We opened the floodgates as we walked into The Tattoo Gallery on Sunday, December 8, looking for Hek. Once they saw the door was unlocked, a gaggle of supporters for the controversial "Thank A Veteran For Your Freedom" sign at Johnny's Saloon streamed in behind us.
The partnership between Johnny's Saloon and tattoo artist Hek has always been an important one, but especially on Sunday. Hek first met saloon owner Johnny Kresimir back in 2003. Kresimir was looking for tattoo "flash" to feature in the bar and contacted Hek. The two have been cross-promoting each other's events ever since.
On Sunday, Hek donated his time and inking skills to commemorate Johnny’s patriotic sign on 14 lucky people. Some were veterans; some were friends and family of veterans. The brilliant idea all began with Brenden Kenney, a bartender at the saloon. "I got this on Tuesday [December 3]," said Kenney of his tattoo. "I came up with this a day after we got the notice for the sign. I said, 'Screw it. I'm gonna get it tattooed on me in case it goes away.' Hek is a big-time patron of Johnny's, so I figured it would only be fitting to have him tattoo it."
When Kresimir saw Kenney's tattoo, he asked Hek if he would be willing to do the same tattoo for free to whomever was interested. According to Kenney, he and Hek worked out a simplified version of the design that could be executed multiple times in one day.
"You give and you get regardless, so it's just good to put that out there," said Hek of offering his work free of charge. "I'm a firm believer in karma, so you do nice stuff for people and it comes back to you." He added, "Plus it's fun. I mean, people wanting to get this tattoo, it's kind of cool. It says a lot about Johnny himself. People are so down that they would get this tattooed for [the bar]."
Whether those who gathered that day were devoted bar patrons, vets or vet supporters, one thing was clear: They were committed to spreading the positive message for life.
Erin Ramas of Santa Ana came with her daughter. Both were getting tattooed, and the sign was to be her daughter's second tattoo. "I figured what's better to show your appreciation than to go and have something for the vets tattooed, something that you can show for life," Ramas said. She posted on Facebook that she was "getting inked for a good cause" and didn't go into detail prior to making it official. The pair arrived at 10:30 a.m. to beat the crowds.
Kenney said of the tattoo's popularity, "It's crazy how many people were wanting it, even people who don't live in California." He noted that those out of state posted on Facebook, saying they wanted to have their local artist do a matching tattoo for them.
Steve Baker is a HB local who has been a patron of Johnny's for about a year. "It was not a question, it was like, 'When and where?'" Baker said. "It's not about the pricing, it's about what it means." According to Baker, as soon as the tattoos were offered, he didn't need to think twice. His cousin also got the tattoo that day.
Baker added that the message spreads even further when people get the tattoo. Anyone who gets it and is asked about it can tell the story and say it all started with Johnny's.
Inspired? You can get your own "Thank A Veteran" tattoo (or anything else your heart desires) at The Tattoo Gallery.