Baxter's Blog


Posted in Human Interest by misterroadtripper on July 11, 2010

Mike Sprouse


By Bob Baxter

Photos by Bernard Clark

It was a long road trip. We had traveled by car over nine hundred miles, from Portland, Oregon to Southern California’s Inland Empire. We were covering shops on the outskirts of Los Angeles―Simi Valley, Lancaster, Rosamond, Apple Valley, Riverside, Redlands. So, right on schedule, we walked into this one shop with our cameras, backdrops and lighting equipment, and what should greet us? A bunch of guys sitting around, open for business, tattooing customers and―big no-no―swigging beer. Oh, man, when will they ever learn?

I know, I know. Tattoo artists sit around and drink beer, but they do it after hours. They do it at the local pub. The do it in the back room. They do it when the shop is closed for business. They don’t do it when an industry magazine is coming to do a feature article. It’s elementary; this is a time when tattooists should represent and put their best foot forward. Hey, we saw used hypodermic needles in the gutter of the parking lot. Check please. We were outta there.

What a drag. The entire afternoon was a bust. Midday in the Inland Empire. Marooned and nowhere to go. The next scheduled shop was Shawn Warcot’s Empire Tattoo, and that was eleven the next morning. There was nothing to do but find the hotel and check in. So, we consulted the map, drove ten minutes and pulled up in front of the lobby. That’s when I saw him. Strikingly handsome and fit, he settled back in his seat like an Indy driver. Silver-haired with a red-and-blue racing jersey, he was tucked into a high-tech, chrome and steel, bare-bones, lay-on-your-back, long-and-lean, custom racing bike. And if that wasn’t enough, the driver had tattoos. Lots of tattoos. Hey, I thought. Maybe there’s a story here. Whew! Talk about turnarounds. Perhaps there’s a reason the other story got trashed.

So, I parked the car and walked over to the guy on the bike. It’s then that I noticed the pedals. They weren’t propelled by his feet. In fact, his legs were lifeless. The pedals, instead, were pushed with his hands. And he wasn’t just some random tourist making a rest stop. He was the national spokesman for a highly competitive new sport, one that’s turning heads and making converts nationwide. And out of the corner of my eye―in the lobby, in the parking lot, entering and exiting rooms―were several other handicapped riders, some with missing arms, some without legs. Plus lots of space-age, handcrafted racing bikes. I was thoroughly intrigued.

The man by the door was Mike Sprouse, and his bike was designed by Quickie. “It’s made in Germany,” he told me. “They’re one of my sponsors. I race with the U.S. Handcycle Federation. I’m also part of the Paralyzed Veterans of America and Achilles Athletes with Disabilities. I represent disabled veterans from Word War II to Vietnam and Iraq. All the wars. Quickie gives me all my equipment and Achilles and the Paralyzed Veterans provide all my expenses, my entries, my travel fees and all my arrangements. Any prize money goes back into the P.V.A. and the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.”

Sprouse was injured in 2003 in a bulldozer accident in Rome, Georgia, and has been racing handcycles since 2004. A veteran of the Marine Corps, Mike served for eight years, from 1978 to 1985, and was stationed at Perris Island as a drill instructor. But the love of tattooing began way before that.

“I was sixteen years old,” recalls Mike. “A friend of mine had a motorcycle and we were out, just goofing off one day. I said, ‘Let me ride your bike,’ and he said, ‘I can’t let you ride my bike unless you get a tattoo.’ I really wanted to ride, so I went down to a local shop and got a tattoo. When I saw him the next day, he said, ‘Are you crazy? I was only kidding.’ And ever since then it’s been an addiction. After you get one, you go from there.”

But Mike didn’t just get tattoos, he served a stint as co-owner of a tattoo shop in Rome, back in 2002. “It was something I always wanted to try,” said Sprouse. “It looked like a profitable business at the time, and the opportunity came about to be partners with this guy. It was a really good location in a town with three or four colleges. I thought it would be a good investment and, in fact, it turned out really good. It was called Body Canvas.”

But Mike couldn’t give the shop all the attention it deserved, so, a year or so later, he ended up selling his interest. “My handcycling was taking up quite a bit of time, traveling and all. I felt it wasn’t fair to be partners, when I was never there and he was doing all the work.” But even though Mike left, eighty percent of his tattoos are from Body Canvas. “The portrait work on my chest is from Body Canvas,” he says. “The piece on my leg, a Marine Corpsman, is from Okinawa, Japan. My back was done in Richmond, Virginia and finished at Body Canvas. I did the Alaskan Challenge―three hundred and sixty-five miles in four days―and, when I finished in third place, I got commemorative ink.

“Most of my artwork is memorial stuff. My right arm is for my dad. He was in Vietnam and my brother was killed in the Army, so I have a Fallen Soldier Cross and a drop zone with a pickup that’s actually a picture of my father. And I’ve got Rambo. You can’t have an Army portrait without Rambo. And then I was a D.I. at Perris Island, so I have that logo. I spent some time in Japan, so there’s some Japanese art on my arm.”

Even though he’s wheelchair-bound, Sprouse doesn’t fade into the background. On the contrary, tattoos have contributed to his self-confidence. “I enjoy people looking at my tattoos,” he says. “It’s because they all have meaning. Whenever I get a tattoo, I put a lot of thought into it. When I go places and people ask about my tattoos and what they mean, I have a story on both arms. There’s a story on my chest and a story on my back. It’s my way of telling the world, ‘This is me and this is what I do.’ And the handcycling part, I put that into it, too. I’ve got drawings in the process for a tattoo of a handcycle on my ribcage. I’m going to have my whole ribs done with a portrait of me and a handcycle, so that it all blends together into one.”

But Mike’s mission isn’t self-centered. “Unfortunately,” he says, “a lot of soldiers are coming back from Iraq, and a lot of them are amputees. That’s where competitive handcycling comes in. Instead of simply being a twenty-year-old with a missing arm or leg, it gives these veterans a way to get back into the community, to be part of the real world again. They can get back out and do things. Plus, we do projects on the side, like kayaking clinics and wheelchair tennis. We try to make these guys as adaptive as possible, make them feel they’re not crippled.”

Some of the funding for the racing comes through the P.V.A., some of it is funded through private grants, and organizations such as the U.S. Handcycle Federation, hospitals like Walter Reed, the Achilles Group and the Challenged Athletes Foundation.

“There’s all kinds of funding out there,” says Sprouse. “Private funding, corporate funding. I’m doing a ride in June from Cherokee, North Carolina to Biltmore Estates on the Skyline Drive, and all that money is going toward the P.V.A. to buy bikes for the soldiers. I’ve even got corporate people involved―Kawasaki, Under Armour and the Shepherd Spinal Center out of Atlanta, plus a couple of doctors and surgeons.

“There’s so many soldiers coming back who are in their twenties, and their lives are just getting started. They go over there to fight for our country and get hit by a car bomb, lose a limb and think their life is over. Often I’m the first person they see when they get off the plane. They meet us at Walter Reed or at the Achilles Chapter or wherever. It gives them an opportunity to come back and have something to look forward to. They struggle, they feel they’re different. I myself wasn’t in Iraq, but I know what a challenge it can be. It’s a wonderful thing to hang out with these guys, to ride with them and go places. My friend Chris and I, for example―he’s from Texas and I’m from Georgia―we’re here hanging out in California. Two months ago we were in New York together, and again last summer. We’re friends. I know his wife, I know his daughter. He knows my wife.”

While Bernard Clark took photos, Chris came over. As he walked up to us, he appeared, as far as I could see, strong and agile.

Mike and Chris

“I first met Mike through the Achilles Freedom Team of Wounded Veterans,” said Chris. “When you get injured, it’s a whole new way of life. I’m still pretty young. I took a rocket-propelled grenade to my right leg. It blew off my hamstring from my butt to my knee, which resulted in extended muscle loss and nerve damage. It caused a lot of changes. I can’t run and I can only walk on my leg for so long. But like Mike says, ‘When you go out and do something like this, you feel human again.’” And then he chuckled, “We kind of get an attitude when we’re riding. When people look at us, we’re like, ‘Wanna race?’”

“We competed together in New York last spring,” interjected Sprouse. “It was the Hope & Possibility event, and Chris said something to me that I’ll never forget. It always touches my heart. It’s something that’s always on my mind when I’m racing other guys. When the race was over, he came over and I told him, ‘Man, you were really flying.’ And he was like, ‘I had a lot of anger that I had to get out.’

“And that’s what it does,” says Mike. “It gives these guys, these wounded veterans, these heroes, the opportunity to take their anger out and put it into something positive.”

And there you have it. Another unforgettable stop on the Tattoo Road Trip.

Paralyzed Veterans of America:

U.S. Handcycle Federation:

Achilles Athletes with Disabilities:

Challenged Athletes Foundation:

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