Multi-platinum rapper Rick Ross is a huge dude — a giant canvas for ink. He has no idea how many tattoos he has. “I know it’s over 100,” he says, and he definitely has some strange ones. Try George Bush’s head with devil horns for starters, which he’s got under his right arm. “Tupac told us a long time ago, ‘You gotta keep your enemies close,’” he explains.
Since the election he’s added Barack Obama’s head to his ribs. “I think he’s gonna be the first president on the thousand dollar bill,” Ross asserts. This is important, because chief executives on cash are a theme of his ink. He also has George Washington, Abe Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant. “I call them the bosses. We all know they’re the dead presidents on the money, but those are the officials of the land.”
Ross was 15 when he got his first tattoo, the Wu-Tang inspired “C.R.E.A.M.” (Cash Rules Everything Around Me). He more recently got “Billionaire” around his right nipple, an upgrade from his earlier “Millionaire” piece, which he had done after earning his first million. “When you get street money, a lot of times you got a million and don’t even know you got the million,” he says. “This time I actually had all the cash there in the room.” The five mics around his neck also came long before he had two number one albums, Port of Miami and Trilla. “At that time, I had nothing promising [musically] going on,” Ross says. “It was really just me being free spirited.”
Before he became a household name Ross worked hard to impress people with his style and bombast. He originally enlisted the man who would go on to do all his tattoos, Lordgyn Gino Belizaire, to airbrush a bold statement onto his boots. He walked into the shop and demanded "Rich Off Cocaine" be added onto his Timberlands. Ross says the shoes later became famous in his ‘hood.
Eventually Belizaire took up tattooing, and Ross let him practice on his body. “A lot of sh#t he made mistakes on,” Ross remembers. “I was like, ‘I don’t give a f##k, just keep going.’ It just got to the point where he got better and better. I just let him go.”
Belizaire now runs a Carol City, Florida shop called Illustrated Ink (MySpace.com/IllustratedInk). He gives Ross tremendous credit for helping him blossom. “While I was progressing he was giving me money to help better myself and help me get better equipment,” said Belizaire. “At times I was going to give up, but he saw my talent and encouraged me to keep going.”
He adds that Ross can be extremely opinionated, but he’s also an extremely loyal client. “Listening to him is best, because he’s really a boss,” Belizaire says. Ross has brought rappers the likes of Nas and NFL players such as Chad Johnson to Illustrated Ink to get work done, and has flown Belizaire all over the country to ink him. “He’s addicted,” Belizaire says of Ross’ tattooing obsession. “He’s fillin’ up, getting the full body suit right now. We’re working on his legs; we started an Egyptian Pharaoh lady playing a flute.”
Ross’ work also includes his Carol City zip code (33055), Richard Pryor’s image from 1973 blacksploitation film The Mack, Lady Liberty’s head, Isaac Hayes holding a .44 magnum, the “Who Shot Ya?”-era Biggie Smalls, luxury cars, and a cross. He says many of his tattoos remind him of periods of his life. “I put on [words] I want to read and [images] I want to see…stuff that’s inspired me,” he says. He adds that he never runs out of material because every time Belizaire comes to his house he’s got new cars in the garage for him to ink.
Ross was unimpressed with the tattoos he saw on folks in the neighborhood back in the day, but he says tattooing technology has come a long way. “When I was exposed to the better, art side of [tattoos] I most definitely became a fan,” he says. “[Artists today] shade a lot more, and they use more detail.”
Just like the ink on his body, The Boss says he plans to keep progressing. There’s been a lot of trash talk concerning him in the past year. Though he had another number one album with Trilla, website The Smoking Gun took a shot at Ross’ cred by showing fairly definitively that he worked as a Florida prison guard for a time in the ‘90s. Though Ross originally denied that he had worked as a prison guard, he eventually admitted that he was at one time employed as an officer for the Florida prison system. Now, with the controversy behind him, Ross promises that this year will be nothing but gravy. His new album, Deeper Than Rap, will take the listener to unexpected places. “Prepare yourself for the biggest experience of ’09,” he says, adding that although fans can still expect the “sexy mafia music” that they’re used to, “I pushed the boundaries. I elevated once again. I got so many surprises. This record is so different, I was even afraid to play it for anyone.”
Belizaire says the CD’s title applies to Ross’ tattoos as well. “If you look carefully you can see the dead presidents [tattoos] he has are all looking up at him. The metaphor is that it’s deeper than money, and it’s deeper than rap for him."
Article by Ben Westhoff
Photos by Estevan Oriol