ANNAPOLIS, Maryland — Parked along King George Street, between historical St. John’s College and the buttoned-up United States Naval Academy, a 1990s-era Lincoln Miller-Meteor takes up a little more room than the average car. And turns many more heads.
That’s because it’s a hearse.
Matt Gabriel bought that hearse a little over a year ago for about $5,000 and has been slowly returning it to top shape.
The vehicle’s back door won’t open, bumpers have dings and scratches, and the double-paned windows have cosmetic damage between them, which gives the bed of the hearse a refrigerated, icy effect. That’s one part Gabriel doesn’t plan to fix.
The hearse has a smooth ride and excellent handling for an old boat, so driving it is a pleasure to Gabriel and people who see it rolling down the street.
“Most of the time, almost all the time, people love it,” Gabriel said.
Gabriel said last year, around Halloween, he took the hearse to corn mazes and pumpkin patches, where he would let people take photos with, and in the back of, the hearse.
“It’s very fun,” he said. “Most people really love it and have very positive reactions to my whole presentation.”
Better known as Gabriel Munster to friends, and those in the tattoo and body-piercing communities, he also turns heads.
Gabriel, 29, stands over 6 feet tall and has long black hair that’s often pushed back behind his cropped and reshaped ears, which have a “demonic” look.
Tattoos cover his body and parts of his face where he has several piercings, including a septum ring, double lip rings, a bar in the bridge of his nose, and studs in both cheeks.
Gabriel also shaves his eyebrows, and plans to get his eyes tattooed black.
“He’s unlike anyone else I’ve ever met,” said Gabriel’s friend Natalie Markland. “When you meet him you say, ‘Oh, of course you drive a hearse.’”
Markland, 39 and an Annapolis native, said before she met Gabriel, driving in a hearse wasn’t something she imagined happening in her lifetime.
“Everyone thinks if you ride in a hearse, it’s a one-way ride,” she said. “It’s interesting to experience that from a different perspective.”
She said the long, black vehicle fits Gabriel perfectly.
Gabriel used to have a skeleton riding shotgun with him, but lost the head to his co-pilot in his recent move. He plans to take advantage of seasonal sales to get a few more skeletons to ride along.
“The way I look with the hearse and skeleton passengers, I’m making Halloween a lifestyle, and people for the most part really have a blast with it all,” he said.
However, not everyone receives the vehicle well.
“I’ve had a couple negative reactions,” he said. “You get blamed for (deaths). If you’re that pent up, I’m not going to feed into it.”
Gabriel said he removes himself from those situations quickly because he understands why people get upset and upsetting people isn’t the point of driving the hearse: It’s just something he’s wanted since he was a teen.
Gabriel recently moved back to Annapolis from his home state of New Jersey about four months ago, and doesn’t plan to spread his hearse’s joy this Halloween.
“The whole trip and move back down here tapped me out,” he said.
PICKING OUT THE RIGHT HEARSE
When shopping for a hearse in his teenage years, Gabriel said, the only available models he could find were too expensive or just bad vehicles.
“The ones that look really cool — the old ones with the fins and bubble back, like the cartoon-type hearse — get terrible gas mileage.”
His Miller-Meteor is a “happy medium” between the older style and the more modern hearses and gets about 17 to 18 mpg, whereas the older models get less than 10 mpg, he explained.
Finding the right hearse was a long process. Gabriel kept close watch on about 15 websites that he would check a few times every day.
“Even when I had my last car I was still looking (for a hearse) because when they come up, they’re usually not that expensive,” he said. “It’s usually a waiting game or a jump on it type thing.”
He bought the Miller-Meteor from a British man who owned it just to drive cross-country. From California, the hearse made its way to the East Coast, where Gabriel finally got his ride.
“I was able to make an offer on it as soon as it was listed because I was constantly checking on all the listings I could find,” Gabriel said.
HE’LL TATTOO YOU – AND HIMSELF
Gabriel, a tattoo and piercing artist at Body Mod in the Annapolis Mall, has plenty of piercings and body modifications himself, including over 500 hours of tattoos, ear lobe plugs, and a split tongue.
“I don’t know how to count them,” he said of his intertwined tattoos. “If you look at my hands, do I have eight? Do I have 16? Is it one?”
Among the work on his hands, he has Xbox video game buttons, the word “goregasm” written across his knuckles, and various symbols including a cross and a star. His left palm has a grenade tattooed on it and up the arm is a headshot of Charles Manson.
Gabriel tattooed his own left arm, stomach, and both legs. The only areas he didn’t work on are his throat, right arm, face, and parts of his back.
But he hasn’t given himself any tattoos recently. That’s going to change in a big way.
“I’m in the process of getting all my tattoos lasered off.”
Gabriel said getting tattoos removed with a laser hurts and feels like being repeatedly snapped by rubber bands.
“It depends on how it was tattooed,” he said. “The deeper it is, the more it’s going to hurt.”
He said most of his tattoos are light and won’t hurt when being lasered, but his colored pieces will be more painful.
Once he gets the tattoos removed or at least lightened, he plans to cover it all again with new artwork.
When he was 16, Gabriel put a tattoo gun to skin for the first time.
“They way I was taught to tattoo was a slow progression,” he said. “I started off with tribal designs, big letters. Stuff that if I messed it up, it could be fixed.”
He said learning the fundamentals is the correct way to be an apprentice and that more advanced tattoo work is just compounding those fundamental skills.
Markland said Gabriel did just about all her tattoos.
“I’m thrilled with all the work he’s done,” she said. “When you get a tattoo with Gabriel, it’s really an experience.”
Markland said all her tattoos mean something profound to her and that Gabriel “shines the light on the direction” she wants for her tattoos.
Gabriel practices his skills by designing tattoos and making mockups to show someone what the piece will be. He said before he can remember, he was drawing comic-book style art.
“Even in kindergarten I got in trouble for coloring my flowers black. It looked nice,” he said.
“He expresses it perfectly in his art,” she said. “You could give him a few ideas and how you’re feeling about the tattoo and he can portray that feeling in the tattoo.”
Traditional “Sailor Jerry” styles are not in Gabriel’s portfolio.
“I try to not have a style,” he said. “It’s as much as what feels right, but I try to give each design and each person what they are trying to get the best way it could be. If you don’t take everything solely for what it is, you’re distorting the whole experience for everybody.”
A lot of artists try to put their personal style on tattoos, according to Gabriel, and he’s not a fan of that.
“I see it as a way to validate themselves,” he said. “A lot of people think it has to do with the artist when in reality it has nothing to do with the artist.”
Gabriel said he has had a lot of clients come to him with tattoos that need touching up, additions, or are unfinished, and they don’t remember the name of the artist.
When he asks clients who gave them their tattoos, they are often unsure or say, “some tattoo guy who died, so I have to get you to finish it.”
“So realistically, at some point for most people, I’m going to be the guy with the weird ears that was just a ‘tattoo guy who died,’” he said.
“I usually have steady clients, but I move a lot,” he said.
Moving to Annapolis has lured clients from New Jersey to Body Mod for Gabriel’s work.
“I’ve had more people from New Jersey come back to me here than I’ve had people here come back to me,” he said.
Tattoo culture in the Unites States is burgeoning and stigma against tattoos is waning.
“Extensive tattooing grew popular in the past decade,” said Dr. Anna Felicity Friedman, a tattoo researcher for over 20 years who runs TattooHistorian.com.
“Twenty years ago full sleeves would automatically give you a point from which you could enter in a community of like-minded people,” she said. “But really it’s not the case anymore.”
Friedman said with increasing acceptance of body ink, tattoo style groups, which Friedman calls “micro communities,” are cropping up,
“There are micro communities, especially in different styles of tattooing,” she said.
She said a move toward low-tech, non-art tattoos with scrawling, sketchy images is an example of a micro community that spends time together and defends that style of art.
SPLIT OF THE TONGUE
Tongue splitting requires a cut down the center and both sides are sutured together. But Gabriel did it differently.
“I couldn’t afford to get it cut,” he said. So he split it himself at age 19.
“I bound mine with fishing line.”
With his tongue already pierced, Gabriel fed fishing line through the hole and tied it off around the tip of his tongue. After periodically tightening the fishing line daily for a month, the tongue split itself naturally.
Gabriel said everything he does to his body is backed up by deep research.
Because the process was gradual, unlike an immediate cut-and-stitch technique, splitting his tongue was not painful.
He said what’s cool about the splitting community is that a lot of people who have them are not often people who look like they would have a forked tongue.
“The average-looking people have more split tongues than the people that look like I do,” he said.
CHANGES THROUGH THE EARS
Other modifications require different processes.
Stretching ear lobes takes increasing the size of plugs in the ear lobes, eventually stretching out to the desired size.
Cropped and reshaped ears are even more noticeable than a split tongue.
About a month ago, Gabriel had his ears reshaped by piercer and body modification artist Josh Morrow for what Gabriel calls a more “gremlin” or “demonic” look.
Morrow, 26, works at Low Tide Tattooin Jessup, Maryland, but does piercing at Body Mod on the weekends.
Gabriel’s ears have had the lower back parts trimmed off, leaving a downward-curved point.
“There was no sleep the first night and barely any the second night,” he said. “You don’t realize how much your ears touch everything.”
Now, he said, he doesn’t have issues with pain in his ears unless pressure is placed on them.
EYES DYED BLACK
Gabriel plans to dye his eyeballs black, which, according to Morrow, just two people in Maryland have done. Morrow is one of the two and the other works at Body Mod with Gabriel.
Gabriel said once he heard about eye dyeing it piqued his interest.
“I’ve always been interested in it,” he said. “It’s not one of those things I’m going to do to myself until it’s as understood as it could be.”
The oldest dyed eyes he knows of are about 8 or 9 years old and said they still look perfect, Gabriel said.
“It’s still experimental,” Morrow said.
Morrow said a few people who are practicing eye dyeing are causing problems for their clients.
“No one has been blinded yet to my knowledge, but one person lost his vision for about three weeks after his eyes swelled up,” Morrow said.
Over-injecting dye into the eyes can cause temporary blindness and if the ink mixture is off — a chemical is added to the dye to dilute the ink — serious damage can be done to the eyes, Morrow said.
All it takes to dye eyes is a few minor injections in connecting membranes in the eyeballs, then the ink spreads out from the membranes to the rest of the eyes, Gabriel said.
PERCEPTION AND PHILOSOPHY
With all of the tattoos, piercings and modifications, people might see Gabriel as a dark, negative person. But Gabriel has a different perspective.
“You create everything, so if I dress like this and do this out of a celebration of the freedom of my physical form, it’s received that way.”
Gabriel describes his clothing style as social commentary and usually dresses in all black.
Morrow said when clients get modifications it feels good to know he is changing minds and helping people express themselves in a positive way.
“Even like picking out an outfit in the morning: It’s what makes you smile.” Morrow said.
Friedman said many people who get modifications say they feel more complete as a being and that the modification “tapped into who they thought they should be.”
She said Dennis Avner, who was famous for extensive body modifications in the style of a tiger, said in many interviews before his death in 2012 that his modifications made him feel like he was complete and fulfilling his inner vision of what he should be as a creature. Avner went by the name “Stalking Cat” before his death.
As someone who bucked the traditional education system, Gabriel didn’t finish high school and didn’t attend college, but often reads philosophical and religious texts, which give him a unique perspective of the world.
“The notions of light and dark, positive and negative, a lot of people don’t look at darkness because they’re scared of it in a metaphorical sense,” he said. “Without the constant presence of darkness, nobody can see the light.”
Gabriel said the way people react to uncommon appearances depends on how people project themselves.
“Realistically, I’m covered in these tattoos, I have no eyebrows: It’s craziness,” he said. “But it’s natural for me so (others) don’t notice these things.”
He said the only big reactions he gets from people are when someone turns down an aisle in a store and he is right there.
“It’s a crazy thing to see randomly.”
As for the people who judge and scrutinize his look, Gabriel says he just sees them as a face he smiled at who gave him another dirty look.
“I don’t take that home with me. It sticks with them forever until they confront the reasons why (they don’t like my appearance),” he said. “I smile at everyone I can. I’m very nice. I’m human. I try to be human.”
Gabriel said he saw a story online about how the only true way to rebel is to be a good person.
“That’s what I try to be,” he said.