FORT WORTH, Texas — As the needle dug into the skin of her abdomen recently, Miss Dixie fixed her attention on a spot on Tigermoon Tattoo's purple ceiling.
The 62-year-old Irving, Texas, homemaker, who prefers Miss Dixie to her legal name of Shirley Hammond, is a survivor of two cancers and suffers from depression.
She got her first ink as a 47-year-old grandmother and is now almost covered in tattoos from neck to ankle. The tattoos are the perfect therapy for a woman with tough skin but a sensitive soul.
"I tried antidepressants, but they put me in la-la land," she said. "This keeps me happy and alive. It's a release."
Her husband of 32 years, Darrell Hammond, a straight-laced health inspector for the city of Irving, has been supportive of his wife's transformation from fair-skinned to painted lady.
"The only thing I'm sorry about is that she's running out of room for more tattoos," he said.
Married 17 years at the time of her first sitting, Dixie had never considered getting a tattoo until she learned that her mother had terminal cancer.
"A friend said it would make me feel better to have something to remind me of her," she said as she showed a tiny flower on her left ankle.
And so it began. Over the next few years, she got work done every now and then to commemorate events in her life, usually the painful ones.
A cross on her lower leg represents the 11 days she spent praying for the life of her son after a valve burst in his heart. Two angels on her back represent her mother and a late daughter.
Fifteen years later, she doesn't need a reason anymore. The relatively small pain from the needle puts life's other troubles in perspective.
She's at Tigermoon, near the Dallas-Irving city limit, about once a week for a new tattoo or a touch-up. On Thursday, she was getting a moon tattooed on the right side of her abdomen over her ribs, which studio owner Britt Richards said is one of the most painful places on the body.
"I've been doing this 30 years, and Dixie is one of the toughest people I've ever met," Richards said. "I've seen pro football players and UFC fighters cry like little girls."
Dixie is covered in suns, moons, stars, pixies, fairies and angels, but there is one motif that prevails: eyes.
The butterflies have eyes, the sun has eyes, and her new moon has a giant eye in the center.
"My psychiatrist told me it's because I'm paranoid," she joked. "I feel like they are looking out for me."
She turned to show the angel on her shoulder blade: "She's got my back."
The eyes are also returning the gaze of those unaccustomed to seeing a woman leading her grandchildren and great-grandchildren through the mall with enough skin ink to earn a biker's respect.
Raised in a more reserved era, Darrell Hammond was concerned how people would treat his wife. "When we came up, tattoos were for low-class people, or that's what people thought," he said. "I was afraid they'd make comments."
But Dixie said she's "never heard anything negative. Only compliments."
"My grandchildren think it's the coolest thing," she said. "I'll probably have a full body suit before I go."
Dixie has become something of a tattoo evangelist. She has been featured in three tattoo magazines and tells strangers how wonderful body art can be. They might not be seeing the full picture, though.
"People see all the work she's got and assume it must not have hurt that much," said Hammond, who was persuaded by Dixie to get a few tattoos that can be easily hidden under business clothes. "They don't know how strong she is."
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