, Ohio in 1968. Fortunately, it’s a conversation that has and could last for generations.

In an interview you talked about Tigerland not being the story “you were born to write, but a story that the rest of the world needed to hear.” Why is this now such an important story?

Wil Haygood: When I traveled around the country, to about 25 different cities talking about this book, people constantly asked me if the release of Tigerland was intentional given how timely the story was. It just happened that it was the 50th anniversary of the famous Olympic protests by Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the Colin Kaepernick narrative was playing out, the President of the United States was attacking black athletes for their social activism—these were the things on the mind of so many people on this tour. Of course, I didn’t time it, but this story is just so topical, it’s so rich with drama, it just calls for very enlightening conversations with the people I met across the country.

I love it for the locality, and learning about a Columbus I never knew existed. So I’m curious to know if the heroes in this book, Bob Hart (East’s white football coach), Jack Gibbs (East’s first black principal), and the Tiger athletes, have always been heroes in your eyes, especially growing up? Did Columbus, en masse, know the history being made on the East side of town? 

WH: The city was so segregated that it was hard to give the East side its proper due. A figure like Jack Gibbs—he’s someone who you can almost make a movie about his life. It took so much perseverance and so much focus for the student body of East High to do what they did in that 1968-69 calendar year that I thank the literary gods for the foresight to return to my hometown and pull this story together. Frankly I kept waiting for this to be written by someone else, given the amount of high school sports stories that are on the shelf. I’m not trying to rate this story against any of the others, but I do think that it’s a book with a sports theme. It’s also a book that’s about far more than sports.

Was this your favorite book to write?

WH: That’s a tough question, but here’s how I’ll answer. As a little boy, I lived in the North side of the city. When I lived there East High was a mythical place and I had never laid eyes on that school. But I knew about it because it seemed to be this spiritual epicenter of the East side. It was where you had a lot of black teachers, an all-black student body. Your uncles, aunts, and cousins would always be talking about East High School. It constantly grew in my little boy mind. I lived within walking distance of the Ohio State Fairgrounds, so I would always beg my mother to let me go watch the team play. You had to be there. It was a lot wrapped up inside of me as I approached this book, because in a real way I was writing about my heroes. I’m sure that my history and emotions played a part in me wanting to do this book.
What memories do you have of Columbus during that time, that reminds you that no place was isolated from the racial and social unrest of the events of that era?

WH: In the summer of 1968, the very summer of after Martin Luther King’s assassination, my mother moved her five children to the Bolivar Arms housing project. Within weeks of moving there, there were riots on Mt. Vernon [Avenue]. I, as a 13 year old boy, saw National Guard tanks right through my screen door. It was a very frightening summer for me to wrapped up in that racial turmoil. I did not know that urban unrest on the North side of town. That street was integrated, our neighbors were white. Then I was thrust into this community on the East side that was feeling pain—the pain of a lack of good housing, a lack of jobs. The whole environment of urban America was set right outside of my front door.

How much do you think Columbus has progressed since the time of Tigerland in accepting inclusion and fostering growth in underprivileged neighborhoods like the East side?

WH: There has been a lot of maturity and growth in this city. I’m very proud of a lot of things that have happened. There is no big city in this country right now that doesn’t have social problems, but I think Columbus has done a much better job than some cities certainly in creating a peaceful dialogue over the years. I think that there have been stories that haven’t been championed as much as they should have. There is a gap in what the young people of Columbus know about the city’s past. Another fact from the book is that during that school year in 1969, East High sent more kids to college than they ever had before. Those are stories people need to know.

As a teacher of many students who come from broken homes and neighborhoods, I’d love to know what advice you give to young people?

WH: Since the release of the book I’ve spoken to Somali students in St. Paul, Minnesota, to white students in rural Maryland, black students in Dayton, Ohio. I tell students that on their darkest day, on that day when they feel like the world is not loving them enough, that they need only to take inspiration from these East High Tiger athletes. Eight of the twelve basketball players’ mothers worked as maids, many of them did not have fathers living in the home, two of them had fathers in jail, and none of them were born with a silver spoon in their mouth. But what pushed them and helped them succeed was a championship attitude before they dribbled a basketball or swung a baseball bat. They knew they wanted to be successful. They can lean into this story and they can rise up. Sports is a very gentle way to open the door to talk about poverty, racism, and sexism. You want to hear about how the winners won and how the losers dealt with losing.

Wil Haygood will be the first featured speaker of the Columbus Metropolitan Library’s Carnegie Author series on Jan. 27th. Register for free at Eventbrite.com.

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Remembering Chris Bradley

What will be the job of a meteorologist in heaven? I’m not sure if I think of heaven as a place of eternally ideal weather, but I do think of it as a place of purpose. There’s a job for everyone in heaven. When I first met Chris Bradley, I didn’t know who he was. [...]
Laura Dachenbach

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What will be the job of a meteorologist in heaven?

I’m not sure if I think of heaven as a place of eternally ideal weather, but I do think of it as a place of purpose. There’s a job for everyone in heaven.

When I first met Chris Bradley, I didn’t know who he was. I was new to King Avenue United Methodist Church, and Chris was just a nice guy corralling his young son in the milling area, which was full of other people I didn’t know. He was the dad that everyone wanted, standing with a watchful and proud eye and who was always ready for a hug and kiss. Such a stunning smile, I thought. Almost like a trademark. He was the friend everyone wanted to be with, adding a buoyancy, an accessibility, a welcomeness to the conversation. Sharp ties. This guy’s got some sharp ties. The more I observed, the more I wondered. Somehow, he seemed like someone I knew, or should know. One day, I decided to engage Chris in the only awkward conversation I knew him to have.

“So what do you do?”

“The weather on Channel 10.”

The dots started to connect. My face became warm. I started wearing hats and sunglasses and avoiding Chris for a couple weeks, hoping he’d forget me. But that wasn’t possible with the gregarious Bradley-Krausses, and eventually I grew to know and adore this charming and very musical bunch: Chris (who was an adopted child) his husband Jason, and their two adopted children Spencer and Maria—four people connected not by blood, but by their love for each other. The Bradley-Krausses became activists simply by being a family and living out their love for each other and their community with endearing authenticity, creating bonds that have extended beyond the loss of a family member.

In their dying, some people give the rest of us life because they illuminate what life should be about. Chris Bradley’s death from an aggressive form of acute myeloid leukemia was one of those moments. We can sometimes strangely forget the worthiness of our own lives—the reality that life is indeed more than existence and schedules and tasks. Chris fought for his life because he knew life was worth living. And we should also fight every day for this rare and precious privilege to be alive: to understand all that we can, say all that we can, and be all that we can for however long we are called to do so. Life itself is a terminal illness, and once in a while we are granted a remission from that affliction in being allowed to witness a soul such as Chris love life so much that we cannot help but fall in love with it again.

Weather is defined as an “act of God” because it is completely out of our control. Death is also out of our control. Both tend to depress people. I imagine the great faith in God Chris maintained throughout his life and illness is why he could confront both these inevitabilities with awe, never letting either of them overwhelm him, make him become bitter, or lessen his spirit.

Weather is what makes our planet alive. Chris is now a part of the rain that will nourish the beloved gardens around his home. He is part of the sunshine that will smile on his husband and children. He’ll be in the iridescence of every rainbow we post on Instagram and part of the joy of every Columbus kid’s snow day. Each time we marvel at the mercurial, if not downright wacky amalgamation of temperature and precipitation that is Columbus weather, we will remember our Chris Bradley.

Welcome to the incredible green screen of heaven Chris. You’ve still got a job, we’re still watching, and I have my derecho plan. Thanks for that.

Donations in the memory of Chris Bradley can be made to The Columbus Foundation. Visit columbusfoundation.org/fund/bradley/3730.

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A League For All

It’s draft day for your fantasy football league. As of now, everyone in the room is friends as they share insider tips, sleeper picks, and the laundry list of avoidable athletes. But in a few moments, the friendships joined by football end, and those faces in the room now become your week-to-week enemy. If this [...]
Mitch Hooper

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It’s draft day for your fantasy football league. As of now, everyone in the room is friends as they share insider tips, sleeper picks, and the laundry list of avoidable athletes. But in a few moments, the friendships joined by football end, and those faces in the room now become your week-to-week enemy.

If this sounds ridiculous, it’s because it is. After all, it’s fantasy football. But anyone who plays in a fantasy league knows one thing: winning is everything and a year of bragging rights over your closest colleagues is a feeling comparable to very little.

With the highest highs of winning comes the lowest of lows of losing. It doesn’t matter if you have crafted the perfect squad from top to bottom—injuries occur, athletes are traded, and expectations for your sleeper picks were just a little too high. Thus, your league dues are simply put into the pocket of your frenemies, or worse, the random people you met online when you joined that Yahoo league at the last second.

“The traditional way of just giving isn’t really a lot of fun … You make the gift and then it’s over with…By gamifying giving, what you’re leveraging really is the experience of feeling good about giving to a cause, but having fun while you’re doing it.”

This situation happens all too often in the fantasy sports world. The week-to-week challenges offered on FanDuel are often saturated with fantasy pros who make a living off competing against the common sports fan, and the long-term season ends with only one true winner, so your odds of coming home with the cash are slim. However, DraftMates, a fantasy sports app dedicated to raising funds for 501(c)(3) charities, is a chance for the casual fan to delve into the fun of winning, bragging rights, and trash talking—arguably the best parts of fantasy sports—while also giving back to the charity of your choice.

Created by Matt Golis, a Miami (OH) graduate and a Columbus-native, DraftMates was a dream that started in the Bay Area and made its way to Columbus. With the San Francisco traffic, the cost of living, and the struggle to build a team to design this application, Golis said he started to toss around the idea of moving back home.

“It was really difficult to hire a team with that type of a model,” Golis said. “[There] just aren’t the rabid sports fans like there are in
Columbus in the Bay Area.”

Fast forward roughly five months and now it’s Golis, a team of six members, and an office in New Albany.

By creating your league through DraftMates, each league member will pay the traditional dues to the commissioner, but instead of that money going into a pot for a winner-takes-all style competition, each member picks a charity to represent their team. If your team wins the league or in a weekly face-off, 85% of the profits will go towards that charity. The other 15% is spread across DraftMates for operations, and you know, keeping the lights on.

The idea, Golis explained, is something akin to a “gamified GoFundMe.” While fundraising services like GoFundMe as well as Facebook’s donations feature offer a chance for people to donate money to essentially anything—medical bills, a new car, your Aunt Suzie just needs a vacation and can’t afford it—DraftMates takes a different approach that allows the user to feel like they are getting an experience out of their donation.

“The traditional way of just giving isn’t really a lot of fun,” Golis said. “It’s kind of like you put your credit card information in online and you just say ‘donate now.’ You make the gift and then it’s over with…By gamifying giving, what you’re leveraging really is the experience of feeling good about giving to a cause, but having fun while you’re doing it.”

By doing this, it accomplishes two different things. First, if you are winning, you get the pleasure of knowing you are the champion and the charity of your choice will benefit from it. On the other hand (and this is what fantasy sites like FanDuel can’t offer), if you lose, your money is still going towards a good cause and not your buddy’s drinking money.

And the FanDuel experience is actually what Golis is trying to stay away from. DraftMates is for the casual sports fan, and even if you aren’t an avid sports watcher, the app offers an auto-draft and auto-pick feature that will take all the stress out of it for you. The idea here is not to cultivate a community of charity gambling, rather, a chance for people to have fun doing what they were already doing, while also giving back.

While as of now DraftMates offers fantasy leagues for the NFL and NBA, Golis said they are working on rolling out options throughout 2019 for many different sports varying from March Madness with college basketball to the PGA. Who knows? Your next office March Madness bracket could be held through DraftMates where each buy-in benefits the charity your office selects. At the end of the quarter, inning, or day, the participants have fun competing, the charity is able to raise funds for the things it needs, and everyone gets to be a winner.

DraftMates is available on Google Play or the App Store.

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