Russ Hall opened in 1915 as the first residence hall at Montclair State University. It housed students studying to be teachers, was used briefly as an administrative building and now serves as the makeshift tattoo parlor for Erin Webb, whose brightly colored hair and heavily tattooed arms might differ slightly from the appearance of Russ’ first residents.
Webb, a senior English major whose pronouns are “they” and “their,” lives on the renovated fourth floor of the building where the angled walls and exposed water pipes make it hard to forget that their room was once an attic. Nestled between the pipes and Polaroids of their adored nephew, Killian, Webb gives themselves and their friends stick and poke tattoos.
Webb first gave themself a tattoo when they were 13 after watching “Foxfire,” in which Angelina Jolie’s character gives herself a chest tattoo. Webb grabbed a ballpoint pen and a sewing needle and gave themself a tattoo of an asterisk without doing any additional research about proper tattoo methods. Jolie must have been a good first teacher because it didn’t get infected. However, Webb has used better tools ever since, especially when tattooing others, a now common occurrence.
Their soft-spoken nature and excellent tattoo skills have made them a go-to for other students looking to get tattoos. Webb has given over 20 people tattoos in their dorm room, etching hearts, music notes, numbers, quotes and waves onto fingers, wrists, necks and arms. They use high quality needles and carefully stencil an outline of the tattoo before stabbing the skin repeatedly with a needle and ink.
Webb had gotten so many requests to give people tattoos that they threw a “tattoo party” in their room, giving five people tattoos in one evening. People gathered to talk and listen to music as Webb sat on their desk chair and gave people permanent tattoos as calmly as if they were drawing on their friends with a Sharpie marker. Clare Miller, a junior dance major, received her first tattoo that evening.
Miller was nervous and gripped her friend’s hand to distract her from the pain. Webb told her jokes and asked her questions about her interests while etching a puzzle piece on the back of Miller’s neck. Miller winced with each stab of the needle, but Webb’s calm and friendly demeanor helped her remember she was in good hands.
Not many bosses would trust their employees to give them a tattoo, but that’s exactly what Rebecca Mungiole, Webb’s service assistant coordinator, did. Mungiole has a number of professional tattoos, but went to Webb for a tattoo of the “Harry Potter” glasses and lightning bolt.
Mungiole said that her experience getting a tattoo from Webb was unlike any of her professional experiences because Webb was friendly and made it a fun experience.
Webb refuses to accept payment for tattoos, insisting that they started giving themself more tattoos when they couldn’t afford to get them professionally done, so they want to keep it cheap for other people as well.
“I don’t like asking people to pay me, because what if they don’t like it?” Webb said. “I have a weird barter system if people really want to give me something. I have been paid in pizza, vanilla Coke and Jager. I will also accept herbal refreshments.”
One of Webb’s coworkers, Kaitlyn Kirgan, emphasized Webb’s unexpected kindness.
“[Webb is like] Baymax, but with tattoos and hair they dye a new color every other week,” Kirgan said. “People look at them and think that they might be mean or scary, but they’re the sweetest person I’ve ever met.”
It is clear from Webb’s freely-given hugs and smiles that they genuinely care about the well-being of others and do their best to be a positive impact on other people.
Webb takes the assumptions other people make about them in stride.
“People have told me that they judge people who have tattoos or piercings, and they should work on that,” Webb said. “Some of the nicest and friendliest people I know have a lot of tattoos. Having tattoos doesn’t mean anything other than that you wanted to get a tattoo.”
With their changing hair colors, piercings and affinity for tattoos, Webb might not be what the Montclair administration envisioned a typical resident would look like when they built Russ Hall. However, Webb embodies the generosity, kindness and creativity institutions of higher education strive to instill in all of their students.
“Don’t forget to mention that I’m gay,” Webb said. “Otherwise, I’d be pretty boring.”