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Devon Blood

She didn’t want to sleep alone. It was July 2006 and almost midnight, closing time at Sacred Tattoo in downtown Oakland, and 26-year old tattooist Devon Blood was working on a back piece for another artist at the shop when his cell phone rang. His girlfriend Tanya [not her real name] wanted him to sleep at her East Oakland apartment. So when the shop closed, Devon rode his bike along the quiet streets to her live/work loft on 20th Avenue. Boxes filled the apartment. It was their last week in San Francisco. On Monday, the couple planned to move to Olympia, Washington, where Devon would tattoo and Tanya would attend college. The going-away party with family and friends was scheduled for Sunday.

They were asleep when a thumping noise woke up Devon. It was almost 1 a.m. As he listened, something crashed against the building’s freight elevator doors. Feet shuffled on the concrete loading dock and voices whispered. Then another loud thump vibrated from the heavy wooden doors. Tanya sat up in bed next to him.
“What was that?” she asked.

“Robbers,” Devon said. “Somebody is breaking in.”

Thieves had recently robbed a nearby building. Rumors around the neighborhood claimed the break-in was aimed at a marijuana operation. This was probably them returning to the area to look for more. Maybe they had the wrong building. Devon and Tanya sat quietly and listened, hoping whoever was outside would pass by or give up. Suddenly, the voices were inside the building, right outside the apartment door. Devon and Tanya dressed quickly and Devon leaned against the bedroom door listening. When he heard voices inside the apartment, he turned to Tanya.

“Get out the window!” Devon yelled.
It was a long jump from the second-floor apartment, but they could drop to the awning over the first floor and climb down. Devon listened against the door as the robbers, nine in all, moved through the apartment. He turned around, expecting to see Tanya climbing out the window. Instead, she stood frozen in panic.

“The windows are barred,” she said. “We can’t get out!” Footsteps stopped in front of the bedroom. Someone on the other side turned the handle and Devon leaned his shoulder against the door, pressing with his weight. “Oh shit!” a voice on the other side yelled. “There’s people here.”

Devon was still looking back at Tanya when a loud pop rang out on the other side of the door. The bullet slammed into the back of Devon’s head, just above his right ear, severing his right eardrum. Tanya heard water running and realized it was Devon’s blood. She screamed.

His body slumped forward, and Devon crumpled to the ground. He felt something warm against his face. A pool of his own blood spread out in a ring around him, three full pints stretching nearly four feet across. The person on the other side of the door continued firing. Bullets zinged around the room. Tanya stood frozen in the corner screaming. The shooter shoved hard against the door but Devon’s body wedged against it, preventing the door from opening. An arm with a gun in its hand snaked through the opening. Fuck, Devon thought, they’re trying to finish me off. The person on the other side fired wildly. Other shooters joined in. Bullets ricocheted around the room, shattering the window and lodging in the ceiling. Police later found nearly 50 rounds in the hallway.

Devon never even saw the shooter’s face.

Devon’s mother, Linda Blood, arrives for our interview in a vintage, black two-seater Volvo. She’s a pretty 52-year-old with bright red hair and well-manicured nails. Born in the San Francisco area, Linda was a teenager during the city’s cultural revolution in the late ’60s. She hung out at concerts by Black Sabbath, the Grateful Dead, and Led Zeppelin and talks about “positive energy” like someone raised in the Haight-Ashbury district. She has nine children, seven girls and two boys. Devon, the oldest boy, was conceived in the back seat of her ex-husband’s car in the parking lot of San Quentin. “We were just feeling it, I guess,” she laughs. Linda gave Devon his first tattoo. “I told him how my girlfriends and I used to tattoo each other with a sewing needle and some India ink,” she recalls. “He wouldn’t let it go.” She finally relented and hand-poked “Devon” vertically on her son’s calf with a cross at the top and the bottom. He was still in the seventh grade. “His teachers flipped out,” she remembers.After bouncing through a series of schools and adult-education programs, Devon dropped out of high school. He started tattooing in ’99 and eventually moved to the Bay Area to work at Industrial Tattoo in Berkeley. Later, he relocated to Sacred Tattoo in Oakland. When he wasn’t tattooing, he painted and played drums in local bands at Gilman Street and other clubs. But no matter how well his life in San Francisco felt, Linda saw a black cloud. “I always knew that he would be my project,” she sighs. “I just knew something would happen.”
Linda was home in Fairfeld when she received the call that her oldest son had been shot; she was 45 minutes from Highland Hospital where Devon would be taken.

After the shooters fled the apartment, Tanya, following the instructions of a 911 operator, knelt on the side of Devon’s head, covering the bullet hole with a towel and applying pressure. A pair of ambulance drivers from nearby Freemont, in the area for a burrito, heard the call and arrived at the scene before the police. “They saved his life,” Linda explains. “They said they’d never seen that much blood.”

As the ambulance drivers unloaded Devon at the hospital, one of them told the tattooed driver of another ambulance to check out the guy they just brought in. He figured maybe the two knew each other. They did. Devon had frequently tattooed the ambulance driver. The tatted-up driver quickly put a dazed but slightly conscious Devon through a series of sensory tests. Move your right hand. Move your left hand. What year is it? Through those responses, it was determined that the bullet hadn’t left Devon paralyzed, information that would give his family hope when he later slipped into a coma. “Thank God for [those tests] or else I never could have made it through this,” Linda says. “The driver quit after that. He couldn’t handle it anymore.”

At the hospital, Linda found Devon lying on a gurney in the emergency room hallway. “He looked at me and started screaming in pain. Then he passed out,” she remembers. He wouldn’t regain consciousness for a month.

Hospital administrators, worried that the shooters would arrive at the hospital to finished off Devon, checked him in under the code name “Realism 31.” After a CT scan and an x-ray, doctors determined that Devon’s brain was swelling to a dangerous size. Normally, surgeons drill a hole in the back of the skull to relieve the pressure. But the bullet lodged in the back of Devon’s skull was dangerously close to his brain stem, the part of the brain that controls involuntary actions such as breathing and heart beating. Drilling would kill him. Instead, surgeons sawed off part of Devon’s skullcap and sewed it inside his stomach to preserve it. Then they gave him medication to keep him in a coma while his brain healed.

While Devon was healing, Linda focused on keeping the energy in the room upbeat and positive. When an assistant to a neurosurgeon, convinced that Devon would never survive the coma, asked the room of family and friends if the tattooer had a living will, Linda flipped. “I lost it,” she remembers, still visibly angry. “I dragged her out of the room and told her, ‘No negativity in this room. He will make it. He’ll be fine.’”

Linda brought a boom box to the hospital and blasted Metallica (“Enter Sandman,” she laughs.). Friends filled the room, often posing Devon’s hand in devil-horns across his chest. As a tribute to the diamond tattoo below Devon’s eye, friends and family—including all eight siblings and Linda—had diamonds tattooed somewhere on their bodies.

After 21 days, the swelling in his brain stopped, and doctors began backing Devon out of his coma in five-minute increments then testing his responses. Thumbs up. Thumbs down. Everything seemed okay. But Linda noticed something unusual. It seemed her right-handed son was now left-handed.

It had been nearly a month since Devon had been shot. During that time, his family and friends sacrificed their own lives to be at the hospital. Linda was even forced to close her successful salon to be with her son. “The impact on this family has been tremendous,” she says. “That fucking bullet hit everybody.”

“Right before I woke up out of the coma I was hearing the song from The Wizard of Oz,” Devon grins, showing off two gold-capped teeth. “It’s the one before Dorothy wakes up. ‘You’re out of the woods/You’re out of the dark/You’re out of the night/Step into the sun/Step into the light.’ I opened my eyes and I was surrounded by friends and family, just like the movie.”

It’s easy to like Devon. He laughs a lot, often at himself, and talks passionately about things he cares about such as tattooing, art, and the city of San Francisco. The walls of his apartment in the Mission District are covered with a mix of his paintings from before and after the shooting along with tokens of his recovery such as a bass guitar signed by the members of Green Day and a series of Real Skateboards decks designed by Devon and sold with proceeds going toward his medical expenses. A drum set sits in the corner. He walks with a slight shuffle and twitches his fingers as he talks.

After coming out of the coma, Devon moved to a rehab facility where he relearned simple motor skills, including walking, talking, brushing his teething, and throwing a ball. Micro-tremors racked his right hand, so he started using his stronger left hand for writing and drawing. He laughs about his early drawings of stick-figure people and houses, “They looked like crap. They were so bad.” “I had to wear a hockey helmet because half of my skull was in my stomach,” Devon says about his days in rehab. “They told me I wouldn’t be able to walk out of rehab. … I was pushing a walker. I really looked like an old man. I had the helmet on, I was covered in tattoos, pushing a walker, and wearing a helmet. Plus, I’m anti-social. It was bad.”

Two months later, Devon was released. He moved to Petaluma and spent most days at outpatient rehab. He suffered seizures, causing the city to take away his driving license (“It sucks because I had a handicapped placard. It was fantastic.”). Later, he had nightmares about the shooters finding him to finish the job. Security-camera footage from the night of the shooting shows nine teenagers breaking in through the building’s freight elevator doors, but no one has ever been arrested. “The nightmares passed,” he explains. “I knew there was no way. They never saw me and I never saw them.”

In January 2007, doctors reattached his skull. Because of the damage to his eardrum, Devon has no equilibrium. He can no longer skateboard and has to ride a three-wheeled bike (which he laughingly calls his “tricycle”), and even then he must wear a helmet. He had one failed attempt at swimming. “When I think about it, it feels like I could do it,” he says, sounding amazed that the movements he visualizes don’t materialize. “I just sank.”

Eight months after the shooting, Tanya moved to Olympia without him (they later broke up). “I did my first painting in March when she moved,” Devon says. “The shooting definitely influenced my art. I did a painting called ‘True Colors.’ It’s a girl’s head with half of its face ripped off and a devil horn sticking out. There’s another that I did of a girl with half of her face ripped off that says ‘Now you’re just a memory. Another one of my boring stories.’”
Many of his paintings feature the words “Left Hand Path,” a reference to Devon’s switch to being left-handed. Others are dated “200B,” a solution Devon came up with since he has trouble drawing eights. He didn’t try tattooing. “The most frustrating part was knowing that the people who visited me were going to back to work to tattoo because that’s really what I wanted to do,” Devon says. “I loved it. I never knew if I would tattoo again.”

One month later, he did tattoo. It was Friday the 13th, his mother’s birthday, and Devon volunteered to tattoo Felix the Cat on Linda’s ankle. It’s shaky at spots but looks more like an apprentice’s first tattoo than the work of someone who has been shot and nearly killed. Even so, it still wasn’t good enough for Devon. “Look at the pupils, man,” Devon laughs. “That thing is fucked.”

It’s a warm Saturday night in downtown Oakland, and customers line the counter at Sacred Tattoo. Tattooers work on clients at every station and the buzzing can be heard through the open door and out into the street. Devon shuffles up the sidewalk, leaning on a gold cane with a glass handle. As he moves through the door and into Sacred Tattoo, everyone greets him.
“Hey Devon,” says James Oey, one of the owners. “I was just telling somebody about the time we pulled the fire alarm at the hotel in Philly. Remember that?”

Devon laughs loudly, and the two joke about tattoo convention pranks until Oey prods Devon to show off the tattoo he did on Devon’s leg. Devon grins as he pulls up his pant leg. The bright tattoo is Beavis from Beavis & Butt-Head dressed as a geisha girl. It’s fantastic. They both bust up laughing. An apprentice sets up Devon’s station while he shows off the case of lefthanded tattoo machines given to him by an old mentor. It’s been nearly a year since that first Felix the Cat tattoo and Devon is back to work at Sacred Tattoo, confident that his skills are back to where they were before the shooting. “Everyone at Sacred has always been really welcoming,” he says. “They let me know I could come back whenever I wanted.”

His appointment arrives and Devon lays out the stencil on the customer’s forearm. It’s a portrait of a pirate girl Devon drew before the shooting. A panel of flash hangs framed above his head with the name “D. Blood” signed in the corner. Devon feathers his pedal a bit with his foot and adjusts the cord to his left-handed machine. He loads up with black ink, leans in, and starts tattooing the first black arching line. His two gold-capped teeth glint in his grin. His gold cane leans against the counter behind him.

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