CASPER, Wyo. (AP) — Heather Maranda raved about inking her first oil derrick right up until needle pierced skin. Now the tattoo, with its intricate weave of slats and piping, has unleashed a string of curses and grumbling.
"This thing is nuts," she says, her voice carrying over the buzz of the tattoo gun that's marking her client's shaved calf. "Like straight-up nuts."
The client, a worker from Douglas, is reclining on a black chair inside Sparx Worx Tattoo in downtown Casper. He shows no sign of concern. Neither, really, does Maranda, a plump 36-year-old with hair pulled up into a curly cascade of red, pink, blue and turquoise.
The complaining and cursing is part of the process. It keeps her calm, an escape valve for the frenetic energy that comes with being Heather Maranda.
"Oh my god," she says, before suggesting the oil derrick might be better off performing a certain sex act than finding a permanent home on her client's leg.
The buzzing continues. Her eyes, accentuated by broad streaks of purple, shift from calf to guide drawing and back again. Her arms, decorated in pop-culture tattoos, move slowly as she maneuvers the tattoo gun.
"OK," she finally says. "This is not as bad as I thought."
Maranda worked an office job up until seven years ago. Now, she's a sought-after tattoo artist known for lifelike portrait work and geek-culture pieces. She lives in Casper but travels all over the country to tattoo. LucasFilms, the movie studio behind Star Wars, licensed her to ink at its events — a privilege bestowed on only a handful of tattoo artists worldwide.
And the mother of three is about to become famous. Or at least reality TV famous.
Maranda stars in the new A&E series "Epic Ink," which follows a group of tattoo artists who specialize in hyper-realistic work, often pertaining to what could best be described as "geek culture." The show premieres Wednesday.
In its promo materials for the series, A&E dubs Maranda the wild child of the group. Caveats about the reality of reality television aside, it takes only 30 seconds with her to realize this is not hyperbole.
Maranda says she's loud and she's honest, which is sort of like describing Mount Everest as tall and cold.
Ask her about the show, and you get this:
"It's so awesome that it's going to melt your face off. You better watch it on the toilet because you are going to poop."
Bombastic personality aside, Heather Maranda is good at tattooing. Really good. Enough that she went from a self-taught "kitchen magician" to a sponsored artist in two years.
She didn't get into tattooing until she was nearly 30. The Florida native had been working a 9-to-5 job for her stepfather, but lost it when her mother divorced him.
This, she says, was a good thing.
"It was soul-sucking," Maranda explains. "I didn't do anything creative. I really need that outlet. I felt so relieved, it was like a weight was lifted when he fired me."
She saw two options ahead of her: chef or tattoo artist. She loved cooking, but the creative lure proved stronger.
"I'm an artist," she says.
No one would offer her an apprenticeship at a tattoo shop ("It's not like a shop is going to say, 'OK, We can't wait to hire a fat mother of three,'" she explains) so she inked out of her home.
The first attempts, she admits, weren't great. Stuff she's not exactly proud of, inked onto the skin of friends and relatives.
"I didn't take it lightly," she says. "It's a very serious thing, giving someone a tattoo."
She kept at it, educating herself and acquiring equipment. All of the sudden, people started knocking on her door at 11 at night wanting a tattoo.
Maybe I should do this, she thought.
In a few months she opened her own shop in Haines City, Florida. She earned an ink sponsorship and won awards within two years.
"I'm not willing to put up with mediocrity," she says. "I push myself nonstop."
Here's another thing that sets Heather Maranda grumbling: Florida. She prefers seasons. She likes open spaces.
By 2011, she wanted to get as far away as possible from her home state. Maranda had never been west of the Mississippi River, but picked Casper, where she had some friends.
"As soon as I crossed into Wyoming, I fell in love with it," she says. "I was like, I had to live here."
She got a job at Sparx Worx, tattooing whatever clients wanted. Animals. Dead relatives. Geek stuff.
"The stupider the tattoo is the more I like doing it," she says. "I really get into the stuff that I can have a lot of artistic freedom."
She also tattooed on the convention circuit. Horror, science fiction, comics. She befriended artists with similar interest, including a guy named Chris 51, a tattoo artist and self-described nerd who owns Area 51 Tattoo shop in Springfield, Oregon.
Then last summer, Chris asked her to be on a TV show that would focus on his talented group of tattoo friends.
There was no tryout. She just said OK.
You've probably seen a tattoo-based reality show. There's TLC's "Miami Ink," Spike's "Ink Master" and A&E's own "Inked." Oxygen has the reality competition "Best Ink." VH1 set its series "Black Ink Crew" inside a shop in Harlem.
"Epic Ink" is different from all of those shows, Maranda says. There's no drama. There's no fighting. Instead, it's all about cool tattoos and cool conversations.
And geek stuff. Picture a debate among friends about a hypothetical fight between Spock and Chewbacca. Now drop it into a tattoo shop.
"It's a goddamn good time," Maranda says of the show, which was filmed from April to June. "It really is. That was the longest, most tiring, incredibly fun two months of my life."
She's already experienced the surreal moment of viewing herself on screen. The studio sent her the first three episodes, and she couldn't stop watching.
"It's weird," she says. "They say the camera adds 10 pounds. I'm already 200 pounds, so I don't think I'm any fatter than I already am."
Yes, there's the anxiety that comes with starring in a reality series. What are people going to make of her? If a million people watch, a million people might criticize her. That's scary, she says.
But there's the potential payoff. Tattoo artists work mostly on word of mouth. Imagine how many people will view her work. It could keep her booked for a long time.
Besides, she's Heather Maranda.
"At the end of the day," she says, "honestly, I don't give a crap."
Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com