By Yvonne Zusel
See more shots in our Guinness World Record slide show.
It’s 2:40 on Saturday morning and while most people’s nights are winding down, Hollis Cantrell’s has just begun. He’s bent over a man’s calf with his tattoo needle moving carefully but efficiently, first drawing an “A,” then a “Z.”
It’s the 521st time Cantrell has given this "AZ" tattoo since noon, and while he could probably do it, as the cliché goes, in his sleep, there’s no time for any of that. He’s still 205 tattoos away from becoming a world record holder. But Cantrell doesn’t just want to break the record for the number of tattoos given in a 24-hour period. He wants to blow it wide open.
“I want them to look in the Guinness Book at my record and the next fucking douchebag who wants to try this fucking cringes,” said Cantrell, the manager of Artistic Tattoo in Phoenix.
Breaking the record has been on Cantrell’s mind since last summer, when celebrity tattoo artist Kat Von D took the record with 400. Her ex-husband Oliver Peck broke her record shortly there after in June with 415 and that pissed Cantrell off.
“Kat Von D is already a star, she already has her own show,” he said. “Why does she have to take everything? I want to jump in the middle of their little feud. I’m going to take one back for the little guy.”
So Cantrell contacted Guinness and began looking at their strict guidelines for setting the record: The tattoos must be 1.25 x 3 inches, have a minimum of two colors, and every tattoo must be recorded for Guinness Book eligibility. Cantrell settled on the AZ tattoo, which he knew he could do quickly and was also a symbol that would appeal to most of his regular customers.
In the meantime, a tattoo artist in Tyler, Texas broke Peck’s record on Oct. 25 with 726. It changed the game slightly for Cantrell, but it didn’t faze him. He secured sponsorship from Superior Tattoo Supplies and put out the word through his network of clients, family members and longtime friends that he was looking for people willing to donate their skin to the cause. For $20, participants would get the tattoo, 50 percent off additional tattoos in 2009 and the chance to make history. A portion of the proceeds would also be donated to local non-profits.
Cantrell’s kids started pulling old Guinness Books off the shelf and looking through them.
“Next year, you’ll be in it,” they told him.
No pressure or anything.
By Friday, Cantrell is excited and ready to go. Though he has commitments from his tight-knit group though he’s still a little worried about getting extra bodies in the door, especially from 2 a.m. to 5 p.m. when temperatures—and energy levels—drop.
At 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, Artistic Tattoo is buzzing with activity. Video cameras set up the night before to capture Cantrell’s every shift of the needle are turned on. Cantrell’s co-workers—many of them his friends for years and all of whom are planning on staying awake and on hand for the entire 24 hours—are rushing around, making sure everything is in place. Paramedics, who will be on standby the whole time, find their places. The tables and chairs where participants will sit or lay while they get inked are wiped down one more time, plates with premeasured vials of ink and water are being prepared, and everybody’s put their names into the "pass out pool" Whoever guesses closest to the number of people who pass out wins $150.
There are only a few people waiting in line, but Cantrell’s friend Tom Griffith, who goes by Stitch, has committed to getting 20-plus “AZs” tattooed on his legs, which should buy Cantrell some time while the line builds.
“We’re gonna take this fucking record,” Cantrell shouts as he tattoos. “Hey everybody, call everyone you know! And try to get multiples! We’re makin’ history!”
Martin Ledezma is waiting in line with his ass hanging over his boxer shorts, an AZ stenciled on each cheek. He is here to support his friend and be part of something unique.
“I like to stand out,” he says.
At 1:38, Cantrell has done 61 tattoos and says he’s feeling good. He’s still worried about getting people to come out.
“I just want to make sure I have enough fucking bodies,” he says.
The line grows steadily, and it’s notable for its diversity. There are the expected just-turned-18-year-olds, but there are also women who look old enough to be grandmothers and people of all body types and skin colors. Some, including Cantrell’s high school friend Chris Fuller, are getting their first tattoos today.
Vicki Sherwood is waiting in line with her fiancé, her son and her son’s two friends.
“We decided we were going to do it together,” she said.
As the time passes, Cantrell becomes more focused but still jokes around.
“All I want out of this whole fucking experience is to tattoo a midget, so somebody tell a midget to get out here,” he says. The shop busts into laughter.
The count is 198 at 5:40 p.m. After almost six hours of tattooing, Cantrell is 20 minutes away from taking his first break. And nobody has passed out...yet.
Michael Loudermilk, whose wife, Mary, has already gotten AZs all down her leg, is getting his own legs stenciled with the letters.
“It’s nice because my daughter’s name is Arianna and my son’s name is Zach, so it has a double meaning,” he says.
At 6 p.m., Cantrell takes a 15 minute break. He opens and closes his hands a few times to get them out of their cramped position. His wife comes over to rub his back. He eats a peanut butter granola bar and is ready to go again. Six more hours will pass before he takes his next break.
A little after midnight, somebody passes out after getting a tattoo on his neck. The woman next to him gets woozy and passes out for a moment, and the Pass Out Pool number stands at two.
At 2:10 a.m., Cantrell has given 508 tattoos. Joseph Villarreal waits for his turn. He came by after hearing about the Cantrell’s quest at a party.
“I just heard about it today. As soon as I heard it was an AZ tattoo I said, ‘I’m there,’” he says. “I have to represent. And hopefully he’ll set the record.”
At the rate he is going, most people in the shop agree Cantrell will do just that by 8 a.m.
The line starts dwindling around 4, which is when the reserves step in. Adolph Bohn waited until it got slow to have Cantrell tattoo 74 "AZs" on his back, which took an hour and 15 minutes.
“It tickled a little,” he admits.
At 7:30, volunteers stand outside with signs advertising free tattoos. The $20 price has been dropped. Now, Cantrell just wants to break the damn record.
The count is 693 at 7:45. At 8:02, he is 25 away from tying the record. At 8:57 a.m., Cantrell raises his arms in the air as everyone in the shop finds their fourth or fifth winds and clap and cheer. Cantrell has done 727 tattoos, breaking the record with 3 and a half hours to spare.
“Did we beat Kat Von D and Oliver Peck?” he asks. “That’s all I care about.”
He also cares somewhat about his threat to make other comers to the title of Fastest Tattoo Artist in the World cringe when they see his number. So he keeps going. Every muscle is his back is in pain, and he compares his hand to a lobster claw.
“Hollis, you’re a fucking genius!” someone in the crowd gathered around the tattoo tables yells. “Man, you’re getting laid tonight!”
Cantrell tattoos steadily for the next couple of hours. At 11:30, he strips down to his boxer shorts and performs tattoo 801—his last—on his own thigh to the cheers of his friends. He has decided to stop about 25 minutes early, with a few people still waiting in line, who he promises he will get to on another day. Right now, all this record breaker wants to do is sleep.
He says if you took a hammer to his hands right now, he would not feel it. He likens the way he feels to being on speed. He tears up when asked what kept him going when he felt like he wanted to stop: his daughters. He did it for them and the 30 plus people in the store who stayed up with him through the night, many of whom he’s known for 16 years. Not to mention the slew of people who came by to support him by getting tattoos.
So would he do it all again if someone comes along in the next few months and breaks his new record?
“Yeah, why not?” Cantrell answers. He has a grin on his tired face, and you can see him already start to think about it.