President Barack Obama is said to have pointed out the window at the Southern Sting tattoo shop as his motorcade made its third trip to Grand Isle on June 4. Obama, who was passing through the town of Larose on his way to Grand Isle, evidently noticed a 16-foot sign outside the Southern Sting erected by tattoo artists Eric Guidry and Bobby Pitre. "We're not sure if he waved or pointed or what," Guidry says.
The sign is a parody of artist Shepard Fairey's famous "HOPE" portrait of Obama. Guidry and Pitre's new image shows Obama's face in the familiar red, white and blue, but covered in question marks, and his forehead emblazoned with the words "WHAT NOW?"
"He had hope and change all over his election campaign, and now he didn't even do shit," Guidry says. "He came down here three or four times at the most, didn't stay, didn't support the people. He believed a lot of what was told to him from BP, and it was an inside-type deal. But because of this, our whole life and culture is in jeopardy. It's just a big: what now?"
Pitre, whose rockabilly haircut and heavy tattoos make him an intimidating presence, watched the motorcade pass by, but says he didn't make any sudden moves because he figured he had a pair of sniper's crosshairs aimed at his head. The bomb squad came through hours before the motorcade, sniffing the lowrider cars outside the shop parked along the road. Pitre is not sure if it was the real Obama who pointed at the sign, or a dummy president. "Either way, it was a dummy," he says.
Murals and sculpture by Pitre and Guidry about the oil disaster now cover the outside wall of the shop. One shows the Grim Reaper flying over the Gulf of Mexico with the BP logo on its back under the slogan, "You killed our gulf ... our way of life!"
Above the portrait of Obama, Pitre and Guidry took a mannequin, removed the arms and legs, and added sprayfoam guts. The dismembered, disemboweled torso reads: "BP took our arms. The government is taking our legs. How will we stand?"
Next to the wall is another mannequin, this one wearing a gas mask and holding a fish and a sign that reads: "God help us all!"
A local oil rig supply man stopped into the store on a recent evening, asking if he could take a picture of the mural. He wouldn't give his name, saying the company would "fire my ass" if they knew he had been speaking to the media.
"But I love this work," he said. "It really speaks to what's been going on down here."
Much of Southern Sting's business since the disaster has been from Coast Guard workers. "One of them got a (tattoo on his calf of) Spongebob [Squarepants] standing knee-deep in oil, screaming, with an oil well blowing up in the background," says Pitre, who regrets that he forgot to take a photograph of the image.
But overall, the store's business is down 50 percent from last summer, and many customers are concerned how the local economy is going to fare during the coming months. Pitre recently got a check for $8,000 from BP to make up for lost business, but is concerned BP won't be around in the coming years when the disaster really makes an impact.
"The business from the cleanup effort was keeping us afloat," he says. "And now with [cleanup workers] being laid off, it's going to make it tough. It's normally slammed in here in the summer and stays steady through to October. Now look. We've got two customers, and one of them is a friend of mine."
One teenage girl comes in with three friends, but she only needs a line added to a tattoo that was done by some drunk friends late last night.
"It was supposed to be a peace sign," she says. "But I got a Mercedes Benz."
Pitre's customers missed the fishing season in May, but he hopes some of them will be able to fish in August, although — like many environmentalists — he shares seafood safety concerns.
"It probably would have been a lot easier to deal with [the oil] without the dispersant," he says. "Now these fishermen don't have any oil to clean up, and we have to worry about the safety of the fishing."
In particular, Guidry and Pitre are frustrated that BP used chemical dispersants that are illegal in Great Britain. "Why on earth would you want to subject us to something that was illegal in your own country?" Guidry asks.
In the back of the store, Pitre keeps the oil paintings he's done of BP CEO Tony Hayward. One features Hayward with a donkey's ears and buck teeth beneath the slogan "Burro of bad news." Another shows Hayward covered in oil, holding a manual that says Deepwater Drilling 101.
Pitre has been offering both for sale on eBay, without much success. He wants $1,500 for each, but most people have been bidding in the low hundreds.
Pitre's most complex portrait shows a giant Obama asleep on the White House while Gov. Bobby Jindal and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser approach on a boat floating on an oil slick. Jindal screams "Wake up!" through a megaphone, while oiled pelicans and sea turtles struggle in the slick. But Pitre is most proud of a 6-by-4-foot portrait of the Louisiana governor on a background of stars, emblazoned with the word "Bonhomme."
Outside the store is a sign that says "Bobby Jindal For President," and Pitre and Guidry say their sentiments about Jindal are the only ones to draw any negative criticism from passersby. But they're fans.
"He's done a great job of trying to draw attention to the spill," Pitre says of Jindal. "I think his idea to build sand berms would have really worked if they'd let him do it sooner."
"They're expressing their opinion," Randall Loupe, an engineer from Thibodaux, says of the signs outside the store. Loupe had driven an hour to the shop to get some additions made to a tattoo of his sons' names on his biceps.
"This is these guys' way of life, and there's a lot of different folks that come through here. These are local guys doing something cool with themselves and making a living," Loupe says. "And if there's a lack of people coming through, it could really make a difference to their future."
Dennis Landry also stopped into the store to talk about cars with Pitre — Landry runs Crabs LLC, one of the largest crab processing plants in Louisiana, just up the road. He's still not been paid by BP for his claim for lost business, but got a call on Aug. 11, saying the check should be in his bank account by Aug. 25, just two days after claims czar Kenneth Feinberg's Louisiana Federal Claims Center is set to open.
Landry doesn't have a great deal of faith in BP following through.
"Call me on Aug. 25," he says. "Either I'll be a happy man, or I'll hate you."
Pitre and Guidry have heard about BP stepping up drug testing on cleanup workers. "They popped up a drug test real quick last week; I had a friend who got busted for marijuana," Pitre says. "Before that, they weren't doing drug testing on the job, although I think you maybe had to pass a test to get hired on."
Despite the recent reopening of many waters in the Gulf for fishing, both men have little faith in claims that Gulf seafood is now safe to eat. SInce the spill and the political response, they're skeptical of everything.
"You can't really trust anybody," Guidry says. "It's sad, but when you've got a big money organization and our government, you don't know where to go."
- Eric Guidry (left) and Bobby Pitre have covered the outside wall of their tattoo shop with murals and sculpture they created about the oil disaster.